Once Upon a Time in the West
Paramount Home Entertainment
Starring Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards,
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Review by Clarence Beaks
The Western has probably died more deaths than any other genre in film history, but it never died with more heart, more bombast, and more eye-popping panache than in Sergio Leone's 1968 Once Upon a Time in the West. A compendium of tropes borrowed from the definitive works of Ford, Hawks, Ray, Mann, and Zinnemann (among many others), Leone, making one more Western than he had intended to after completing the "Dollars" trilogy, continued down the epic path started with his previous film, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966), and elevated his craft to attain a level of pure cinematic transcendence. It is such a profound experience that, despite its slimness of narrative, one wants to read everything into it, attaching thematic significance to every deliberate movement, every cutting utterance, and, as is expected in a Leone film, every prolonged stare.
But, as many critics and collaborators have found, that could be to look for a deeper meaning that doesn't exist.
Mickey Knox, the blacklisted American screenwriter who vividly translated the dialogue for this film and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, ended his working relationship with the director after finding him to be a shallow and cruel man who only wished to wallow in his expertly choreographed violence, while others, even his defenders, maintain that any political subtext one might be inclined to read into his work is strictly an invention of the viewer, and has nothing to do with Leone's intent. This may be true, but one cannot celebrate the Western with such portentous, widescreen élan scored with epic importance by legendary composer Ennio Morricone and not be saying at least something about America, even if it is subconsciously or accidental. And since Leone built his narrative out of spare parts from some of the most resonant Westerns ever made, it's impossible to view the film as an empty, if gloriously overblown, final heave of the genre's chest. That said, what he's saying is often far less important than how he says it, and when it came to cinema, it's possible that no director was equipped with a more confident command of the medium's language than Sergio Leone.
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When people argue that nothing much happens in Once Upon a Time in the West, they're absolutely right. This is readily apparent in the first 14 minutes, which set the tone for the entire film. Three menacing, unnamed gunmen two of which are played by old Western stalwarts Jack Elam and Woody Strode, with the lesser-known Al Mulock (who, on a tragic note, committed suicide during the production) rounding out the trio take over a practically deserted train station from its elderly keeper. As the credits stealthily zoom back-and-forth across the screen, these bandits take up their positions around the expansive, weather-beaten station and wait. Scored to nothing more than the lazy creak of a rusty windmill (at Morricone's suggestion), the men find themselves assaulted with minor distractions both annoying (Elam's nap is interrupted by a clattering telegraph machine and a pesky fly) and welcome (a drippy ceiling, which Strode turns into an improvisatory swallow of water via the brim of his hat). By the time the train arrives with an abrupt shriek, as if materializing out of nowhere, the scene has occupied space that would normally be given up to exposition and character development. But this distended chunk of screen-time, drawn out to an almost satirical length, has actually lent an air of towering, practically deific significance to whomever it is these assailants are waiting to ambush. When the train chugs away from the station, the audience, along with the gunmen, discovers that it has left not a god, but simply a man. With a harmonica.
Charles Bronson's entrance as "Harmonica," heralded by his plaintive theme wailing forth from the titular instrument strung loosely around his neck, is a beautifully iconic moment that probably established the actor as an archetypal on-screen agent of revenge, even if Leone's film was a flop upon its initial release. Certainly, Hollywood stood up and took notice; how could they not? No actor ever benefited more from Leone's predilection for tight close-ups than Bronson, whose roughly etched physiognomy suggests a life of pain and struggle. This man has lived. Once his credentials as a killer are impressively displayed by his swift dispatching of his would-be assassins, only the reason for his vengeance needs explicated.
As with every other piece of information in this film, Leone will mete it out in due course, but first he must establish a villain worthy of such outsized revenge. What better way to do that than to depict said baddie gunning down a family in cold blood on the day its patriarch is to be remarried? The family in question is the McBains, and their murderer, emerging in iconic slow motion with his henchmen from the windblown sagebrush, is Frank. But Leone, ever the tease, holds off on revealing the killers face until he can get a slightly low angle pan from around his back to reveal (as the director was fond of boasting) that, "Jesus Christ, it's Henry Fonda!"
