Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, is an unabashed realization of the singular vision of a creative force, so much so that with each shot, each note, each step, a new form of heightened pleasure is derived. Each shot – be it a simple close-up, a stare, or the most breathtaking views of Monument Valley – is a work of cinematic Art, the perfect union of story, cast, music, cinematography, and direction.
So, it’s with this post that I thought I’d put forth six things I learned from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. Note that if you haven’t seen the film, there are spoilers ahead.
At it’s core, ONCE UPON A TIME… is a revenge story. Harmonica (Charles Bronson) is in town to kill Frank, (Henry Fonda), and along the way gets mixed up in a land battle between Morton (the magnificent Gabriel Ferzetti – also of my favorite Bond film, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE) and Jill (the undying beauty, Claudia Cardinale). But, at it’s heart, it’s a revenge story. Plain and simple.
It’s through that insistence on simplicity, that the grandeur of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is revealed. A meditation of the death of “the Western,” and the ruthless drive of men to be more than they are, ONCE UPON A TIME… is epic. A revenge tale. A love story.
And let’s face it. The writing pedigree of ONCE UPON A TIME… is superb – the story was written by Bernardo Bertalucci, Dario Argento, and Leone; the script by Leone and the great Italian scriptwriter Sergio Donati.
Casting Is Everything. Introduce Them Right.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST features the single greatest casting decision of all time. That of Henry Fonda – yes, Henry Fonda: YOUNG MR. LINCOLN; the juror with a conscience in Lumet’s 12 ANGRY MEN – as the most ruthless, evil sonuvabitch to grace the silver screen.
Had Leone not insisted on casting Fonda (Leone had long wanted to work with Henry Fonda, but his budget limitations in previous films precluded that collaboration), and won over Fonda (who turned it down until his friend, Eli Wallach – Tuco in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY – told him “just go”), ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST would not be the masterwork it is now. He is the lynchpin of the realization of Leone’s directorial genius, and a bold destruction of cinematic archetypes.
Here is an excellent clip of Henry Fonda talking about his introduction in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. He says it better than I ever could.
It is in this introduction that ONCE UPON A TIME… demonstrates the power of cinematic introduction by playing upon the expectations of the audience (these are horrible people!) and then slapping them in the face through image (to quote Fonda, “Jesus Christ, it’s Henry Fonda!”)
The Individual Elements of a Film Are Meaningless. It’s in Their Combination That Meaning Is Found.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is an operatic film. Restraint is something Leone does not exercise (unlike Hitchcock). In the hands of lesser filmmakers (namely everyone else working today with a few notable exceptions), this would be schmaltz. Nostalgia.
There are beautiful shots in this film – staggeringly beautiful; so much so that tears have been known to well up. But a shot in a film is not only composed of the camerawork. It is composed of the story behind the shot. The decisions that led to the shot. The art direction. The location. The actors on screen. The music (more on Morricone’s masterwork later). The list goes on and on.
Take a look at this example, of the introduction of Claudia Cardinale to the story. Schmaltz in the hands of lesser. A work of beauty in the hands of a master – but only because of the perfect combination of elements. (Around 2:30 in is where it really takes off – but watch the whole thing – and forgive the French dialogue. Only clip I could find).
Music Makes or Breaks a Film.
It doesn’t matter if you have directed, written, edited, or acted in YOUR greatest scene ever. The ultimate decision of the director regarding the music for his or her film is not the cherry on top – but the very flavor of the ice cream you’re about to eat.
Leone’s fabled collaboration with Ennio Morricone is the ultimate in filmmaker/composer collaborations, and one that every filmmaker should aspire to. Leone’s films would simply be “just spaghetti westerns” without Morricone. And Leone knew it. Even if he’d never admit it.
Morricone’s utilization of leitmotifs lent WEST its operatic quality (in operas, main characters usually have their own theme, or leitmotif). With WEST, however, you have the perfect combination of film and music. The vast majority of the score was written BEFORE principal photography commenced, as Leone wanted to play the music on set to inspire the actors.
There are moments in WEST that are so perfect it’s mind-numbing. Horse trots are in perfect time with the music being played, the drop of a jacket hitting perfectly with the downbeat of the score.
Doesn’t happen often anymore, and that’s a shame.
Show. Don’t Tell.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is a nearly three-hour film.
The script contains a grand total of 15 pages of dialogue.
I’ll leave it at that.
The Final Showdown Between Protagonist & Antagonist Better Be Worth the Two-Hour Wait. Or I’ll Have to Kill You.
We have been taken along for two and a half hours through the trials and travails of the end of “the Old West.” Harmonica and Cheyenne have returned to Sweet Water, where exhausted workers build the town that Sweet Water will become.
Harmonica sits on a fence. Whittling.
“When he stops whittling, something will happen.”
Henry Fonda, the object of Harmonica’s singular focus rides up. “Who are you?” “Only in the moment of your death.”
And so begins the finest endgame of any film – the duel between Charles Bronson’s Harmonica and Henry Fonda’s Frank. Not with fisticuffs, but with a single bullet delivered at the right time, and the display of master craftsmanship that brings all plot points and rivalries to the only conclusion the script could allow.
The grandeur of the film comes down to two men. One gunshot. And the revelations of years of pain.
Again, taking all that I’ve said before… would the film be the same without the perfect storm of Fonda, Bronson, Cardinale, Robards, the Bertoluccio, Argento, Donati, and Leone script, the Morricone score, the location, the set design, the Tonino Delli Colli cinematography?
All mastercraftsmen at the top of their game.
And let’s not forget, the answer to Fonda’s question, “Who are you?”is not delivered through dialogue. Dialogue has its place – but actions speak louder than words.
And in the End…
If you haven’t seen ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, I hope this article gives you a kick in the ass to do so. If you have, but don’t like it, it’s your opinion. It’s a film that rewards patience (the opening sequence is a largely silent 15-minute sequence), and is about the journey – not the destination.
At the end of the day, that’s what I appreciate most about the film. It takes its time. It’s not afraid to be operatic. It’s not afraid to be what it is. It is an unabashed creative statement of a master filmmaker’s abilities, passions, and vision that is more and more rewarding with every viewing.
It is the film I turn to when I need a creative jolt. It is everything I love about the possibilities of cinema – and everything I fear we are losing with each passing release.