Once Upon a Time in the West

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 08/17/03 11:33:41

"For My Money - The Greatest Western Ever Made!"
5 stars (Awesome)

Some movies you just have to stand back in awe of. Lawrence of Arabia is certainly one. Certainly select titles from Scorsese or Spielberg are others. It doesn’t take vast landscapes or epic lengths to achieve such a status, although several have failed trying for such majesty. Sergio Leone’s “Man with No Name” trilogy with Clint Eastwood always stirs a special deep-rooted place in film lovers. It’s concluding chapter, “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” is reserved on a small list of the usual suspects people spout when announcing their favorite western alongside The Searchers, Unforgiven or just about anything from the school of Wayne, Ford or Eastwood. For me, it will always be Leone’s follow-up to his monumental trilogy as a testament to both the mythology of the west and the heights to which the genre can travail.

We open on one of the great opening stretches of cinema ever conducted; devoid of music yet lyrical in both its audacity and the way simple sounds create a melody of their own. (The sound of a windmill will have you whistling for hours.) Those who thought Touch of Evil or the Superman films had long opening credits, will barely even notice the words being shot across the screen here as the mystery and anticipation of the scene builds over 14 minutes.

Three men (Jack Elam, Woody Strode and Al Mulock) have arrived at a train station to wait. For what or whom is to be discovered and the why will take even longer. Their menacing presence suggest something disreputable is afoot, but in many ways they act as if these are the last moments of their lives. One relaxes, another drinks water courtesy of a leak and his hat while the third makes a rattle out of a fly and a gun barrel. When their package does arrive in the form of Charles Bronson, Leone’s traditional tough-guy dialogue is a prelude to a reminder that everything that took so long to create can be ended in an instant through violence. (“Inside the dusters there were three men. Inside the men there were three bullets.”)

That we can derive so much out of the opening quarter-hour of the film is a testament to Leone's preparation for the journey we’re about to embark on. This is a land where unscrupulous men hide in the bushes waiting to massacre a father, a girl and two young boys. Their leader, Frank (Henry Fonda) was willing to spare the youngest member until a rider carelessly speaks his name. Such a lesson is one that Frank may have learned too late.

The McBain’s patriarch on that very day was awaiting his new bride, Jill (Claudia Cardinale). Her arrival is something almost out of Blazing Saddles as the class structure of the day is laid out in a single shot. Men talk of stock. Women assist and remain quiet. Blacks carry the bags and the “red-skinned warriors” are unloaded like cattle. OK, Leone isn’t subtle. Even the slaughtered Irish immigrants have red hair and the daughter sings “Danny Boy.” But it’s his grays that make the story so compelling.

Bronson fills in Eastwood’s shoes, going only by the name of Harmonica thanks to his instrument of choice and the sinister tune he establishes as his trademark. He nearly gets himself into a showdown with escaped convict Cheyenne (Jason Robards), wrongly accused of the McBain massacre. Their confrontation consists of the kind of banter that will either make them mortal enemies or the best of friends. (“Do you only know how to play? Or do you know how to shoot?”)

All three men will be in contact with Jill to either explain, protect or finish off. Her independence to remain on the land of her new husband despite her belief that he lied about his riches, doesn’t quite make her Scarlett O’Hara, but still represents an early vestige of a new America where women might have an equal say. Cheyenne believes a fortune does reside somewhere within Sweetwater (considered a wasteland), but may be soon to discover something much more valuable on the property that reminds him of his mother. (“She was the biggest whore in Alameda and the greatest woman who ever lived.”)

Railroad baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) also has his eye on the land and has employed Frank and his men to help him snare it. As plot-heavy as this all sounds, nearing an epic length of three hours, it’s the passages in-between the exposition (which never feels as such) that grants the film its historic status. The interplay between Frank and Morton is the century-old theme of man vs. the capitalist system. The railroad has always been an all-too symbolic gesture of the genre along with the dying breed of cowboy that can be seen as recent as both Open Range AND Seabiscuit, but its never been so well-represented.

Frank understands his time may be coming to a close and acknowledges the existence of the country’s next evolution as he sits behind Morton’s desk. (“Almost like holding a gun. Only much more powerful.”) Morton knows that the only power in the world strong enough to stop other weapons is money itself. But it cannot buy time and he, himself, is dying from tuberculosis. His only dream is to one day see his train make it all the way to the Atlantic Ocean just so he can see the water. The irony of his imminence is almost too much to bear.

Fonda’s performance as Frank has always received the most ink in regards to Leone’s masterpiece, thanks to the genius to cast him so far against type that no train track could ever reach. For the man that played Tom Joad, Honest Abe, Wyatt Earp (and any other All-American Hero that James Stewart didn’t get his hands on) to play such a cold-blooded killer; a man who would shoot down a young boy in cold blood and kick the crutch out from a cripple, well, the words couldn’t possibly describe how brilliant the performance is.

Bronson is at his Western best and Robards is a joy-and-a-half as the scruffy outlaw with more of a heart than he will ever admit. Cardinale is a stunning beauty and is easy to look at, but hard to watch as that beauty is nearly taken advantage of at every turn. Cheyenne takes note on several occasions and Harmonica even rips her clothing wide open before entendre-ing himself out of it by asking for water (“From the well. I like my water fresh.”) She accepts Frank’s advances (is it exactly rape?) while he whispers anything but sweet nothings in her ear. The way she plays this scene to her advantage without resorting to immediate revenge tactics is a testament to both Jill and Cardinale.

For what is primarily a four-person tale, two other characters emerge which are just as important to the overall feel of the film. The first is Ennio Morricone’s virtuoso score, arguably his best, that adapts four different themes to each of its characters and blends appropriately and seamlessly at any given time. The other, if you haven’t already guessed is the dialogue, credited in the English version to Mickey Knox with a story and screenplay credited to Leone, Sergio Donati and two other little Italian film giants by the name of Dario Argento and Bernando Bertolucci. Brief exchanges between the passages of silence and operatic grandiose are as perfect as they come. (“How can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? Man can’t even trust his own pants.”) How the mighty quipsters over at ESPN SportsCenter have failed to cleverly insert some of these lines into their movieline lexicon is beyond me.

Leone juxtaposes themes over plot and character development so thinly that even multiple viewings may have you too enraptured to even notice them. A constant of waiting is reintroduced throughout and how the ancient archetype of man will soon be absorbed into a system of venture capital. (“So you’re not a businessman after all.” “Just a man.” “An ancient race.”) Characters will fight to the death to preserve that right and the climactic 10-minute showdown comes full circle with the film’s opening sequence. This world of men will certainly not disappoint those looking for a good shootout from a town ambush to a splendid moving train rescue. Violence is an inescapable finality here, but also a place where a man can earn the right to pat a woman’s behind through hard work. And where the woman can act as if it doesn’t bother her.

Once Upon a Time in the West has been one of the great silently tapped resources for filmmakers in the last 35 years. No one with a concept of film history nor just a great love for all that is cinema will deny that its one of the greatest westerns ever made. It’s greatest argument seem to just be one of great confusion over what its official running time is. Widely known to have been cut for American audiences, a length of 180 minutes floats around different articles while a 165-minute “original uncut” print is the one that has been distributed on video, laserdisc (and soon to be DVD) for years. It’s this cut that I’ve seen time and time again. How can you trust a man that lists both a 165 and a 180-minute cut? Then again, with a film as timeless as the version I’ve seen, what does it matter if the number is correct? I’m still in awe.

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