ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968)
OPERA OF THE PISTOLEROS
Sergio Leone was born into the tradition of Cinema. He grew up using Cinecitta Studio in Rome as his playhouse. His father, Vincenzo, was a famous actor/director in Italian silent films, and worked into the 1950’s. His mother was an actress. In the 1940’s, when Leone was only 14 years old, he began to work on film sets, as a gofer, driver, and technical assistant. With every year, he learned more, and moved up in the ranks of film internship. By the 1950’s, he was working on a multiplicity of Biblical and Sword & Sandal Roman epics, both Italian and American. He began to co-write and write, co-direct and direct features. His official debut as full-fledged director was in 1961 with THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES. Then he was delegated to assistant directing for a couple of pictures. His second full feature was in 1964 with A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. He had taken a script idea from Kurosawa’s film YOJIMBO, and a little known American TV star, Clint Eastwood of RAWHIDE, and he created movie history. The thunder was long in coming, but then the torrent for this new genre, the Spaghetti Western, was raging. His trilogy was already popular in Europe, and a dozens imitators were busy copying the idea and concept. FISTFUL wasn’t released in the United States until early 1967. By that point, he had completed filming on the whole DOLLARS trilogy. John Sturgis had already borrowed heavily from Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI with his MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, released in 1960. So Leone was not the first to see and appreciate the parallels between Japanese Samurai films and the legacy of American westerns. It is interesting that the four SEVEN sequels were all shot in Spain and other parts of Europe.
While shooting the DOLLAR trilogy near Alimera, Spain, Clint Eastwood was amused by the short heavy Leone, struggling to recreate the American western—Italian Style. Eastwood called him, “Yosemite Sam”, because of his stout demeanor, and his tendency to sputter and get angry while on the set. Twenty years later, after Eastwood had developed into a more successful director than Leone, Sergio told him that after he completed work on ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, that he felt Robert De Niro was the finest actor he had ever worked with, and that Eastwood only was “a personality actor” at best. Eastwood never reciprocated the vitriolic verbal thrust, this attack on his professional talents. He may have even felt a bit sorry for Leone, who was known to be insecure about his own films.
As a meticulous student of cinema, Leone took things a step further, and he created a whole new way to shoot a western. The DOLLAR trilogy shocked us in 1967-68 when those three films were released in America. I have read where they had already been some films that could have been called Spaghetti westerns, but Leone energized and recreated the genre, where body counts were higher, horse’s tails were longer, Spain stood in for the American Southwest, stagecoaches were not to scale, colors were garish, gunshots were looped and all sounded odd, make up was thick and swarthy, extreme close-ups became popular, and a new kind of film score was born. Literally hundreds of Euro westerns were spawned in imitation. Famous actors like James Garner, Yul Brynner, Warren Oates, Robert Ryan, Joseph Cotton, Burt Reynolds, Arthur Kennedy, Alex Cord, Lex Barker, Stewart Granger, Lee Van Cleef, Gilbert Roland, and even Edd Byrnes—all traveled to Europe to work with international film crews, hearing five languages soaring, sometimes giving up their own voices in favor of a dubbed substitute, to get aboard, to milk the new cash cow. Most of these films were quite forgettable; not up to the standards set by Leone. The second part of Leone’s initial trilogy, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965), based on Kurosawa’s SANJURO, scored even higher at the box office. He had completed filming for the capstone of his trilogy, THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966) prior to the American release of FISTFUL OF DOLLARS in 1967. They had all been popular in Europe and Asia. America welcomed this new nihilistic stylized “western” with open arms. We laughed at them, but we marveled at them too.
