Once Upon A Time In The West is, for me, the greatest Western of all time. It's better than anything else out there, including the masterful "Dollars" trilogy, also from Sergio Leone (as if you didn't know). It's not without problems, in terms of both pacing and attitudes towards certain characters, but the sheer scope of the film and grandiosity of it all is enough to keep me in love with this film forever.
The simple core of the story is about a Harmonica-playing man (Charles Bronson) who comes to a small town, intent on meeting up with a villain named Frank (Henry Fonda). He gets involved with a recently-widowed woman (Claudia Cardinale) who is of great interest to Frank, and the villainy and treachery of the plot also brings a charismatic criminal ('Cheyenne', played by Jason Robards) into the mix. There's more to it than that, however, and the script takes time to explore the progress of industry changing the types of crimes being committed, viewing the heroes and villains as archetypes on the very brink of extinction, something that can be viewed as good or bad, depending on how romanticised your view is.
Leone often makes me feel hypocritical. There are so many times when I view a movie and complain that a little editing wouldn't have gone amiss. I never think that with Leone movies, and this is the film to really test the patience of viewers who want fists and bullets flying throughout their Westerns. It's slow, to say the least. And I can understand people who find it interminably so. This is a film I urge everyone to see, yet it's not one I could recommend to anyone. Give it your time though, just once, and see how you feel. It's just under three hours in length, and feels longer to many people, but if you end up loving it as I do then you won't be bothered by the runtime at all.
Based on a story by Bernardo Bertolucci, Dario Argento, and Leone, the screenplay (co-written by Leone and Sergio Donati) is typically sparse. Which isn't to say that the dialogue is unimportant. Almost every line is essential, revealing something about the speaker, or allowing for some amusingly playful interactions, especially whenever Robards is onscreen. There's so much here to dig into that my small review won't begin to do it all justice.
The score by Ennio Morricone is as wonderful as any of his other works. Each main character has their own "theme", the harmonica tune becomes especially poignant when the backstory is revealed, and things really step up a notch just in time for the finale that viewers are waiting for.
As a side note, this was my first time seeing Once Upon A Time In The West on the big screen and I HIGHLY recommend the experience. Whether it was seeing a huge steam engine roll into shot or watching a massive side shot of Charles Bronson moving into the screen while the bombastic score signifies the beginning of the end, this was a viewing experience I'll never forget.
Everyone does well in their main roles. This was the film that finally showed me why so many people consider Bronson an iconic star, and he is. Claudia Cardinale is gorgeous and spirited, Robards steals almost every scene he is in, and Fonda is one of the great screen villains, an absolute bastard who viewers want to see get his just desserts from his very first scene. And there are some fun supporting turns from Gabriele Ferzetti, Lionel Stander, Paolo Stoppa, and Jack Elam and Woody Strode.
I can see why people have problems with this film. I can see why some will never like it. But cinema is a medium for the moving image and, by god, did Leone say more with visuals alone than almost any other non-silent director I can think of. If I was more academically-minded then this review would be the first in a series of essays exploring all of the choices made. But I am not. I am just a big fan who still gets goosebumps when I bask in the glow of a film that is THIS good.
I have, and love, this disc.
Americans can buy it here.