In the desert Southwest of America during the waning days of the Old West, three gunmen (Jack Elam, Woody Strode, Al Mulock) approach an isolated train depot; two are wearing duster overcoats. The men take over the station and settle in to wait for the train. When the train finally comes, a nameless harmonica-playing stranger (Charles Bronson) gets off and asks for someone named Frank. They tell him Frank sent them in his place. In the ensuing showdown, all four men go down. Only the man with the harmonica gets up again.
The soundtrack to the opening scene is a creative orchestration of ordinary sounds in the style of John Cage. Composer Ennio Morricone uses dripping water, the clicking of a telegraph, a buzzing fly, and over all the persistent, annoying squeak of a windmill-powered pump to build tension, punctuate visual jokes, and emphasize the tedium of waiting for the train. The scant dialog allows the soundtrack to consume much more of our attention than a score usually does.
On a remote farm called Sweetwater, Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) and his children are preparing an outdoor wedding feast. McBain tells his son Patrick to drive into town to pick up his new mother, who is arriving by train from New Orleans. Suddenly shots ring out from the desert, and McBain’s daughter Maureen, son Patrick, and McBain himself are slain. The youngest McBain, Timmy, runs out of the house to find that his entire family has been destroyed. He watches in terrified silence as a group of five gunmen in duster overcoats emerge from the scrub brush. When one of the men calls their leader Frank by name, asking what to do with the child, Frank (Henry Fonda) draws his pistol and slowly takes aim at the last remaining witness. With a self-satisfied grin, he pulls the trigger.
In the town of Flagstone, McBain’s bride Jill (Claudia Cardinale) steps down from the train to find that no one is there to meet her. Giving up hope, she steps through the train station into the bustling new town still being built. She hires a carriage to drive her to Sweetwater. The farm’s name draws laughter from the driver, Sam (Paolo Stoppa), who informs her that “Sweetwater” is a worthless piece of ground, and McBain is crazy for trying to farm it.
Along the way, Sam speeds through a group of railroad workers busily laying their “damn rails. Then he stops at a wayside inn/tavern/trading post, and Jill follows him inside. Her beauty draws the unwelcome attentions of the barman (Lionel Stander). After a noisy off-screen gun battle, the outlaw Cheyenne (Jason Robards) enters wearing shackles on his wrists. The sounds of a harmonica again reveals the presence of the nameless stranger, who has been watching from a dark corner of the tavern. Cheyenne dubs him “Harmonica,” and he uses Harmonica’s gun to force another patron to shoot apart the chain between his wrists. Cheyenne’s men soon arrive, too late to help him escape the prison guards who now lie dead outside. Harmonica notes that the three men he killed earlier were wearing the same duster overcoats as Cheyenne’s men, and Cheyenne is annoyed that rivals may be copying his trademark dusters.
Jill and Sam arrive at Sweetwater to find a crowd of somber wedding guests standing around the outdoor tables, now put to use as funeral biers. Jill is horrified at the carnage. When one of the women bemoans that this should happen to the “poor little miss” on her wedding day, Jill informs the guests that she and Brett McBain were married a month earlier in New Orleans. As the burial comes to an end, the crowd discovers that the torn-off collar of a duster overcoat was found on a nail by the door. This marks the massacre as Cheyenne’s work. The men form a posse and ride off to track down the outlaw and hang him. Sam offers to drive Jill back to Flagstone, but she says she will stay at Sweetwater. That evening, she ransacks the McBain household, looking for anything of value that might have been hidden away.
At the town laundry in Flagstone that night, Harmonica puts the laundry man Wobbles through a violent interrogation, wanting to know why Frank didn’t show up at the train. Wobbles doesn’t know; he only arranged the meeting. Harmonica suspects Frank was occupied at McBain’s farm just then, but Wobbles insists otherwise: “Cheyenne did that job–everyone knows that. We got proof.” Harmonica doesn’t believe it: “That was always one of Frank’s tricks–fakin’ evidence.”
Jill finds a group of miniature buildings stored away in a trunk, including a model train station with a fancy swinging sign that says “STATION.” She hears the sound of a harmonica outside and fires a shotgun into the darkness. The sound of the harmonica moves farther away. In the morning as she is about to leave for good, she finds Cheyenne on her doorstep. While his men wait outside, he barges in and asks for coffee. He tells of being chased by the posse all night and helps make the fire for the coffee. He says he would never kill a kid: “I ain’t the mean bastard people make out.” He decided to come take a look at the scene of his supposed crime. Not only is he annoyed that someone is trying to blame him, but neither he nor Jill can understand why the killings happened at all. The place looks so worthless, he imagines that McBain must have hidden a treasure away somewhere. Jill tells him that if so, she couldn’t find it. Aware that she is vulnerable to any sort of mistreatment Cheyenne and his men might deal out, she serves the coffee.
In a private railroad car, Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), a crippled and dying railroad tycoon, berates Frank for killing the McBains. He only wanted Frank to scare McBain, not kill him. And now a Mrs. McBain has shown up, making the killings pointless. Morton began building his railroad in sight of the Atlantic Ocean, and he means to build his way to the Pacific before he dies. He hired Frank to “remove small obstacles from the tracks,” but Frank intends to become a wealthy businessman himself. Morton tells Frank he will never be like Morton, because Frank doesn’t understand that money is more powerful than guns.
After sharing a congenial interlude with Jill, Cheyenne finishes his coffee and rides away with his men. Jill takes her traveling bags out to the wagon. But Harmonica is there and demands that she stay. As he throws her down roughly and begins ripping at her clothes, Jill becomes alarmed. Instead of harming her, he simply removes the white trimmings from her black dress, leaving her in full mourning. They go to the well for a drink of water, only to be attacked by two more of Frank’s men. Harmonica kills them, and from a nearby vantage point Cheyenne sees how handy Harmonica is with a gun.