When filming THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, Leone began collaboration with the master cinematographer Tonino Deli Colli. The budget was much bigger than on the first two films, and the camera work became clearly superior to the earlier movies. Colli continued to work with Leone on all the rest of his films. They pioneered the use of the Techniscope Process, where spherical lenses were used that would not distort on extreme close-ups, or on the wide vista shots. Leone loved to work with the actor’s faces, treating them like part of the landscape; every pockmark, scar, and imperfection magnified maximally. At one point in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, there is a close-up of Charles Bronson’s face that filled the great width of the screen with just his blue eyes. Roger Ebert wrote about the Leone “style” as “ all the films have the same eerie music, same sweaty ugly faces, and the same attention to small details.” Colli talked about Leone’s need to carefully dress the set. The whole crew often had to wait for hours while Sergio would move props around, and set up tableaus. In that way, he was similar to Peter Greenaway. Leone, they say, never storyboarded. He had a photographic memory for all the minutia of details. He was never happy until he captured on film exactly what he had imagined.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST was the first Spaghetti western to have scenes shot outside of Europe, and the only one to have scenes in it that were shot in America’s Monument Valley. He had studied all nine John Ford westerns that had utilized the Monument Valley. When he took his small production crew over there, he had memorized and could recognize all of Ford’s locales, and specifically what westerns he had used them in. He surprised Colli on the first day, when he pointed to a vista and announced,” This is where STAGECOACH was filmed!” Of course, it was hard to cinematically match the pale browns of the desert near Alimera, Spain with the rich red dust of the Monument Valley. So for the scene in Lionel Stander’s rustic bar, filmed at Cinecitta studio, where Cheyenne’s men burst in, Leone had bagged hundreds of pounds of red dust from the valley, and he blew it into the air and sprinkled it on his actors; its rich red particles symbolically tied the two locations closer together. Regardless of how we felt about the script or the directing, one had to admit that the cinematography was remarkable. The film’s magnificent widescreen look is completely lost in the early VHS pan-and-scan full screen versions of the film.
The most significant collaboration Leone forged was with his musical composer, Ennio Morricone. This collaboration has been compared to several other great ones, like Hitchcock and Herrmann, Fellini and Rota, Spielberg and John Williams. Many of Leone’s films are considered operatic in scope and experience. Morricone’s music elevated, and separated his films from most others. Normally a film is shot, then edited, then scored. The musical composer watches a film repeatedly, and its imagery and storyline can help to create the musical form and direction. Jerry Goldsmith has always been able to create fabulous scores post-filming. Opera has always been different. The music is extant, and a director has to find a way to freshly create, or stage, a production that will match, or compliment, the score. The first two DOLLAR pictures were completed so rapidly, Morricone had to score them post-filming; but starting with TG, TB, &TU, and spilling over to this film, he had finished the score first. Leone would let him read the script or the treatment, and he would just sit down and write a complete score. So with ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, Leone had to create shots to compliment the music’s moods.
One trademark for Leone was to give all the major characters in his films a musical motif. Morricone created Jill’s Theme for Claudia Cardinale, with slow and stirring strings, and with a beautiful solo soprano singing over it. Henry Fonda’s Frank was given the twang and throb of an electric guitar. In one scene as Fonda approached the McBain place for the climatic gunfight, literally his horse’s hoof beats rapped along in time with the music. Charles Bronson’s character, Harmonica, had the slow wailing of a mouth harp, strident and sad, with a cowboy-around-the–campfire feel to it. Jason Robards’ character, Cheyenne, was given the pluck of a banjo, light-hearted and comic, but authentically western. Ennio Morricone is a musical genius. He has been composing film scores since 1961, and to date he has competed work on over 500 films. When interviewed the actors said that often, Leone would play Morricone’s music on the set, helping to set the mood and the action.
When it came to the writing of this film, Leone created the initial treatment with the assistance of two of his friends, Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento. The plot was complex enough to please Antonioni. It was rife with hired assassins, vicious killers, innocent victims, land-grabbing, pay offs, outlaw gangs, railroad politics, capitalist greed, long-delayed revenge, rape, prostitution, redemption, water rights, mistaken identity, an odd love triangle, triple crosses, and plenty of shoot outs. Argento, born in 1940, was only in his early 20’s, and he already was a respected film critic. A year later, in 1969, he began his own career as a film director. He seemed to direct mostly crime and horror films, like THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMMAGE and SUSPERIA. Bertolucci, also born in 1940, went on to eclipse Leone in talent, scope, and artfulness; creating films like THE CONFORMIST, THE LAST TANGO IN PARIS, and THE LAST EMPORER. It was Bertolucci that first came up with the idea that a woman character could be central to the plot; kind of a tribute to Nicholas Ray’s JOHNNY GUITAR, where Joan Crawford held court. Originally Leone had envisioned a nude scene for Claudia Cardinale as Jill. But Cardinale made it clear that she never would have consented. She said,” I am an actress. I do not sell my body.” Oddly, Cardinale’s forty-year career was based in part on her sensuality and sexual attractiveness. Nudity is always an issue for an actress. It surprises me sometimes which actresses do consent to nude scenes; like Deborah Kerr in THE GYPSY MOTHS. The final gunfight between Fonda and Bronson was set up, and shot very similarly to the gunfight between Kirk Douglas and Rock Hudson in THE LAST SUNSET. Bertolucci was a great fan of this film.
