by Dave Kehr
Nineteen-sixty-nine wasn’t a good year for the western. Between John Wayne’s self-parodying performance as an aging sheriff in True Grit and the new definition of the outlaw provided by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, the noble old genre seemed just about exhausted. All that remained was for Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch to come along and — after one last spasm of apocalyptic action — give it a proper burial. This wasn’t the time for an ambitious Italian filmmaker to be setting out on an epic that would be at once the grandest tribute the genre had ever received and a penetrating criticism of it. When Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in the West was released, it was an instant failure, and just as instantly was cut by twenty-four minutes. But despite the fact that the crippled American version no longer made even rudimentary narrative sense, the film’s reputation has grown steadily in the last fifteen years. Various “restored” versions have surfaced at the film societies and revival houses over the years, but none until now has been definitive. The Wilmette-based distributor Films Incorporated has just issued a superb new thirty-five-millimeter print of the 168-minute European cut; though stories persist in buff circles of even more “complete” versions, this is likely to be as close as we will ever come to Once upon a Time in the West as Leone intended it.
And it is a masterpiece, a film that springs entirely from other films —from American westerns as seen by Europeans —and yet assumes an emotional texture every bit as varied and full-bodied as a film taken from lived experience. There’s nothing secondhand in it: it’s as if Leone had been able to inhabit this landscape that never existed, as if for him the movie West were a place as real as Athens or Rome. Christopher Frayling, in his excellent study Spaghetti Westerns, demonstrates how the Italian westerns of the sixties grew out of the mythological epics that had been an integral part of the Italian industry since its beginnings in the 1900s — for Leone, the idea of a western “myth” isn’t just a critical construction, but something with a literal force, something that shares the same imaginative dimension with the myth of Hercules. Most of the American antiwestems that followed in the wake of The Wild Bunch were concerned with debunking the myth of the West —with demonstrating how far the movie West departed from the sordid, brutal, and crushingly dull reality documented in the historical records. But all of these films —among them Soldier Blue, Dirty Little Billy, the absurdist variation of Little Big Man — seemed profoundly beside the point: myth can’t be attacked by reality, because our belief in myth is very different from our belief in facts — it’s a belief in something we already know to be untrue. Leone is the only western director to have realized that myth must be attacked from within — attacked in mythic terms. And because, as a European —an outsider — he can accept the myth untroubled by its problematic links to historical reality, he is uniquely qualified to bring it closer to reality —to restore those elements, chiefly the hard face of capitalism, that the other versions of the myth have left out. In Leone’s hands, capitalism itself becomes a mythic force, as much a part of the landscape (it’s embodied here by the building of a railroad across the desert) as the horses or mountain ranges. In criticizing the myth — in filling in the economic relationships American westerns have skipped over —Leone expands and enriches it, which is what the best criticism does.
For his framework, Leone chose the western’s foundation plot, the most grandiose of the genre’s variations and the one upon which John Ford built his masterworks. A corner of the wilderness is turned into a city, a civilization is created —but by whom and at what cost? For Ford, the founder was often a lone hero (Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine, John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance); Leone imagines four founders, no one of whom could have done the job alone, but who, bound together in the mysterious relationship that is the film’s true subject, succeed in bringing something forth. All four are stock figures, characters distilled from a thousand half-remembered movies: Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) is a New Orleans whore who has come out West in hopes of beginning a new life as a wife to a widowed rancher; but when she arrives at Sweetwater farm, she finds that her husband and his three children have been murdered by bandits. Cheyenne (Jason Robards) is the local outlaw, seemingly as much an institution around the town of Flagstone as the mayor; he has his own sense of decency, and when he’s accused of the killing, he rides out to Sweetwater to tell Jill it wasn’t him. The real killer is Frank (Henry Fonda), a sadistic gunslinger who works removing “small obstacles” for the railroad, whose silver path is heading straight toward Sweetwater. Frank is being pursued by an enigmatic figure known only by a nickname, Harmonica (Charles Bronson); to find Frank and exact his vengeance, Harmonica must pass through Sweetwater, too.
The four characters are arranged in an increasingly strained relationship to society: at the center is Jill, associated with the family and sexuality (a mother and a whore, she is a synthesis of the roles the western allots to women). Cheyenne is outside the law, but defined by his relationship to it; as a professional bandit, he has his own role to play in the primitive western economy. Frank, though an outlaw, has been adopted by a society that has a temporary need for his services; his methods are savage, but he is working for the spread of civilization. At the furthest remove is Harmonica, a man whose only social tie is his hatred for Frank. Leone treats him as a ghostly figure —when Frank asks him who he is, he answers with the names of men Frank has killed —who lives not only beyond the law, but seemingly beyond the laws of time and space. Harmonica is never seen entering a set: he is always already present, hiding in the shadows or standing just beyond the frame line, waiting to enter the action at its crucial point. Ennio Morricone’s score (itself a masterpiece of movie music) assigns a different theme to each of the four main characters. The music defines and, in some way, idealizes them, freezing each character in his essential traits and rhythms (reportedly, Leone played the music on the set, asking his actors to mold their performances to it; the relationship of music and character is certainly unusually tight, almost operatic). No longer stock figures, they are archetypes, each identified with a distinct moral stance, and each linked to the others because of that distinction: together, they form a closed set, a mythological universe. Standing apart, and perhaps above them, is Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), the crippled boss of the railroad who directs its construction from within his private parlor car. Morton is the prime mover who brings the static relationship to life, forcing the four main characters to come together and to break apart, to form alliances and enmities in response to his actions. Though he himself has lost the use of his legs, Morton is Leone’s embodiment of motion in all of its senses —as narrative impetus, as social progress, as rampaging capitalism. He is not a simple heavy, in the western tradition of the slimy eastern banker; he knows that he will die before his railroad reaches the Pacific, but he presses on, possessed by his dream. It is Morton’s itch — an inseparable blend of profit motive and pure idealism —that underlies all the action of Once upon a Time in the West; he is the element of change introduced into the static mythological system, the element that will both animate it and bring it to its end.