Jill goes to the laundry and asks Wobbles to tell Frank she knows everything and wants to negotiate with Frank personally. Wobbles denies knowing anyone named Frank, but Jill repeats her demand and leaves. Wobbles heads out to Morton’s private train, unaware that Harmonica is following him. Morton scolds him for coming there, but Wobbles says he wasn’t followed, and he thought Morton and Frank would want to know about Mrs. McBain. When Frank sees Harmonica’s shadow on the ground, he knows someone is on the roof, and he signals the train to start moving.
Stopping in open country, Frank captures Harmonica. A blurry flashback appears of an indistinct man walking through a desert landscape, but no explanation is given). Frank has Harmonica brought on board and bound. He kicks Wobbles off the train (literally) and shoots him down just as Wobbles is about to reveal the presence of Cheyenne hiding in the train’s undercarriage. Harmonica lets Frank know that the two men he sent to kill Jill are themselves dead. Realizing this is the man who wanted to meet with him, Frank asks Harmonica who he is. Harmonica answers with the names of two men Frank has killed. Morton interrupts the interrogation to remind Frank he has more urgent business: the woman. Taking to horseback, Frank rides away with three of his men to do away with Mrs. McBain himself. He leaves three men behind on the train to guard Harmonica and keep an eye on Morton, whom he doesn’t trust. Frank tells the men to meet him at the Navajo cliff, and the train gets under way again. Over the next few minutes, Cheyenne craftily disposes of the three gunmen one by one and sets Harmonica free. They now have Morton in their power, but they will deal with him later, choosing to stop the train and ride to Jill’s aid.
At Sweetwater, Jill is puzzled by the arrival of a large amount of lumber and building supplies that McBain ordered. Since he paid cash, it all belongs to her. Neither the lumberman nor Sam can say what it’s for, but there are enough materials to build at least eight buildings. When the lumberman shows her a blank sign and asks if she knows what should go on it, she recognizes its outline from the miniature train station and tells him it should say “STATION.” Inside the house, she looks through the trunk again for the model train station. Just then, Frank captures her.
At the Navajo cliff, Morton offers to buy Sweetwater to avoid more killing–he’s had enough of Frank’s butcher tactics. He doesn’t have time to compete with Frank. But away from his train, Morton looks weak and pathetic, no competition at all as far as Frank is concerned. Frank kicks one of his crutches out from under him, sending Morton sprawling face first: “I could squash you like a wormy apple.” Frank tells some of his men to take Morton back to his train and watch him.
At Sweetwater, Cheyenne and his men are just as puzzled by the building supplies as Jill was. Harmonica paces off the dimensions of a train station while explaining to Cheyenne what he has seen in a document: McBain was planning to build a town at Sweetwater, which has the only water supply for fifty miles west of Flagstone. Since trains need lots of water to make steam, the railroad must inevitably come through Sweetwater. McBain contracted for the rights to operate the depot himself, provided it was built by the time the tracks reached it. Knowing that the rail gangs are just over the hill, Cheyenne puts his men to work building the station.
Inside a ruin at the Navajo cliff, Frank enjoys an intimate interlude with his captive Jill. He remarks that she will do anything to stay alive and that it seems she can’t resist a man’s touch, even the touch of the man who killed her husband. Frank knows from inquiries sent over the telegraph that Jill was one of the most popular prostitutes in New Orleans until she married McBain. As he undresses her, he thinks of marrying her himself to take over the land. Realizing he would make a bad husband, he comes up with a quicker, simpler solution.
Jill sits in quiet resignation in the saloon at Flagstone, where people have gathered for a land auction. One of Frank’s men hovers over her, and several more are scattered through the crowd, ready to intimidate anyone who even starts to make a bid. It’s Frank’s way of getting the property for himself cheaply. The sheriff (Keenan Wynn) reluctantly gets the auction under way.
Meanwhile Morton, aboard his train, senses that his dream of seeing the Pacific is growing remote. He joins a game of poker with four of Frank’s men who are now his captors. Instead of dealing out cards, he deals out five hundred dollars to each of the men to buy their allegiance to him.
Back at the land auction, one of Frank’s still-loyal men bids five hundred dollars for the farm. Just as the sheriff is about to close the sale, Harmonica calls out a bid of five thousand dollars. In what is most likely a scheme devised by both men, Harmonica brings in an indignant Cheyenne at gunpoint and turns him in for the reward money to cover his bid. The sheriff puts Cheyenne under guard on the train bound to Yuma, where there is a new, strong, modern prison that is much more secure than the local jail. But two of Cheyenne’s men follow him onto the train after buying one-way tickets to the next station. Meanwhile, one of the men on Morton’s train rides into town to tell the others what transpired in the poker game.
Jill is grateful that Harmonica has saved the farm for her, and she begins to look at him more warmly. Frank enters the saloon and offers Harmonica five thousand dollars for the farm, plus one silver dollar profit. Again he asks Harmonica’s name, and Harmonica answers with the names of two more dead men: “They were all alive until they met you, Frank.” Again the blurred flashback appears, but the image of Frank walking through the desert becomes clearer than before. Harmonica rejects the offer but uses Frank’s silver dollar to pay for his drink. Having noticed suspicious activity outside, Harmonica goes to watch from the upstairs windows and balcony, breaking into the room where Jill is taking a steamy bath. Frank steps out of the saloon onto the street–and into a deadly cat-and-mouse game. His former men, now Morton’s men, try to gun him down. But with some timely assistance from Harmonica, Frank manages to kill them instead and rides out. Jill is furious at Harmonica for saving Frank’s life. He tells her, “I didn’t let them kill him and that’s not the same thing.”
Frank discovers the aftermath of a gun battle at Morton’s train. Bodies of Frank’s men and Cheyenne’s men lie strewn along the tracks and in Morton’s private car. He finds Morton crawling desperately to a nearby mud puddle. Frank draws and cocks his gun to finish him off but then decides to let him suffer. Morton dies with the sound of ocean waves crashing in his mind.
