Classic Film Reviews: Once Upon a Time in the West

This is the beginning of a weekly series where I review a classic film that released at least thirty years ago (no later than 1992). While the parameters of what constitutes a ‘classic’ film is debatable, I typically define movies as ‘classics’ based on their age and critical reception. This means that a lauded film franchise like ‘The Lord of the Rings’ would not fall under the ‘classic’ label because they are still modern 21st century films. These reviews will seek to examine these pictures through a modern lens while taking into consideration the historical context in which these films were made. It’s not enough for me to write a “does this film still hold up today?” review, as that would be too cliché. Instead, I will be answering the question: “What makes this film artistically significant in order to be seen as a classic by many today?”

To kick things off, I’ll be covering the second-to-last epic Western by Sergio Leone, ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’.

What does the ‘death’ of a genre look like? Today, the prevailing genre taking over the box office is the superhero action genre. In the box office, the genre is by no means dead, nor does it appear to have an expiration date. One could argue that the dominant Marvel Cinematic Universe is approaching creative exhaustion, though one could argue that has happened already. One way to study the death of a genre is to look at a commercially obsolete one, such as the musical or the Western. The Western in particular suffered a slow, yet intriguing demise that I believe started with Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’.

On the surface, the film wasn’t a commercial hit, nor was it a box office bomb either. It fared modestly well in the States and performed better internationally, but the financial performance of the film is irrelevant when analyzing the death of the Western. Compared to his previous Dollars Trilogy, which included the critical and commercial darling ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’, ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ behaves as if it were a post-mortem of Leone’s preceding masterpiece. The tone of the film lacks the distinct exuberance and flair of its older cousin, instead opting for a quiet and somewhat melancholic tone. The opening sequence illustrates this by lacking any of the bravado and dramatism from Ennio Morricone's masterful score. The information that the audience receives is almost entirely through the spoken language of visual storytelling.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QML28YQBvyc

Through extended close-ups of the three unnamed men’s faces, the audience gets the impression of their character and personalities. After intimidating the store owner and a local Native American woman, the audience immediately understands that the three men are antagonists, but Leone subtly reconstructs these nameless characters to include small signs of humanity. The man struggling the fend off the fly showcases that he doesn’t take too kindly to interruption. The man using his hat to collect water dripping from the ceiling demonstrates that he is a utilitarian and a clever thinker. The man perpetually snapping his fingers suggests that he is an apprehensive man. With the exception of diegetic background noises, the audience acquires this information without needing dialogue or music.

Contrary to the bombastic and triumphant nature of the Western genre, Sergio Leone challenges the audience to study the environment around them before introducing them to violence. This radical shift away from his famous Dollars Trilogy indicates that Leone recognized the increasing sterilization of the Western genre. Soon after the release of ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, the Western genre lost its luster, which soon resulted in the birth of the modern blockbuster with ‘Jaws’ in 1975. While the Western never dominated the box office, even during its peak, the genre itself became artistically exhausted and was eventually rendered as obsolete to major film studios. Understanding the limitations of the Western, Sergio Leone strategically deconstructed the genre by pursuing a more contemplative and self-reflective narrative about the existential threat that the Wild West poses to itself.

Spoilers Ahead

Despite his work participating in the Western hero mythology with Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name character, ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ is a post-mortem of that mythology by presenting the hero as a victim of traumatic violence. Another nameless man, colloquially referred to as ‘Harmonica’, played by Charles Bronson, serves as the protagonist who defeats the primary antagonist Frank, played by Henry Fonda. At the time, Fonda playing as an immoral monster of a villain is like casting Tom Hanks as a murderer in a horror film. This casting further demonstrates Leone’s proclivity to thwart conventions within a highly conventional and constrained genre. This reconstruction of the hero as a victim completing the cycle of violence and retribution does not feel necessarily triumphant.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NBno8SG421I

After the climax, Harmonica’s companion Cheyenne dies after suffering a wound from battling Frank. He dies unceremoniously and suddenly, pleading Harmonica to leave because he does not want his death to be witnessed by him. Harmonica does not leave, but merely walks away until Cheyenne takes his last breath. Afterwards, Harmonica carries Cheyenne’s dead body on his horse and leaves before the ending sequence concludes. Intriguingly, the ending sequence still has the levity and tranquility of ‘all being well’. The working men toiling away at the railroad return from their labor to receive fresh water from Jill McBain. The majestic score from Ennio Morricone dominates the scene as the audience watches the Western come to its natural end.

Ironically, this is not the last Western Sergio Leone worked on. In fact, this is the penultimate Western and marks the beginning of the Once Upon a Time Trilogy. In spite of this, one could easily interpret this as the conclusion of the classical Western and I am inclined to agree. ‘Duck, You Sucker’ or ‘A Fistful of Dynamite’ or ‘Once Upon A Time…the Revolution’ (all the same film) is one of Sergio Leone’s most overlooked films and failed to gain traction when it released in 1972. Westerns were already dead and Mel Brooks was about to dance on top of its corpse with ‘Blazing Saddles’ in 1974. It’s no wonder Leone finished this trilogy with a mafia film twelve years later with ‘Once Upon a Time in America’.

Only Sergio Leone could be the one to author the final chapter to the classic Hollywood Western. ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ delivered the final nail in the coffin, which left an indelible mark not only on Hollywood, but of cinema itself.

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Peter Finaldi

Graduate at Rutgers University. Writes about movies, video games, and anything else that I find interesting. My twitter: @PeterJFinaldi