Leone, with this film, paid homage to many of the American classic westerns. He, Argento, and Bertolucci re-watched dozens of them before they settled down to write the script. Obviously Leone loved American Westerns, but mostly he seemed to love the texture, fabric, and the historical qualities of them. He never bought into the idealism and the naked heroism they espoused; that honesty and bravery alone could triumph over any adversity, that good old “American” virtues needed to be paramount and promulgated. No, in his films, his own liberal convictions shined through; his distrust of capitalist entrepreneurs, who he felt mostly, exploited the pioneers. [How much different are things today? The wealthy continue to “have more”, and the rest of us scamper for the scraps.] Leone basically had a bleak nihilism that he set forth, anti-establishment views that were popular with the youth and the liberal factions of the 60’s. He worldview, and his perspective, did influence the Westerns made after 1968.
There is a story that Leone had contacted his trio of stars from the DOLLAR films, Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach, and that he asked them to be in his new western. They all seemed interested, assuming that they were being asked to play the three lead parts; probably Eastwood as Harmonica, Van Cleef as Frank, and Wallach as Cheyenne. No, Leone, told them, “ I will kill all three of you off in the first scene.” What a coup that would have been! The opening scene would have possessed much more shock value, and had a completely different feel to it. And it would have represented, for Leone, the transition from the first trilogy to his second trilogy. But Eastwood suddenly had a conflict, so Leone scrapped the idea. Sergio loved the films of Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson. He had wanted to use those actors in his earlier films, but he couldn’t afford them.
It is said that after the DOLLAR trilogy, Leone did not want to make another western. He already had the treatment done for ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, and he was hell-bent on filming that four-hour Jewish crime opus. He brought it to Hollywood. Paramount offered to make the picture, but with the very specific proviso that Leone direct two more westerns for them first. They wanted to cash in on the popularity of the pasta popgun craze. So, Leone, armed with a fat budget from Paramount, threw himself into the making of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. The sets were expensive, and he studied photographs of towns in the 1880s, and looked at the sets in the classic western films, to lend as much authenticity as possible. The set for the town of Flagstone cost more than whole budget for FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. One interesting bit of movie trivia is that the ranch house on the McBain place was constructed with lumber left over from the Orson Welles film, CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT.
So, in effect, Sergio Leone created a second trilogy, beginning with this film, followed by DUCK, YOU SUCKER (1971), and culminating with ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. He felt that all three periods of history were important influences on America. His life-long ambition was to remake GONE WITH THE WIND. He had been working on two projects before he died in 1989. He died of a hard attack at only 60 years old. The first project was a civil war film, with Mickey Roarke and Richard Gere. The second project was a massive epic, a co-Soviet production, about the battle of Leningrad during WWII. It was to be called THE 900 DAYS. This film was sold to Hollywood, but he died just two days before he was supposed to fly to LA to secure the financing and sign the contracts. Leone only completed eleven films. Even so, he has been voted in as the 41st greatest director of all time.
Leone was obviously a big fan of those sprawling Japanese samurai epics. He liked the way that Japanese directors, especially Akira Kurosawa, would stage the climactic fight scenes; the posturing, the stillness, the intensity felt as both combatants would coil to strike, searching for that lethal moment when both sets of hands flashed toward their weapons. The preamble, posturing, and tension proceeding the fight would always last four times longer than the actual combat. The films in the DOLLAR trilogy were all Samurai parodies, but ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, in its essence and execution, it was much closer in style to that of Kurosawa. Leone loved to take his time setting up gunfights, and when they finally happened, they would be over quickly; like the lightning fast sword thrusts and slashes from a Samurai warrior.