The track laying crew is reaching Sweetwater at last, and construction crew are busily turning the stacks of lumber into the beginnings of a town. Harmonica sits at the farmyard gate as Cheyenne comes riding awkwardly in and goes inside. Not quite his usual self, he again asks for coffee, which Jill has ready this time. They both sense that outside something important is about to happen with Harmonica. Cheyenne: “He’s whittlin’ on a piece of wood. I got a feelin’ when he stops whittlin’, somethin’s gonna happen.”
Frank rides up to the gate, and Harmonica stops whittling. They exchange a few words. Frank admits he’ll never be a businessman: “Just a man.” They acknowledge they’re of an ancient race being killed off by the coming of the modern age–arriving right next to them as they speak. Then Frank gets to the business between them: “The future don’t matter to us. Nothin’ matters now–not the land, not the money, not the woman. I came here to see you. ‘Cause I know that now you’ll tell me what you’re after.”
“Only at the point of dyin’,” Harmonica tells him. Frank says, “I know,” and they stride out into the farmyard to face off for the final showdown.
Inside, Cheyenne begins to clean up and shave while he watches the railroad move up. He tells Jill she should take water out to the workers at the tracks, letting them enjoy the sight of a beautiful woman. And if one of them should pat her behind, she should just make believe it’s nothing. They earned it.
As Frank and Harmonica square up a few feet apart, preparing to duel, Harmonica remembers his history with Frank, in the flashback, a young Frank strides out of the desert to the isolated ruin of a Spanish mission–a lone arch with a bell hanging at the top. He places a brand-new harmonica into a young man’s mouth, telling him to keep his lovin’ brother happy. The youth’s hands are bound behind him, and his older brother, also bound, is standing on his shoulders with a noose around his neck. Frank and his men wait for the inevitable moment when the boy’s legs will give way and complete the hanging. The doomed man curses Frank and kicks his younger brother away. The harmonica drops out of the young man’s mouth as he falls into the dust.
Frank and Harmonica draw and shoot. Frank turns around and staggers a few steps before he falls to the his knees. He asks Harmonica again, “Who … who are you?” In answer, Harmonica places the old, beaten-up harmonica into Frank’s mouth. Frank’s remembers–he sees the image of the boy falling into the dust and the harmonica dropping out of his mouth. Frank falls lifelessly into the dust and the harmonica drops out of his mouth.
Cheyenne tells Jill he’s not the right man for her, but neither is Harmonica. There’s something inside a man like that, he tells her, something to do with death. Once Harmonica has dealt with Frank, he will come inside, pick up his things and move on.
Harmonica comes in and, true to Cheyenne’s prediction, picks up his belongings and tells Jill he has to go. Jill is wearing a dress whose top reveals her cleavage. They share a lingering look, and then he opens the front door and surveys the developing street scene outside. “It’s going to be a beautiful town, Sweetwater,” he says. Jill hopes he will come back someday. With a doubtful “Someday,” Harmonica leaves. Cheyenne too says goodbye and pats Jill on the behind, telling her to make believe it’s nothing.
As the two men ride away, Cheyenne pauses and gets off his horse before dropping to the ground. Harmonica discovers that Cheyenne has been gut-shot, the work of Morton himself during the gun battle at the train. Cheyenne asks Harmonica to go away–he doesn’t want Harmonica to see him die. Harmonica turns away and soon hears Cheyenne fall over dead. Just then, the work train rolls into Sweetwater and stops at the station, which has its “STATION” sign in place. Harmonica takes Cheyenne’s body away as Jill carries water out to the newly arrived railroad workers.
* * *
Member of audience: ‘You seem to talk about films. Mr Greene, as though they were entertainments, equivalents of what you call “entertainments” in writing. You seem to imply that the medium is out of control and we don’t know what to do with it. And you suggest Once Upon a Time in the West as one of the best films of the last decade . . . Do you not really take film as seriously as you did once?’
Graham Greene: ‘I take it seriously, and I take Once Upon a Time in the West seriously …’
Philip Oakes (interviewer): ‘Could I just interrupt? Mr Greene saw it in France, which I think was a completely different version from the one we saw — ours was a much shortened version.’
Graham Greene: ‘Yes, what irritated me when I saw the film, what irritated me about the criticisms I’d heard in England, in the English press, about it, was that it was criticized the whole time for being so slow. And I don’t see why a film shouldn’t be slow. I think you can have wonderful films which are quick in action, quick in photography, quick in cuts, whatever you like. But it seems to me equally valid that one could have a very slow and admirable film. And I love the almost balletic quality in Once Upon a Time in the West, especially the opening quarter of an hour or so.’
Graham Greene, at the National Film Theatre, 1971
Just before Christmas 1966, Bernardo Bertolucci went to see The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in Rome, at three o’clock in the afternoon on the first day of its run. ‘Watching films’, he later recalled, ‘was a way of finding some comfort from the ones I was not then able to make myself.’ He had directed two feature films: The Grim Reaper (1962), based on an idea by Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Before the Revolution (1964), which had been screened at the Cannes and New York film festivals, but which ‘was almost determined not to find an audience’. Since then, Bertolucci’s career had ground to a halt. He felt like a foreigner in his own country.