The body of the film follows the relationships among the four main characters through nearly all of their possible permutations. Cheyenne throws in with Jill because she’s a whore and makes good coffee (two qualities that remind him of his mother); Harmonica joins Jill when he finds out why her husband was killed —his farm sits on the only water supply within a hundred miles of desert, and the railroad needs water for its engines. By staying with Jill, Harmonica knows that he’ll draw Frank out. But this configuration doesn’t hold. Kidnapped by Frank, Jill offers to ally herself with him in exchange for her life. Frank arranges a rigged auction that will give him Sweetwater at an absurdly low price, but at the last minute Harmonica enters with a bid of $5,000 —money he’s raised by turning Cheyenne in for a reward. In the film’s most perverse twist, Harmonica joins up with Frank to save him from an ambush prepared by Frank’s own men (who have been paid off by Morton to get rid of him); Harmonica, after all, wants the pleasure of killing Frank himself—at the right moment and in the right way.
Leone’s style, both narrative and visual, is built on bold contrasts. Extreme long shots, often marked by an exaggerated depth of field (at one point, Leone holds in perfect focus both a single bolt on the roof of a train car and a mountain range thirty or forty miles in the distance), are abruptly broken by the massive close-ups — two gigantic eyes that fill the wide Panavision frame —that were the trademark of his Clint Eastwood films. In much the same way, Leone uses trivial details (Jill making coffee) to lead into epic panoramas (Jill serving coffee to members of the construction crew that has just brought the railroad to the threshold of her house), or align lowbrow burlesque with the loftiest tragic sentiments. Space, time, scale, and tone are all fluid elements, which can be expanded or contracted at will. And yet these transformations aren’t arbitrary, decorative touches; they are closely tied to the central themes of change and movement. The film opens with a celebrated sequence in which three gunmen (Jack Elam, Woody Strode, and Al Mulock) wait in a broken-down frontier train station for the arrival of Harmonica, whom they have been assigned to kill. The train is late, and the minutes stretch out: Elam keeps himself entertained by trapping a fly in the barrel of his gun; Strode stands under a leaky water tower, letting the slow drips accumulate in the brim of his hat until he has enough to take a drink. The sequence goes on and on (it must occupy nearly two reels of screen time) until the train arrives and it ends in a brief flurry of action. The aesthetic of the opening sequence is one of absolute realism —an insistence on showing everything—but as the film progresses, the action becomes more and more elliptic; by the end, entire scenes —as crucial to the plot as Cheyenne’s escape from jail and his brush with Morton’s men —are skipped over with the barest acknowledgment. It’s as if time has contracted as the film has gone on, growing smaller and less commodious, and indeed it has: the arrival of the train has changed the relationship of time and space, turning the far into the near, turning a day’s ride into an hour’s. Morton’s train devours time, collapses space: the coordinates of the old West no longer hold, and the frozen time of myth gives way to the bustling time of machines.
As the train approaches Sweetwater, Harmonica at last approaches his goal. Frank can no longer ignore the mysterious stranger who has shattered all his plans; in the end, nothing matters to him but finding out what he wants. They meet for a duel in the shadow of Sweetwater; the train crews are just over the hill. As they prepare to draw, there is one final expansion of time —one final burst of the “old” time. The sequence is extraordinary: Harmonica stares into Frank’s eyes, and with the force of his stare, he seems to project the memory that is filling his mind —the memory of his first meeting with Frank, when he was a boy. Frank receives the images, seeing them as Harmonica sees them —it’s a dual flashback, a fused memory. A shot is fired, and it’s over.
With this killing, the central relationship is broken: the main characters are now free to move away, as if the mythic time that bound them together had been shattered, and they could now move into Morton’s time, the new time. The train begins to move, pulling up to the open ground in front of Sweetwater, which has now become a station and soon will become a town. The Panavision frame, so achingly empty at the beginning of the film, is now full to bursting with men, machinery, buildings. It’s Jill’s city—Jill’s civilization —and the camera follows her as she moves into the crowd of men, carrying a pot of the coffee that first endeared her to Cheyenne. There isn’t any room for the survivor of a gunfight in this image of teeming domesticity, and as the camera continues to move —past the chugging locomotive and down to the end of the tracks, where the wilderness takes over again — it catches the figure of a lone rider, moving away. In the continuity of this final sequence, Leone balances a beginning and an ending, a settling and an escape, a celebration and a profound mourning. It is one of the most complex images in the history of the western, and certainly one of the most beautiful.
The Chicago Reader, February 4, 1983