Leone put this premise into action with both the prologue and denouement for this film; the long opening sequence and the final gunfight between Frank and Harmonica. Because Morricone had prerecorded the score, it was up to Leone to compose his shots to match the music. To his chagrin, he discovered that none of Morricone’s score really matched, or fit into the stillness and the waiting during the opening sequence; which was very reminiscent of the three gunmen waiting for the train in HIGH NOON. One of the first things we notice is Woody Strodes cut-off carbine. The special lever action trigger guard reminded us of John Wayne’s rifle in RIO BRAVO, or Steve McQueen’s cut-off carbine in the TV series, WANTED, DEAD OR ALIVE, and of course Chuck Conners special trigger guard for his rifle on the TV series, THE RIFLEMAN. Faced with a scene minus the music, Leone came up with the notion the he could exaggerate and amplify the natural sounds; the squeaking of a windmill, drops of water on a hat, the heavy sound of boots on puncheon planks, the clatter of the telegraph, capped with the tremendous shriek of the train’s whistle as it approached. The scene moved slowly, lasting 15 minutes; a study in faces and time.
Woody Strode had been a John Ford regular, and his characters, like the lead in SGT. RUTLEDGE, and John Wayne’s man, Pompey, in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, were always stoic, honorable, and righteous. In this film, as Stony, he never actually uttered a word, but he spoke volumes with his walk, his body language, and his eyes. The Indian woman who fled the train station office was his real-life Hawaiian wife. His classic scene with the water dropping on his hat took hours to shoot. Leone, always the perfectionist, was never happy unless the falling water drop hit the hat exactly as he had envisioned it.
Jack Elam played Snaky, and he was one of the most recognizable character faces in Western films. Elam had been in dozens of westerns, usually as a heavy, fourth tough from the right, a gang member, a coward, a killer. His amblyopic eye and grizzled lean features always seem to perfectly frame his dastardly characters. Either smearing a thin layer of jam in his beard, or honey on his lips, depending on which story one believes, facilitated his famous scene with the fly. They used real flies for most of the shot, but the fly he captured with the gun barrel was a fake. I remember being upset when Elam finally spoke, and another actor dubbed his distinct voice. Maybe he was unavailable for the looping sessions post-production. Leone rarely used the actual sounds captured during filming. He did a lot of looping and sound editing. This habit was long-standing with him. Cinecitta studio was directly in the flight path for the Rome International Airport. But for me, all that dubbing and looping gave Leone’s films a kind of stilted canned sound. Every scene seemed tampered with. They never seemed to approach realistic moments.
An actor called Al Mulock played the third gunman. He had appeared in some of the DOLLAR trilogy. As a lesser-known actor, his moments in the scene were not as memorable. I do recall a close-up of his face sharing the frame with the approaching train. Unfortunately, the actor committed suicide while on the set. It must have thrown a chill into the production.
Harmonica: And Frank?
Snaky: Frank sent us.
Harmonica: Did you bring a horse for me?
Snaky: Looks like we’re one horse shy.
Harmonica: You brought two too many.
It was interesting that most of Leone’s casting was against type. As a writer/director, he adored the work of Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson. With the budget for this film, he was finally able to pay their high salaries. He had seen Jason Robards in a play in New York, and he was very impressed with him as an actor. Claudia Cardinale was well known to him, and he cast her for both her beauty and her strength. She had the beauty of a Sophia Loren, and the strength of an Anna Magnini.
The strongest casting choice was Henry Fonda as Frank, the stone killer and vicious villain. Fonda had been the quintessential American hero in almost all of his previous westerns, playing Wyatt Earp in John Ford’s, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1944), and Abe Lincoln in Ford’s, YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1939), Frank James in both JESSE JAMES (1939), and THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES (1940), the cowboy of conscience, Gil Carter, in THE OX BOW INCIDENT (1943), and Col. Owen Thursday in Ford’s FORT APACHE (1948); all strong, laconic, driven, mostly honest men, and heroes. But Leone knew, or sensed, something about Fonda. He had a cold side; he could be a sonofabitch. Certainly his children, Jane and Peter, could attest to that.
Initially, Fonda had turned down the role. In early 1967, or late 1966, when he was first approached, none of Leone’s DOLLAR trilogy had been released in the United States yet. Leone sent him copies of all three films for him to screen. One story had Leone flying to LA, and seeing Fonda in person, begging him to take the part. Another story that resonates more logically for me was that Fonda was a good friend of Eli Wallach’s, and that he consulted with him about Leone. Wallach told him to go, that it would be a hell of a lot of fun, and that it would pay well.