A happy surprise awaited Bertolucci at the screening he had chosen:
‘Sergio Leone was actually in the projection booth, to oversee the projection of his film. Dario Argento was in the booth with him. Leone recognized me, and Dario made all the introductions.’ The following day, Leone telephoned Bertolucci at home and asked if he had enjoyed the film: ‘I said I did, but that was not enough. Sergio wanted to know why. So I replied with a phrase which I think he liked very much, which almost seduced him. I said I liked the way he filmed horses’ arses. In general, in both Italian and German Westerns, the horses were filmed from the front and sides — in profile. But when you film them, I said, you always show their backsides; a chorus of backsides. Very few directors shoot the back, which is less rhetorical and romantic. One is John Ford. The other is you. He was completely knocked sideways by this! Went quiet for a few seconds and then said, “We must make a film together sometime.” And he started to tell me the beginning of a story.’1
Dario Argento had been in the projection booth having a characteristically animated conversation with Leone about mise en scène. Like Leone, the twenty-seven-year-old Argento had grown up among jobbing film people in Rome: his father Salvatore was a top public relations executive with Unitalia, the Italian government agency dealing with film exports. One of Dario’s earliest memories (a cherished one) was ‘being bounced on Sophia Loren’s knee’. After leaving grammar school he had worked as a film critic on Paese Sera, where he came to Leone’s attention by raving about the first two ‘Dollars’ films: ‘We spoke together a lot, and he was struck by my love for the cinema. Amongst the boys of my generation it was fashionable to go into politics and not many of my circle wanted to go into the business, or were interested in what a dolly is. Leone liked talking cinema with me, and of course I was mad about talking cinema with him. Not theory but concrete facts. I was still too naïve and he brought my feet down to the ground.’2
Bertolucci’s father Attilio had been a poet and film critic of La Gazzetta dt Parma, and Bernardo had lived in the Emilian countryside until the age of twelve, when the family moved to Rome. As a child, just after the Second World War. Bernardo would often go to one of the six cinemas in nearby Parma, to see previews of films before they went on general release: ‘My friends didn’t come to the cinema as often as I did. They were the sons of workers or peasants or pendolari. So I had to tell them the stories of the films I had seen in order to reconstruct them. We each took a part with the names of the characters in the movies. I was fond of Stagecoach by John Ford and naturally chose the part of Ringo for myself. I identified totally with John Wayne between the ages of seven and ten. I tried to imitate him in his walk and in his half smile.’3
By the mid-1960s, in the left-wing literary and cinematic circles to which Bertolucci was drawn, ‘there was a suspicion of American cinema — a cinema which I liked a lot’. Similarly, there was suspicion of popular Italian cinema, on the grounds that ‘much of it was a degradation of neo-realism down to the level of the commedia all’italiana, Italian-style comedy’. Bertolucci felt much closer to Godard and Resnais than to Italian directors, but he reckoned that Sergio Leone was ‘the only one, apart from the four big maestri — Rossellini, Antonioni, Visconti, De Sica — doing something different’. He managed to reassure himself that ‘there was no contradiction about our political views of the moment — in 1967 — and the great classic Westerns. At that time, anyway, the cinéastes of Paris all loved Hollywood.’ ‘Besides,’ Bertolucci admits, ‘I needed desperately to work. And I dreamed, even then, of doing a film which gave pleasure to everyone, in the sense of Roland Barthes’s Le Plaisir du Texte.’4
After a period as a poet, and an assistant director to his father’s friend Pasolini, Bertolucci had been inspired by the French new wave (Godard in particular) to explore the relationship between politics and personality, Marx and Freud, in his own films. Sergio Leone also came from a left-wing background, but he had long since decided to express his particular brand of disillusionment through popular cinema. Against all odds, these two found that they had a good deal in common. The Marxism of Bertolucci met the melancholy, and the cinephilia, of Sergio Leone: the point of contact was the kind of film that Godard had dubbed ‘the most cinematographic genre of all’. Bertolucci recalls: ‘I got on extremely well with Sergio, because our relationship with cinematic “models” was in some ways similar. In me, this arose through having read Bazin and French film theorists; in him, it was more direct — but basically the way I saw American Westerns, when I used to go by bike to Parma, couldn’t have been very different from the way Leone saw them, in a cinema in Trastevere. The fever in our eyes must have burned at the same temperature.’5
Leone signed Bertolucci and Argento to write the story of his new film. Once Upon a Time in the West. Thus, the three men began a series of meetings at his house on the Via Lisippo. Carla Leone recalls that: ‘This was a very unusual step for Sergio to take: Dario and Bernardo were young people, and they were very attracted to Sergio’s way of talking about cinema.’6 In order to have control over the project, Leone contracted the ‘young people’ to his new production company Rafran, a title taken from the first syllables of his children’s names, Raffaella and Francesca. He had told Paramount that this would be a much more personal film than the ‘Dollars’ trilogy (‘a film for myself rather than for the public, a reaction to my previous work’). There would be no question of ‘using my old screenwriters’, he informed the money men. There would also be as little trace as possible of the Cinecittà assemblyline. Leone had told the studio that he would ‘make the new film in a framework that would allow me to prepare my project of Once Upon a Time in America’. Charles Bluhdorn, the Austrian head of Gulf and Western (Paramount’s parent company), a flamboyant and short-fused businessman who didn’t like being contradicted, was sufficiently impressed with Leone to leave him to his task.