One of filmdom's most-beloved heroes, Fonda typified ideals of justice and righteousness through his unforgettable portrayals of Abraham Lincoln and Wyatt Earp. Even if one has seen Once Upon a Time in the West many times, it's still impossible to not feel an unsettling charge when confronted with those baby-blue eyes staring down an innocent child after having brutally killed his family. On a first viewing, it's not uncommon to think that, despite what Morricone's music and Fonda's sinister costuming is unavoidably suggesting, this man will at least spare the life of this youngest of the McBain brood. When he does not, the image of the actor is irrevocably shattered, and all preconceived notions of the Classic American Western are left in tatters. This is Fonda's Ethan Edwards, his Scottie Ferguson.
The massacre at the McBain homestead leaves the beautiful Jill, ravishingly embodied by the never lovelier Claudia Cardinale, waiting at the train station for someone to take her to her new home. It is through Jill's arrival that Leone chooses to introduce us to civilization via a magnificent crane shot (timed out to Morricone's swelling score) over the train station that reveals a bustling town into which the trains passengers have spilled to, perhaps, start a new life. This is Jill's hope, but it is heartbreakingly dashed when she arrives at McBain's estate, bearing the symbolic title of "Sweetwater", to find the bullet-ridden remains of her new family splayed out on the tablecloths on which their wedding feast was to be enjoyed. As the gathered friends ask Jill what she plans to do, she surprises them by revealing that she had already married McBain back in New Orleans. In other words, Sweetwater now belongs to her.
If there is a structural oddity in Leone's otherwise sure-footed storytelling, it's in the restored sequence at a wayside inn where the audience is introduced to Jason Robards as the likable scoundrel, Cheyenne. This scene brings together for the first time the three characters Harmonica, Jill and Cheyenne that have been affected by Frank's plotting. What's interesting about it is that Cheyenne is making his escape from the authorities for having allegedly killed the McBain family before Jill even knows they're dead. This scene was cut by the studio for its initial theatrical release, and it's impossible to imagine how the film could've ever worked without it, as it's a wonderful introduction that nicely sets up Cheyenne's uneasy alliance with Harmonica, as well as his attraction to Jill.
The last key character to figure into the story is Gabriele Ferzetti as Morton, the wealthy railroad baron who employs Frank as muscle. Morton is displeased with Frank over the murder of the McBains, claiming that he only ordered him to scare them off the land (Frank's response: "People scare better when they're dying.") But it's clear that the unscrupulous industrialist doesn't really care so long as he continues his inexorable westward crawl toward the Pacific Ocean, a journey Morton wants to complete before rotting disease that has cripple him eventually takes his life. It is in the face-offs between Morton and Frank that Leone and his writers have attempted a commentary on the way money trumps brute force because it can always shield itself with enough counterforce to repel all enemies. As Morton explains to Frank, sitting behind his desk is "almost like holding a gun, only much more powerful." This is hardly a novel idea, but the way it's tied into the completion of America's westward expansion gives it an added resonance, which is deepened by the realization that the enforcement of such corruption is being brutally carried out by, essentially, Wyatt Earp himself.
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The assertion that Sergio Leone has blown up a 40-minute story to three hours isn't entirely without merit; the primary arc that drives Once Upon a Time in the West forward hinges on whether or not Jill will discover that Sweetwater, the land purchase over which McBain became the town joke, is actually a prime piece of real estate because of its well, which is the only water supply in the direct path of the railroad. In other words, whoever owns Sweetwater will be in possession of a boom-town. Meanwhile, the arc that is ostensibly set up as the heart of the film Harmonica's quest for revenge upon Frank doesn't proceed along the typical path of the hero's journey, but rather builds its suspense through Leone's clever withholding of information. This forces the audience to, in a way, identify with Frank, who maintains a cool exterior while asking internally, "Just who the hell is this guy, and why is he hounding me?"
With Leone, the reveal is everything, and it is almost always accompanied by the epic grandeur of Morricone's score, making Once Upon a Time in the West a literal "Horse Opera." It isn't until late in the film that Frank, still scheming to deliver Sweetwater to Morton, discovers that Jill was a whore back in New Orleans, which simultaneously gives her yearning for a new life an added poignancy, while making her seem like something of a gold-digger (after all, she isn't in Sweetwater for more than a day before she begins rifling through McBain's possessions looking for what we can only assume is money). But when she opts to sell the land at whatever paltry price offered, we realize that her intentions are completely noble.