So Henry Fonda decided to take the role. He arrived in Rome wearing a dark moustache, with a chin divot, and sporting brown contact lenses. Leone was very upset. He wanted to use Fonda’s deep blue eyes, and clean-shaven face. He outlined for him that scene where the McBain family is murdered, where the mysterious gunmen in long dusters and wide-brimmed hats, stroll in from the high chaparral brush, and the camera is first held in a wide shot, so none of the faces are clear. The little boy is the only one left alive. He had been inside the house. The camera pans up from low on the head gunman. The boy is terrified. Then the camera panned up to the gunman’s face, and for Christ’s sake, that vicious killer that dispassionately guns down the child is Henry Fonda!
This inspired casting gave Fonda the opportunity to play other heavies, like bad boy Bob Larkin in FIRECREEK, and one of my favorites, old gunfighter, Jack Beauregard in MY NAME IS NOBODY. Casting against type is always a risk, but sometimes it can really pay off; like Shirley Jones playing a whore in ELMER GANTRY, or Tony Curtis playing a serial killer in THE BOSTON STRANGLER. Think about what a different film SHANE would have been if Jack Palance had played Shane, and golden boy, Alan Ladd, would have played the gunfighter villain, Jack Wilson; or if Kris Kristofferson had played Pat Garrett and Bob Dylan had played Billy in Peckinpah’s classic; or if Brando had played sheriff Dad Longworth and Steve McQueen had played Rio in ONE EYED JACKS. The possibilities are infinite!
Leone created a strong adversary for Frank, and he hired Charles Bronson to play the silent brooding character, the man with almost no name—Harmonica. This was a man with a burning secret, a man bent on revenge. Leone stretched out that secret, teasing us with it clear to the end of the film. There was that strong scene when Harmonica first meets Frank, after killing three of his men at the train.
Harmonica: Your friends have a high mortality rate, Frank.
Frank: What do you want? Who are you?
Harmonica: Dave Jenkins.
Frank: Dave Jenkins is dead a long time ago.
Harmonica: Calder Benson.
Frank: What’s your name? Benson’s dead too.
Harmonica: You should know, Frank; better than anyone since you killed them.
Frank: Who are you?
Harmonica: Jim Cooper, Chuck Youngblood.
Frank: More dead men.
Harmonica: They were all alive until they met you, Frank.
Bronson was not the first actor offered the part of Harmonica. Clint Eastwood was considered, and there was some talk about getting James Coburn. He would have given a whole new twist to things. In 1967, Bronson was still just a busy character actor. His roles in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, and THE GREAT ESCAPE created interest in him, but it was this role in this film that gave him the most immediate notoriety; prepping him for the superstardom that was lurking in the wings for him. It has been said that Charles Bronson was the quiet type, and that he kept to himself a lot on the set. Was he creating a back-story for this character? Was he steeping himself in silence to further enhance his characterization? Or was Bronson just taciturn, and shy; a quiet guy that did not need to engage in the small talk and flirting prevalent on a movie set? Bronson made Harmonica a very specific person; he owned that character. I don’t think any other actor could have had more impact on the film in that role.
One of my favorite actors, Jason Robards, played the outlaw leader, Manuel “Cheyenne” Guitierrez. It certainly was odd to cast him as a Hispanic tough guy. For most of his career he had played Eugene O’Neill’s tragic roles, and many comedic parts; running the gamut from LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT to A THOUSAND CLOWNS.
But for me, his talent transcended the role. He certainly never seemed part Mexican, and he never attempted an accent; perhaps fearing the travesty that Bogart experienced as a Mexican bandit in THE OKLAHOMA KID with James Cagney. Robards is such a good actor, though, that his line readings were to die for. His scene of introduction in Lionel Stander’s crude saloon was very effective. It seems that he had been arrested for the murder of the McBain family. His men were the gang known for wearing long dusters, and they certainly were brigands.
Cheyenne: They want to hang me for the killing of that whole family. The big black crows; idiots! What the hell? I’ll kill anything. But never a kid. Be like killing a priest.