Sergio Leone recalled, ‘So we met, the three of us, and began to dream together. Very soon Dario Argento felt himself being overtaken. But Bernardo and I went further and further, always making reference to the American cinema we admired. And it became like a tennis match between him and me. Argento remained as a spectator, watching the exchanges between us. He gave good advice and was, above all, good company. I should say that at that early stage in the proceedings, I wrote nothing down. They were just conversations in the course of which I played the role of devil’s advocate. I didn’t want to turn the discussion into a draft, for fear of being ten) satisfied with the result. I preferred to have the freedom to question everything before committing myself.’7
According to Leone, this process went on for about two months. Bertolucci recalls three or four, Argento six. Argento was certainly fired up by the collaboration: Leone had ‘understood that cinema was changing, and that there was a need for people who wouldn’t tell you the same stories in the same old ways: in our treatment we put visual images and sensations rather than a lot of dialogue. Because we’d only just begun, we were overflowing with ideas from inside ourselves which had gestated over many years. There was a lot of talking, a lot of vague talking about a story … We spoke about this particular shot, that old film — all m order to get ourselves going.’8
Bertolucci remembers that Leone was also thinking about Once Upon a Time in America and smarting over the recent studio reaction to his proposal. The theme of Hollywood dreams and historical reality, which he had gleaned, in a vague way, from The Hoods, was very much on his mind. I its conversation apparently veered from ‘great sophistication to a very Italian kind of vulgarity — a combination which had never happened before in Italian film … Leone is strange — he has a double nature. He wants to be a kind of Visconti — part of an elegant, sumptuous, aristocratic world — so he shot a Western as Visconti might have done. On the other hand, his basic ideology is a completely child-like vision of life. So at times this man of the West was just like a child who has access to the dynamics of the imagination … And Leone is vulgar and genial like Visconti — even if one comes from the Lombardy aristocracy and the other from the Roman petit bourgeoisie.’9
Insofar as they were focused at all, the discussions seem to have been focused on the many meanings of the phrase ‘Cera una volta, il West’, which means ‘once upon a time, there was the West’. The project’s central theme was to be the arrival of‘civilization’ and ‘progress’ on the rural frontier, in the form of the transcontinental railroad. I here was nothing particularly original in that: indeed, the writer Frank Gruber had categorized the ‘Iron Horse’ formula as one of the seven basic plots in the Western genre. But Leone’s particular interest in the story was to explore the relationship between popular fictions (‘Once upon a time …’) and their historical basis (‘… there was the West’), at the same time as lamenting the end of the golden age, and of the Western as fable. It was nearer the labyrinths of Jorge Luis Borges than the standard Hollywood treatment.
In John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924) the ‘laying of the track’ had been an epic story of American ingenuity and endurance, dedicated to Mr Lincoln. The railroad was a symbol of the new nation itself, bringing together Irish, Italian and Chinese immigrants, and the Americans who had fought for both Union and Confederate sides, in an inspiring common purpose. Cecil B. de Mille’s Union Pacific (1939) bad told a great American adventure story, involving runaway trains, spectacular crashes, attacks by Plains Indians, and a lot of penny-plain melo-dramatics, climaxing in a streamlined 1930s locomotive (symbol of modernity and progress) hurtling towards a rosy future. In the most recent treatment on an epic scale, the ‘Railroad’ segment of How the West Was Won (1962) directed by George Marshall and Henry Hathaway, the race between Union Pacific and the Central Pacific had been presented in three-camera Cinerama as an important stage in the winning of the land, ‘from nature and from primitive man’. How the West Was Wan concluded that the ‘laying of the track’ was yet another example of ‘the way Americans have of acting out their dreams’, and as such the gains and profits were manifestly destined to outweigh the losses.
Sergio Leone’s starting point was very different: ‘The basic idea was to use some of the conventions, devices and settings of the American Western film, and a series of references to individual Westerns — to use these things to tell my version of the story of the birth of a nation.’10 ‘My choice was provocation … Once Upon a Time in the West began, under the pretext of a nothing story with conventional characters, as an attempt to reconstruct the America of that epoch, to sec it live its last moments … We placed these characters in an epic context, that of the first economic boom which was about to make the great romantic epoch of the West disappear.’ So the story conferences started with debates about the confrontation between Western heroes (‘an ancient race’) and the new era of the railroad boom, and the survival through memorable images of childhood fairy-tales of cowboys and gunplay into the complex world of adults. The theme of ‘the world we have lost’ led them somewhat inexorably into Luchino Visconti territory, though Bertolucci recalls, ‘Mine was the melodramatic Visconti, of behaviour which is taken to excess and also of a certain sensation of class guilt. While for Sergio, Visconti tended to be a reference point for elegant mise en scène.’11
In one of the best-known scenes of Once Upon a Time in the West as eventually filmed, the connection with Visconti was perhaps deeper. The climactic duel between Frank, the railroad hit-man who has ambitions to become a businessman, and Harmonica, last of the frontier individualists, is introduced by a solemn discussion about the golden age, shortly to be killed off by opportunists like the railroad baron Morton. ‘Other Mortons’ll be along, and they’ll kill it off,’ Harmonica states. This discussion is punctuated by shots of the railroad gang laying tracks, and has its visual counterpart in the shot on which the film finishes. As the tram pulls out of the new town. Harmonica rides off into the lulls with the corpse of the bandit Cheyenne in tow. Those whose destiny it is to make way for technological advance not only foresee their own fate; they resent it. The moment is redolent of Lampedusa’s The Leopard (1958), in which Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, comes to realize that in a unified Italy, the feudal South must be undermined by Northern progress: ‘We were the leopards and lions; those who’ll take our place will he little jackals, hyenas — and the whole lot of us, leopards, jackals and sheep, we’ll all go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth.’ Harmonica is no aristocrat (at least, not in Visconti’s sense), and his lament does not have the reactionary cast of Don Fabrizio’s, but the sentiments are similar.
