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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 8.15%
Average: 2.96%
Pretty Bad: 0.74%
Total Crap: 3.7%

3 reviews, 117 user ratings

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Once Upon a Time in the West
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by Erik Childress

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

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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originally posted: 08/17/03 11:33:41
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/18/15 Gannon Roberts Should have received some academy awards. Brilliant flick. 5 stars
4/22/15 stanley welles irresistible and stylish 5 stars
2/15/15 john idiot movie 1 stars
1/06/15 steffany one word: overrated 1 stars
8/04/14 Garka Pretty good and complex western... The "Godfather Pt.II" of westerns... 4 stars
1/01/13 Butt Lives up to its reputation. 5 stars
11/18/11 Golden J. Williams Jr. One of the best Westerns done. Fonda as the villan-GOOD MOVE! 5 stars
1/27/11 brett AWESOME!! rain/snow day gem. delightfully soaks in 5 stars
8/10/10 Chad Dillon Cooper great western co-written by Dario Argento 5 stars
10/30/09 Omar Must-see! 5 stars
8/25/09 Duke of Omnium Cinematically thrilling; no character development. The apotheosis of the Western movie. 4 stars
7/14/09 Linda This is a Classic, The scene where the entire family is killed is heartbreaking! 5 stars
11/21/07 G. Webster A+ from start to finish,one of the ten best ever 5 stars
9/04/07 Double M Slow? yes. boring? no. only 2nd to GBU. Leone's TM's: cool characters, ELECTRIFYING climax. 5 stars
8/01/07 mr.mike classic leone but snail's pace may put some folks off 4 stars
5/18/07 Kelley Elder a textbook for non-verbal acting. mesmerizing to watch 5 stars
2/03/07 action movie fan outstanding production values but so dull,no story! production A+ story D- 2 stars
12/30/06 Adam Maybe it's b/c I never got the fuss over the Eastwood trilogy, but this movie floored me. 5 stars
12/13/06 Branislav Pure art! 5 stars
11/13/06 TennTexan Definitely the best Western ever made that didn't star John Wayne 5 stars
11/01/06 William Goss Despite a slow start (post-credits), a movie of many magnificent moments. 5 stars
10/27/06 Bob Miller I know of no other film which has delivered so many spell-binding scenes.....and the music! 5 stars
9/16/06 rwelsh They will never make another work of art again but Mike Bay lives, how sad 5 stars
5/22/06 jpp something to do with death... and genius 5 stars
5/07/06 dionwr A classic, and a master's class in how to use film 5 stars
5/05/06 Uri Lessing My favorite film. 5 stars
5/02/06 PaulBryant "People scare better when they're dyin'" - Fonda's superb. 5 stars
5/02/06 Ryan_A Fantastic film. 5 stars
5/02/06 EricDSnider ... 3 stars
5/02/06 David Cornelius Leone's masterpiece 5 stars
5/02/06 William Goss Still haven't seen it. 4 stars
5/02/06 HBS-SH Sparrow Goes to Space 5 stars
4/30/06 Joshua Sergio Leone is a genius. 5 stars
3/18/06 MP Bartley Yes, it's slow...but it's also masterful, superbly acted and deeply heartfelt 5 stars
1/10/06 T.N. Pool My all-time favorite Western. Superb cast, music, atmosphere. Unforgetable. 5 stars
1/02/06 John Cogar One of the very greatest. Right up there with Sgane. 5 stars
12/02/05 dreamed_realization Probably the best Western of all time. 5 stars
11/18/05 John Dog Sergio Leone is the man! 5 stars
11/08/05 Bojan Stojkovic Scenes full of energy, great acting and camera, simply the best movie! 5 stars
9/01/05 Eden Great music, buts very slow and uneventful. GB&U is better in every way 4 stars
7/13/05 JFK great movie. 5 stars
4/25/05 Erik North Sergio Leone's greatest achievement, a perfect mythical look at the taming of the Old West. 5 stars
4/09/05 K. Sear Defines the phrase "slow moving". 3 stars
3/21/05 john wayne uverrated tedious nonsense 1 stars
3/07/05 Daveman I was drunk when I wrote the last message, this film is only good for its music. 3 stars
12/14/04 Wilbert A. Elliott First saw this movie when I was day bought a harmonica. 5 stars
10/15/04 Jim A tad long and boring 3 stars
10/14/04 Kevin I saw this film first-run in 1969. It is the greatest western ever made. 5 stars
9/15/04 ChickyBaby AWESOME BABY!!! 5 stars
8/17/04 Herolder Great 5 stars
8/12/04 David blah 1 stars
7/29/04 Daveman A fabulous classic Western but it's not the greatest ever made, Leone is no John Ford. 5 stars
7/27/04 Linda Pierce Absolutely unforgettable 5 stars
7/15/04 "not a 'movie' fan....but can't see it enough....continually evokes emotion from a non emotional guy 5 stars
6/25/04 Ray Awesome 5 stars
6/25/04 yvonne Wonderful film. Used Jill's theme as my wedding march. Hauntingly beautiful. 5 stars
6/21/04 milehigh Forget Western, it's one fo the greatest films ever made. 5 stars
6/16/04 Henry Miller A film in the same class as Bridge on the River Kwai or Lawrence 5 stars