Harmonica: I saw three of those dusters a short time ago. They were waiting for a train. Inside the dusters, there were three men.
Harmonica: Inside the three men there were three bullets.
Cheyenne: That’s a crazy story, Harmonica, for two reasons. One, nobody around these parts got the guts to wear those dusters except my men. Two, Cheyenne’s men don’t get killed so easy.
Robards, as Cheyenne, found himself cast as benefactor and protector for the lady—Jill McBain, and the pensive Harmonica. This odd juxtaposition was interesting for a bandit, and he made the most out of the possibilities.
Cheyenne: Do you know anything about a guy going around playing a harmonica? He’s someone you would remember. Instead of talking, he plays. He not only plays—he can shoot too!
Cheyenne: A whole town—built around a railroad. You could make a fortune; hundreds of thousands of dollars. Hey, more than that; thousands of thousands.
Harmonica: They call them millions.
Somehow, he had fallen in love with Jill McBain, and circumstances did not allow him to act upon his feelings. Toward the end of the film, while he and Jill are at the McBain place, watching Harmonica outside in the yard, he had a couple great speeches. He sat quietly, hiding his wounds, and baring his soul.
Jill: If you want you could lay me over the table and amuse yourself. Even call in your men to join you. Well, no woman ever died from that. When you are finished, all I need will be a hot tub of boiling water, and I will be exactly what I was before—with just one more filthy memory.
Cheyenne: Do you make good coffee, at least? You know, Jill, you remind me of my mother. She was the biggest whore in Alemeda, and the finest woman that ever lived. Whoever my father was, for an hour or a month—he must have been a happy man.
You know what? If I was you, I’d go down there and give those boys a drink. You can’t imagine how happy it makes a man to see a woman like you. Just to look at her. And if one of them should pat your behind, just make believe it’s nothing. They earned it.
Claudia Cardinale as Jill McBain was the beating heart of the picture, the hub, and the fulcrum. Like director John Carpenter quipped on the DVD extra side, “I was just one of millions of men who were in love with Claudia Cardinale in the 1960’s.” She certainly was buxom, breathy, fiery, and intelligent; playing a whore from New Orleans that rancher Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) had married in town, and then sent for her. I felt that there was some problems with the passive way Leone directed her. She, as an actress, generated a lot more fire and strength as Venus in CARTOUCHE (1962), or as Claudia in Fellini’s 8 ½, or in one of my favorite roles for her, Mrs. Maria Grant in THE PROFESSIONALS. All the other characters in this film were in orbit around her. With that kind of focus, perhaps more could have been done with the part? Her Jill emerged as a passive-aggressive character, mostly victimized by the stronger men around her. Fonda needed and wanted to kill her, but he couldn’t help but feel attracted to her. Cheyenne was in love with her, but due to circumstances, never did much about it. Harmonica tolerated her, and sometimes protected her.
The remainder of the cast filled in behind the heavyweight stars. Frank Wolff, a regular in dozens of Spaghetti westerns and a veteran of several Leone films, had some good moments early on as rancher Brett McBain.
Cheyenne: You deserve better.
Jill: The last man to say that to me is buried out there in the yard.
Paolo Stoppa played Sam, the man who drove Mrs. McBain out of town all the way out to Sweetwater, the McBain ranch. He had the dubious honor of driving a buggy from the deserts of Alimera, Spain, clear over to America, through the four corners and out into the majestic Monument Valley. Keenan Wynn played the town sheriff, who officiated at the land auction. Wynn was fine in this small part, but it was originally slated for veteran Robert Ryan. Gabriele Ferzetti played the heavy, the primary villain of the piece, the crippled railroad baron, Morton. He had been a matinee idol in Italian cinema in the 1950’s. He was considered a grand old man of world cinema. It was the equivalent of hiring Laurence Olivier for the part. Crippled with some kind of bone disease, Morton had to move around on special crutches, or had to clutch iron railings put on the ceiling of his railroad car. It was essentially a very unsympathetic part, the big boss, the evil capitalist, but Ferzetti found the character’s heart, and when he was brought low, and was beaten to the ground—somehow we felt a little something for him.
Morton: Not bad, Frank, congratulations. But tell me; was it necessary to have to kill all of them? I only told you to scare them.