At times in conference, the Leone who collected paintings and fine antiques seems to have been centre stage. At others, the Western buff, the ‘regressive’ Leone took his place. ‘Leone sometimes gave the impression’, says Bertolucci, ’that preparing a film was like playing cowboys when one is a child.’ Dario Argento recalls the importance of play: ‘Sergio mimed. He’s a big mime because he doesn’t speak very well English but he says he imagines English. He explains things in mimes like guns and also us, like kids, we joked with guns like Americans.’ For Argento. the spirit was infectious: ‘I bought a gun, a Colt… a real one. I needed to feel the weight. So, alone in my house I would play with the gun, turning it around and around in my hands. I bought a cowboy’s hat too, and I used to wear it in front of a mirror. It was all done to try to fit into the spirit of the thing.’ Gradually, the work acquired rigour: ‘Bernardo and I, we worked out a system to share the duty; and every one of us was choosing to write the things we were more “into” and then we amalgamated them. Sergio listened to us and sometimes said something to correct and because he was a maestro in that kind of game, we profoundly believed everything he was saying… Leone fascinated me a lot, when, for example, he was describing in advance exactly the camera movements that needed to be made for a certain scene: to me it was like Dante declaiming his verses.’12
At last, the story of Once Upon a Time in the West began to take shape. By now, Leone had visited the United States several times. He had made a recce in a hired jeep through the deserts of Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. Fie had even taken a guided tour through Monument Valley, on the Arizona-Utah border, with Tonino Delli Colli, who still remembers ‘Sergio excitedly telling me almost all the shots in John Ford’s films: “He shot from this angle. He placed the camera here.” And it was all in his head.’13 His collaborators, however, had only celluloid to draw’ upon. Argento recalls: ‘Our Western was sure to be different from the American models, because we arc Italian and know Westerns only because of movies — because of John Ford and Tony Mann and Nicholas Ray.’14
For Bertolucci, cinephilia was an extension of the game: ‘In those days, there was a cult of using quotations, and 1 used to say to myself, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a director of Leone’s talent would use quotations without knowing it, in all innocence — quotations which, rather than being intended, just happen?” It is possible that for a couple of quotations, I was successful in making him do this.’15 What did Sergio Leone think of this, when he subsequently found out? He didn’t like me saying that there were references in there which he didn’t recognize!’ Bertolucci, apparently, teased Leone and ‘he became furious, saying, “I knew it was there!” “No,” I said, “you didn’t.” “Did.” “Didn’t.” ’
The key films which kick-started this postmodernist game were Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (19S4) which Bertolucci had referred to in a celebrated critique as ‘the first of the baroque Westerns’, and which he recalls as ‘one of the more explicit references in Once Upon a Time in the West’; John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) which inspired the ‘family massacre’ at the McBain ranch; ‘all those films about the building of the railroad, such as The Iron Horse and Union Pacific’; John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance 11962) for the conflict between political pressures and the rugged individual of the West; Robert Aldrich’s The Last Sunset (1961) which Bertolucci was later to reference in his own The Spider’s Stratagem; George Stevens’s Shane (1952) for its self-consciously mythic qualities, and its funeral sequence; and John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven (1960) which confirmed the choice of Charles Bronson to play Harmonica, and inspired Dario Argento to rewrite its story, twice, in subsequent scripts for Italian Westerns.’16
But the movies were just the catalysts for a more wide-ranging debate. As Leone explained: ‘For this “dance of death”, I wanted to take all the most stereotypical characters from the American Western — on loan! The finest whore from New Orleans; the romantic bandit; the killer who is half-businessman, half-killer, and who wants to get on in the new world of business; the businessman who fancies himself as a gun fighter; the lone avenger. With these five most stereotypical characters from the American Western, I wanted to present a homage to the Western at the same time as showing the mutations which American society was undergoing at that time. So the story was about a birth and a death. Before they even come on to the scene these stereotypical characters know themselves to be dying in every sense, physically and morally — victims of the new era which was advancing.’ Leone’s ultimate goal was nothing less than a ‘cinematic fresco on the birth of America’.17
So at one level, Once Upon a Time in the West turned into an anthology of ‘worn out’ scenes and visual cliches which stood for the whole history of the Hollywood Western from the silent era right up to the ‘psychological’, ‘neo-classical’ and cult Westerns of the 1950s and early 1960s. It went beyond just Westerns, though. According to Bertolucci, the name ‘Brett McBain’ was ‘made up from the crime writers Ed McBain and Brett Halliday: we had many, many obscure references like that, not just to Westerns but to American cinema in general’.18 From the last scene of Farewell My Lovely came the line ‘She made swell coffee, anyway’. From Murder Inc, the scene where a killer’s hands gently take over the sharpening of a razor from those of an Italian barber. Frank at one point exclaims: ‘I low can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? Man can’t even trust his own pants.’ This is appropriated almost verbatim from Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. Sergio Leone himself, as Eli Wallach observed, was also one of those who couldn’t even trust his own pants, which is perhaps why the line stuck in his mind. From Max Ophuls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman, maybe, came the idea of a flashback or memory which ‘appears in fragments’ and which only makes sense during the final duel between the two main protagonists. And one of the great lines of Once Upon a Time in the West (‘People like that have something inside’, says Cheyenne to Harmonica, ‘something to do with death’) resonates with Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra, in which Doc Banton (Henry Hull) says ‘Remember what Johnny Dillinger said about guys like you and him — he said you were just rushing towards death. Yeah, that’s it. Just rushing towards death.’
Surprisingly, the name ‘Sweetwater’, site of the McBain ranch, wasn’t stolen from Victor Sjöström’s silent epic The Wind — set in a desert waterhole of the same name: the team hadn’t seen the film. Bertolucci recalls, ‘Looking at a map of that part of the United States for a name which we could give to this place, I found one I liked very much, which was “Sweetwater”.’19 The fictional town of the story was originally to have been Abilene, Kansas, but once it had been decided to feature a buggy-ride from the train station to ‘Sweetwater’, via Monument Valley, the name was changed from Abilene to ‘Flagstone’ — a reference to Flagstaff, Arizona. It made no sense with reference to the map, but Jill McBain and Sam just had to ride past the red sandstone buttes in the valley which had been featured in ten John Ford Westerns, from Stagecoach (1939) to Cheyenne Autumn (1964). ‘We watched Stagecoach for Monument Valley — yes,’ says Bertolucci. Once that had been decided, it was a question of looking at the map to find a suitable destination: northeast of Monument Valley, on the Utah side, is a small village called ‘Sweetwater’, the name Bertolucci ‘liked very much’. This ‘creative geography’ was something like the process by which Bertolt Brecht found the lyrics for his songs about ‘America’ in 1920s Berlin. According to Lotte Lenya, words such as ‘Alabama’ were chosen for their sound, and for the image they conjured up in the minds of radical young Germans, rather than for any real associations.20
Bertolucci chose ‘Sweetwater’ for ironic purposes: this is the site of McBain’s ‘dream of a lifetime’, of the massacre of his entire family, and of the mixed blessings the railroad brings with it; to Sam it is a ‘stinking piece of desert’; to I harmonica it has the makings of a ‘beautiful town’. And, like Brecht’s version of America, the story of ‘Sweetwater’, with its analogy between businessmen and killers, capitalists and hit-men, seemed to be as much about an unending struggle in capitalism between victims and predators as it was about the specific American Western conflict between ‘barbarism’ and ‘civilization’. Brecht famously wrote that he found ‘the principle negative character so much more interesting than the positive hero .. . because he is performed in a spirit of criticism’. The villain of melodrama showed the audience, through his larger-than-life gestures, that he was distanced from the character he was playing. In Leone, the chief badman who destroys McBain’s utopian dream would become a classic exemplar of this strategy.