Another quirk in Leone's structure is how he resolves the threat of Morton separately from Frank's final showdown with Harmonica; thus, setting up their duel as a massively overblown obligatory scene between two archetypes. By the time we discover the reason for Harmonica's vendetta, Leone has abandoned any political pretensions and latched onto the unabashed aesthetic pleasure of making a Western. Though Harmonica, previous to the showdown, has identified himself as just a man ("the last of a dying breed"), Leone shoots their face-off as if this was the last Western ever made.
In many ways, it was. No filmmaker since has managed a fuller summation of the genre's influence, which is probably due to there being a distinct absence of directors with Leone's command of the medium. The only contender would be Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, and while it is an undeniable masterpiece, it is also a much more personal and introspective work than Leone's film. As the train steams into Sweetwater, bringing with it the promise of civilization, Harmonica rides out, leaving Jill to greet the workers with the gracious gift of water as they toil to realize the country's Manifest Destiny. In much the same way, the Western helped nourish the medium of film as it struggled to realize its own potential. Finally, through the boundless imagination of a filmmaker as audaciously gifted as Sergio Leone, the journey was completed, and, to a generation of young filmmakers, everything seemed suddenly possible.
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Paramount presents Once Upon a Time in the West in a gorgeous anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) that is nothing less than miraculous to anyone who has seen a badly faded print of the film in recent years. Paramount has done a fantastic restoration here, which extends to the superb Dolby Digital 5.1 audio.
As for the extras, this two-disc special edition isn't necessarily overwhelming, but the supplementary material is mostly well-selected and enhances the experience of watching the film. The commentary on Disc One features multiple contributors, though the bulk of it is handled by film historians Sir Christopher Frayling and Dr. Sheldon Hall, who are at their best providing background insights into Leone's life and the making of the film. Frayling in particular is quite good at catching the picture's endless references to Westerns, both well known and obscure. There are also brief bits of commentary from John Carpenter, John Milius, and Alex Cox, but unfortunately they offer very little in the way of substance. Carpenter exhibits the same habit of describing the action that he has displayed on the tracks for his own films, while Milius's anecdote about being approached to write Once Upon a Time in America is unrelated to the action on the screen, and could've easily been included on one of the documentaries on Disc Two.
In fact, there is some overlapping between the commentary and the documentaries, but the offenses aren't too egregious. Taken on their own, these brand new docs are well-produced and full of interesting detail about the making of the film. The first feature is "An Opera of Violence" (29 min.), which mostly is concerned with Leone's background and the film's pre-production. Along with the folks from the commentary, there are interviews with Claudia Cardinale, Gabriele Ferzetti, Tonino Delli Colli, and Bernardo Bertolucci, who contributed to the story along with Sergio Donati and Dario Argento (it would've been nice to have their recollections, too). Some of the choice bits are Cox relaying the story about Leone wanting Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach to play the gunmen at the outset of the film, Cardinale indignantly brushing off the idea that Leone wanted to shoot her exiting from the train at a low angle so as to show that Jill was sans underwear, and Leone's claim that this film was the beginning of a second trilogy, which included Duck, You Sucker and Once Upon a Time in America. The second feature, "Wages of Sin" (19 min.), focuses on the actual production (it was the first spaghetti western to be shot in the United States), while the third feature, "Something to Do With Death" (18 min.), goes into the film's initial reception and legacy (it was dismissed in its truncated form, and only rediscovered years later thanks to the burgeoning young directors of the 1970s). Other extras on Disc Two include a text and video featurette called "Railroad: Revolutionizing the West," location and production galleries, cast profiles, and a theatrical trailer.
- Anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1)
- Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby 2.0 Surround (English, French)
- English subtitles
- Feature-length commentary with John Carpenter, John Milius, Alex Cox, Sir Christopher Frayling, and Dr. Sheldon Hall, with additional comments from cast and crew
- Featurette: "An Opera of Violence" (29 min.)
- Featurette: "Wages of Sin" (19 min.)
- Featurette: "Something to Do With Death" (18 min.)
- Video featurette: "Railroad: Revolutionizing the West"
- Location and production galleries
- Cast profiles
- Theatrical trailer
- Dual-DVD keep-case
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