Frank: People scare better when they’re dying.
In the midst of the complex plot, Harmonica outbid Frank for the McBain place, and it wasn’t at first clear where he got the money.
Harmonica: The reward for this man is $5,000.00, is that right?
Cheyenne: Judas was content with 4970 dollars less.
Harmonica: There were no dollars in them days.
Cheyenne: But sons of bitches—yeah!
The denouement for the plot was encapsulated into the climax, the big gundown; Harmonica vs. Frank; the two most lethal gunfighters facing each other at last, with fangs bared, a combat that only one of them could survive. While waiting for Frank, Harmonica sat in the McBain yard whittling on a stick.
Jill: What’s he waiting for out there? What’s he doing?
Cheyenne: He is whittlin’ a piece of wood. I got a feeling that when he stops whittlin’—something’s gonna happen! You don’t understand, Jill. People like him have something inside—something to do with death.
Finally Frank arrived, and they faced each other. Now Harmonica’s secret would be revealed.
Harmonica: So you found out that you are not a businessman after all?
Frank: Just a man.
Harmonica: An ancient race.
Frank: Nothing matters now, not the land, not the money, not the woman. I came here to see you, because I know that now, you’ll tell me what you’re after.
Harmonica: Only at the point of dying.
The gunfighters square off. Leone, once again, takes his time setting up the scene; perhaps a bit too much time; wide shots, medium shots, close-ups, and extreme close-ups; eyes, hands, worn pistol grips, muscles poised, each waiting for the other to blink. Then right in the middle of it, Leone gave us a flashback, [Harmonica’s secret] with Frank appearing much younger, tormenting two Mexican brothers. One had to stand on the shoulders of the other. The one on top had a rope around his neck. Both had their hands tied behind them. The one on the bottom was much younger. Fonda, as Frank, placed a harmonica in the mouth of the younger man. When the younger man fatigued and couldn’t hold up his brother any longer, the man on top would be hanged. Then at one point, the younger man fell to the ground exhausted, spitting out the harmonica. His brother swung high above him—hanged. The production assistant, Claudio Mancini, played Bronson’s unfortunate older brother.
Back in the present, their hands finally flashed toward the iron strapped to their legs. The pistols thundered simultaneously. They had been well matched. Then Frank twisted awkwardly on one leg, and dropped hard into the dust. Bronson perched over him, and placed the harmonica in his teeth. We see the momentary recognition in Fonda’s eyes as he is dying.
During the epilogue, as Jill is strolling sensually amongst the work gang, passing out water, Cheyenne and Harmonica are riding away. But Cheyenne’s wounds are grievous, and he can ride no further. Sitting on the ground, holding his belly, he said:
Cheyenne: (Dying) Harmonica. When they finally do you in, pray it is somebody who knows where to shoot.
American critics did not rave about this film. Roger Ebert wrote,” at almost three hours, it is too long.” Another one wrote,” It was a splashy exercise in excess,” and “ it is long on looks, and short on sense.” Because Leone had a huge budget to work with courtesy of Paramount, he had the time to really work with the extras and the sets. The scope of many of the crowd scenes was immense, and it really gave us a sense the “real life” was going on, people were busy with their specific tasks on the peripherary of the action. Some critics chafed at the idea that Henry Fonda had been used as a “bad guy”, or at using Robards as a Mexican, and one critic wrote,” Bronson was just playing vapid blankness, rather than being truly mysterious.” Others felt that Cardinale was not well served by Leone. Women characters in his previous films were usually one-dimensional and clichéd. The plot seemed to them to be muddled, and “way too complex”; and “through lines got tangled and blunted.” And as good as Fonda was,” We never learned much about Frank, so his character emerged unnecessarily unsympathetic.”
For me, most of these critics in the 60’s just did not know what to make of this opus. Leone’s love for American western movies shined through. Somehow he managed to bridge the vast chasm between classic Ford country within the Monument Valley and the tinny cynical world of the Euro Western. I felt that despite the threadbare implausible plot, Sergio Leone created a very complex epic Western, steeped in tradition, that continues to haunt us as it stands shoulder to shoulder with many of the classic films of John Ford, Howard Hawks, and George Stevens.
I gave this movie a rating of 4 stars
Glenn Buttkus 2004