Bertolucci notes that the game of homage the scenarists were playing was also intended to put the question, ‘What is cinema?’ As Sergio Leone explained: ‘We wanted that feeling throughout of a kaleidoscopic view of all American Westerns put together. But you must be careful of making it sound like citations for citations’ sake. It wasn’t done in that spirit at all. The “references” aren’t calculated in a programmed kind of way. they are there to give the feeling of all that background of the American Western to help tell this particular fairy tale. They are part of my attempt to take historical reality — the new, unpitying era of the economic boom — and blend it together with the fable.’ What of Bernardo Bertolucci’s claim that Leone didn’t always recognize the ‘references’ for what they were? Leone was characteristically prickly on this score. ‘First of .ill. I’d like to say that Bertolucci remembers less clearly than he might. He worked on the story and not the script of the film. I made all the decisions as director, but he really did bring something personal to his work on the story. The script was prepared, after Bernardo had worked on the treatment with me for about two months, from his outline suggestions. I in fact wrote the script with Sergio Donati, very quickly indeed. It took less than a month.’21 And. he added, although the explicit references to Hollywood Westerns were intended to amount to ‘a kaleidoscopic view of all American Westerns put together’, and although it was assumed throughout the film — via a process of intertextuality we would now call ‘postmodernist’ — that the paying customers would recognize the most obvious citations, part of the point of the exercise was to create the impression that the audience was watching a film they’d seen somewhere before — only to jolt them with the realization that they’d never seen the story told in quite this way before. Again there was the mix of recognition and surprise, visual Julies and trompe l’oeil, which I cone reckoned was the key to keeping ahead of his audience.
Dario Argento took his own lesson from the experience: ‘From Sergio I learned that cinema can basically be time and rhythm — and this has obsessed me so much since then that in my own films I stop-watch everything even if I don’t necessarily use it in post-production . . . I learned about the author as another character in the film — who is always on set and who always makes his presence felt — the thing Godard was searching for at round about the same time.’22
On one level. Once Upon a Time in the West is structured around a series of often ironic reversals of famous moments from the Hollywood Western. The three pistoleri are waiting at Cattle Corner Station for the hero (rather than the villain) to arrive on the noon train (which is, or course, running two hours late from Flagstone). The villain’s name is ‘Frank’ as it was in High Noon. Little Timmy McBain goes hunting with his daddy, like little Joey Starrett with his wooden rifle in the opening sequence of Shane. But this time, instead of the white-hatted saviour riding into view between the antlers of a deer, both father and son arc ruthlessly gunned down. A series of sinister portents — cicadas suddenly going silent, partridges flying away from the sage brush, sage hens squawking excitedly — herald not the arrival of Comanche warriors at the Edwards ranch (as in The Searchers) but the appearance of a gang of hired killers employed by the Morton railroad company.
But the most important reversal, permeating the entire film, is of the visual grammar, and the ideology, of the Western films of John Ford. To that extent. Once Upon a Time in the West can he interpreted as a key contributor to a European cinematic ‘moment’ of the late 1960s. when cinephile film-makers evolved a form of critical cinema (a phrase Leone wasn’t too fond of) that made reference to the work of Hollywood directors about whom they had written. The starry-eyed eulogies of the first Cahiers du Cinéma generation had made way for a more analytical perspective. As Claude Chabrol was to Hitchcock, Bertolucci to film non, so Leone, in Once Upon a Time m the West, was to Ford: ‘John Ford is a film-maker whose work I admired enormously, more than any other director of Westerns. I could almost say that it was thanks to him that I even considered making Westerns myself. I was very influenced by Ford’s honesty and his directness. Because he was an Irish immigrant who was full of gratitude to the United States of America, Ford was also full of optimism. His main characters usually look forward to a rosy future. If he sometimes de-mythologizes the West, as I had tried to do on the “Dollars” films, it is always with a certain romanticism, which is his greatness but which also takes him a long way away from historical truth (although less so than most of his contemporary directors of Westerns). Ford was full of optimism, whereas I on the contrary am full of pessimism.’23
On his debt to Ford, Leone added, ‘There is a visual influence there as well, because he was the one who tried most carefully to find a true visual image to stand for “the West”. The dust, the wooden towns, the clothes, the desert. The Ford film I like most of all — because we arc getting nearer to shared values — is also the least sentimental, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. We certainly watched that when we were preparing Once Upon a Time in the West. Why? Because Ford finally, at the age of almost sixty-five, finally understood what pessimism is all about. In fact, with that film Ford succeeded in eating up all his previous words about the West — the entire discourse he had been promoting from the very beginning of his career. Because Liberty Valance shows the conflict between political forces and the single, solitary hero of the West… He loved the West and with that film at last he understood it. Someone pointed out to me that Liberty Valance also has a “triello” like the ones in my stories — a three-way duel between Stewart, Wayne and Marvin.’24