6/14/04 Reinaldo Alonso Rodríguez Is simple the best western ever made 5 stars
6/03/04 anthony sharp gr8 5 stars
5/31/04 Troy Kuprash Not A Big Fan Of Westerns, But An Excellent Movie 4 stars
5/31/04 June Breathtaking 5 stars
5/03/04 Greg Henry Fonda is fantastic in this movie. 5 stars
4/28/04 Douglas Brilliant, best western ever made 5 stars
4/01/04 sansho Magnificent, operatic Western; brilliant use of widescreen and accumulated tension. 5 stars
2/29/04 Brian Cohen western at its best 5 stars
2/12/04 Chima Luke Okafor A cinematic masterpiece rich in acting, music and fluid camera movements 5 stars
1/31/04 Ultron One of the pinnacles of cinema. 5 stars
1/25/04 Monster W. Kung MUCH better than Once Upon a Time in America. 5 stars
12/29/03 Now that I have it on DVD it is my favorite movie followed by TGBATU Now that I have it on DVD it is my favorite movie followed by TGTBATU 5 stars
12/25/03 Sugarfoot Tied with Teh Good The Bad And The Ugly as the best western ever! 5 stars
12/23/03 the Grinch Great western, but Leone's done better. Script (Argento cowrote, why no credit?) meanders. 4 stars
12/04/03 Agent Sands (previously Mr. Hat) Brilliant villain, great directing, and awesome score. 5 stars
11/27/03 John a cinematic opera a visual ballet- sensational! - Leone will live for ever with this film 5 stars
11/19/03 TWO TOO MANY Pure cinema-long live Sergio 5 stars
11/08/03 Bryan Moore This is another delicious treat from Sergio Leone 5 stars
10/28/03 Frank's Ghost The best western ever made. Nothing has surpassed it, nothing ever will. rEDBIRd=imbecile. 5 stars
10/21/03 M. Veeser My favorite western. Best spaghetti western b/c it's tragic and not overly funny. 5 stars
9/04/03 Marshal kame 10 STARS, Fantastic,best and unbleivable emotional movie ever made ,period. 5 stars
9/04/03 ghoodarzi alireza Brings you to real life endings. I always cry when I see Bronson leaves the town and Jason 5 stars
9/02/03 J Porter The best western in Cinema History, Period. 5 stars
8/28/03 Mohsen Hajji So joyable and fantastic and emotional western movie ever made!! 5 stars
7/13/03 number one fan awesome 5 stars
7/11/03 Ron W It's more than just a Western: a great story and panoramic, beautiful scenery. 5 stars
7/06/03 Gilly the gunslinger The greatest film of all time 5 stars
6/29/03 rita stiffler maybe 6 stars, One thing for certain, you gotta see it again and again. Maybe again! 5 stars
6/20/03 Sammy kind of slow but awesome altogether 4 stars
6/19/03 Wayne The best Western ever made 5 stars
6/05/03 Ultron Spectacular. Cardinale's character is one of the all time great heroines. 5 stars
5/23/03 Biff Boffo THIS is a western!! Fonda does a landmark 180 to evil perfection! 5 stars
5/06/03 M.V. Mackey Classic and one-of-a-kind 5 stars
5/04/03 Morten Wartou Pure magic. 5 stars
3/25/03 R Welsh after 40 years of movie watching-still the greatest 5 stars
3/23/03 master.node Fonda bad!! Cardinale in tub good!! Bronson bronson. 4 stars
3/18/03 dan nypaver the best movie ever made 5 stars
3/11/03 Pieter The best movie even seen 5 stars
1/30/03 jim monk must be seen in widescreen or you get shot 5 stars
1/21/03 Andy Bronson The greatist film ever made 5 stars
1/08/03 Seppo The Best western ever made! The Best score ever composed! 5 stars
10/29/02 Charles Tatum Lean and mean 5 stars
9/18/02 chirpy absorbing, fascinating, though sometimes relies too heavily on facial studies 4 stars
8/25/02 R.W. Welch Vaguely surreal and overlong but probably Leone's master opus. 5 stars
7/20/02 terry finnegan opening scene brilliant fonda wicked music great 5 stars
5/19/02 john waite final stand off is the best scene from any western...hypnotic eyes..amazing soundtrack 5 stars
11/23/01 Will Diamond This is just about the only "Western" Classic that measures up to other classic films 5 stars
9/21/01 Morten Wartou One word: Masterpiece 5 stars
9/13/01 C T Allen Just saw a screening of this at a theater. Fucking great flick. One of Leone's best. 5 stars
9/04/01 Gannon Roberts This is about as good as a movie gets. 5 stars
8/28/01 John outstanding classic film - when is the DVD?????? 5 stars
8/12/01 Kevin this movie is fucked up, what the fuck is with u guys, IT SUCKED!! 1 stars
8/05/01 porispecker absolute classic, vintage leone, vintage ennio morricone score, henry fonda rules! 5 stars
3/19/01 J.Arcane One of the best first 20 mins ever 5 stars
1/27/01 Bodhi The best Western ever made -about the West and the genre itself.Incredible.. 5 stars
5/19/00 tank From a story by Leone, Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci. No wonder it's brilliant. 5 stars
3/29/00 qbdilbert wow: watch fonda as the bad guy! surreal photography & musical score! rent LONG VERSION!! 5 stars
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  28-May-1969 (PG)
  DVD: 18-Nov-2003



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