Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Written by Sergio Donati, Sergio Leone, Dario Argento, and Bernardo Bertolucci
Directed by Sergio Leone
Sergio Leone was done with westerns. He’d said what he had to with the Dollars Trilogy and wanted to get onto his next film, an adaptation of the novel The Hoods, a film that would eventually be renamed Once Upon a Time in America. However, Paramount approached the director with an offer to direct a western for them as long as veteran actor Henry Fonda was attached. Fonda was Leone’s favorite actor, so he couldn’t pass up the chance to work with the performer. While the interiors were shot in Leone’s familiar Italian studios, and almost all of the exteriors were in Spain. But one fantastic sequence was a beautiful surprise. When one character arrives in the small town, they take a wagon ride through Monument Valley in Arizona, an iconic locale for western fans and such a wonderful sight in a Leone picture.
The town of Flagstone is one stop on an ever-growing rail system stretching from coast to coast in the United States. There is a lot of money in the rail industry, particularly regarding land. Homesteader Brett McBain knows that the value of his seemingly barren patch of land is about to skyrocket, and so does someone else. A group of evil men show up and murder McBain and his three children, fully confident that they have stamped out a problem. They were unaware that McBain’s new wife, Jill (Claudia Cardinale), was arriving in Flagstone that day via New Orleans. She finds the bodies and wants answers. Meanwhile, another stranger arrives in town, Harmonica (Charles Bronson), and he is looking for Frank (Henry Fonda). Frank has no idea why but his history intertwines with Harmonica in a way that will haunt him when he discovers the truth. And then there’s Cheyenne (Jason Robards), the leader of a notorious gang, who is being blamed for the McBain murders. But did he do it?
Leone continues his exploration of the effects of greed on humans, but this time supposes there can be people who operate outside of this system. It’s not a gunslinger or bounty hunter that is the hero of this story, but Jill, a woman who arrives and discovers the future she imagined for herself, has been cruelly destroyed. Based on the tropes, we expect that she will pull up her bootstraps and restore something of goodness. But that isn’t what happens. Instead, she has to form a bond with other people and work together to overcome their shared foe. The West wasn’t made because individual people worked in bubbles and never brushed up against each other,
the places that survived had to find some sense of community; they had to rise above the lauded “wildness” of the West and seek humanity.
Expectations are wholly subverted throughout Once Upon a Time in the West, beginning with Henry Fonda’s role. Fonda was held in a place of holiness by much of America. He was Tom Joad from The Grapes of Wrath. He played Abraham Lincoln in John Ford’s film. Fonda was a father figure associated with a liberal sense of decorum & goodness. However, his first scene as Frank was so controversial that it was edited out in television airings of the film. That introduction sees him murdering a little boy who happened to hear someone else say his name. Frank is an evil man, and he has no moment of redemption.
There’s a good argument to be made that The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is a film more concerned with gorgeous visuals than its story. That doesn’t mean it’s a terrible narrative, but it’s relatively bare bones if you outline it on paper. Once Upon a Time in the West kept the strong visuals but delivered a powerfully written story that gave each character a clear arc and found a way to tie them altogether when at first, that seems like an impossible feat. Each person has their own agenda and, except for Frank, finds ways to compromise to achieve their goals. This is the first and only time a female character had such a centrally important role in a Leone movie. Jill is one of my favorite western characters of all time who manages to rise above the insistence that she’s merely an object of pleasure. Of course, Leone isn’t immune to the sexist sentiments of his time, but Jill is far more complex than most of the female characters in the genre.
In a traditional film, you might expect Robards’s Cheyenne to be the main character or Charles Bronson as he is playing a riff on The Man With No Name. They are both excellent in their parts, but only Bronson comes close to being as crucial to the narrative as Jill. His shady past with Frank is delivered in such perfect increments, tiny pieces of dialogue and flashbacks that don’t come into focus into the third act. It proves a chilling moment when we learn why Harmonica has come back and why he wants to kill Frank.
The root of all of this is greed, a very American hunger to conquer the land and damn caring about a body count. Leone isn’t going to pretend that anyone, save Jill, is doing something noble here. The men mainly take what isn’t theirs or exact revenge. At the film’s end, only Jill remains in a place where she can find joy and a love of life. She’s building a new community while Cheyenne goes for a final ride, Harmonica shows that he can’t ever come back from his revenge-focused mind, and Frank…well, you can assume what happens to him. Once Upon a Time is a masterpiece, Leone’s best work in the western genre arguably. But it would not be his last, and this would prove to be the first of his second & final film trilogy, The Once Upon a Time trilogy.