Of his Port Apache (1948), Ford had remarked, ‘It’s good for the country to have heroes to look up to.’ But by the time he directed The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 1962, its newspaper editor’s famous line — ‘This is the West. sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend’ -evidenced a much darker outlook. Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) has made a political career out of the fact that he was the man who shot the vicious outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and thus helped to tame the wild frontier. What actually happened was that ‘solitary hero’ Tom Doniphan (John Wayne) shot Valance while hiding in the shadows during the climactic duel between Ransom and Liberty. Throughout the film, which is constructed around one long flashback interrupted by the duel. Lord seems to be nostalgic about the old days even while celebrating the arrival of law and order in the West. It begins with an iron horse pulling into the town of Shinbone, belching black smoke, and ends with that same iron horse going back Hast; with Stoddard on board, musing about a new irrigation bill which will transform the landscape. His wife Hallie (Vera Miles) says, ‘Once it was a wilderness. Now it’s a garden. Aren’t you proud?’ When asked about why his vision of the West had become increasingly pessimistic over the years, John Lord replied, ‘If our ancestors could see us now, they would be bitterly ashamed.’ But Leone was wrong to suggest that this disillusionment had suddenly and inexplicably surfaced in Liberty Valance. It had been present since The Searchers (in 1956), if not before, and seemed to mirror Ford’s increasing depression about the whole business of film-making.25
The sequence of Once Upon a Time where Sergio Leone most explicitly refers to Ford, and to the destruction of his utopian dream by the railroad, occurs when Harmonica and Cheyenne are examining the kit of wooden parts that has been delivered to Brett McBain’s farm. They take the measure of what will become the train station. The Sweetwater farmhouse, centre of McBain’s little community, is in the background. Harmonica figures out the Irishman McBain’s stratagem, (‘lie knew sooner or later that the railroad coming through Flagstone would continue on West. So he looked over all this country out here until he found this hunk of desert. Nobody wanted it, but he bought it. Then he tightened his belt and for years he waited.’) Cheyenne catches on quickly: ‘Aha, he was no fool, our dead friend, huh? He was going to sell this piece of desert for its weight in gold, wasn’t he?’ To which the reply is, ‘You don’t sell the dream of a lifetime.’ McBain is ‘our dead friend’, because agents of the railroad company have massacred him and his entire family – Leone’s most extreme take on what really must have happened to ‘the dream of a lifetime’ and the utopian community which supported it in the films of John Ford.
By the close of Once Upon a Time, the ‘worn-out stereotypes’ of the Western have no further use. The railroad baron Mr Morton, who has tried unsuccessfully to adopt the methods of a gunfighter. never gets to see the Pacific: instead, he dies crawling like a snail towards a puddle in the middle of the desert — the urine of his own puffing and wheezing locomotive. His funeral dirge is the music played earlier when he looked longingly at a painting of the ocean. Prank never succeeds in making the transformation from gunfighter to businessman. At the death, he discovers that he is ‘just a man’, and also discovers exactly who his nemesis is; the harmonica, stuffed into his mouth, plays his death rattle. Cheyenne the romantic Mexican bandit asks Harmonica to turn away, as he dies, gut-shot, just out of sight of Sweetwater. John Ford’s community square dance has turned into a dance of death. Harmonica rides off into the hills, away from the ‘beautiful town’, by now an anachronism. They were all part of the rhetoric of the American Western and they have all played out their roles on the desert stage, only to be destroyed by historical processes.
All, that is, except one — Jill McBain. Whereas the others strut their allotted roles then bow out, she at last has a useful, purposeful role to fulfil: attending to the thirsty railroad workmen. As the mythologies dissolve, she comes into her own. For the one and only time in his filmmaking career, I cone placed a female character at the heart of the action. The world of the ‘Dollars’ films, and their imitators, was exclusively male. With only one or two exceptions, women were restricted to the roles of whores, buxom hotel receptionists, bandidos’ molls or silent Mexican widows living in adobe pueblos on the outskirts of town. Sure, the Italians had managed to make the old-style Western heroine redundant, a definite plus. But in the process they had merely scraped away, in critic Andrew Sarris’s words, ‘the thin veneer of Madonna worship’ to reveal a misogyny ‘never remotely approached even in the wildest of the Freudian Hollywood Westerns’.26
Leone had intended to show Clint Eastwood in bed with a Mexican woman, in a short sequence of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly — but although he filmed it and press stills were issued, the sequence was deleted from the final edit. The same happened with a sequence in For a Few Dollars More where Eastwood goes to bed with a hotel receptionist. It was as if the self-contained, iconic hero would he diminished if he showed his vulnerability in this way. Confronted by accusations of misogyny, Sergio Leone tended to reply that his films were mythic: Homeric, even — concerned with ‘a simple world of adventure and of uncomplicated men — a masculine world’. He would contend that, in the real Wild West, ‘the essential problem was to survive, and women were an obstacle to survival!’ In all his comments on historical research, he never once mentioned the studies of pioneering women (the reprinting of memoirs, letters and diaries; the publication of women’s histories of the frontier process) that were just beginning to emerge in the late 1960s. He regularly scorned the perfunctory presentation of female characters in the classic Hollywood Western: ‘Ever since I was a small boy I’ve seen a lot of Hollywood Westerns where, if you cut the woman’s role out of the film in a version which is going on in your own head, the film becomes far better.’ Leone’s daughter Raffaella defends the apparent indifference to women displayed in his films: ‘When asked why women played such a small part in his films, he’d say, “Well there are three strong women at home — Carla, Raffaella and Francesca — and that’s maybe the reason!” ’ Carla adds: ‘Women had an essential role in his life, so in his films he couldn’t just show them as props.’27
Since Leone was so set on bucking Western conventions, it was appropriate on this occasion to centre the film on a resourceful and powerful woman. ‘Jill represents the water, the promise of the West, the plot revolves around her and she’s the only one who survives.’ But it seems Leone didn’t ‘invent’ this aspect of the story at all. It was Bernardo Bertolucci: ‘I’m still very proud of my contribution to that treatment. I convinced Leone to introduce the character of a woman, for the first time. To accept that character and take her seriously. I worked hard on that.’28 He took Leone to see Johnny Guitar, a film that centres on two remarkable females. But it could still be an uphill struggle: ‘I was talking to him about a scene |involving Charles Bronson, after he has recovered from the gunfight at Cattle Corner Station. It was filmed, but cut from the final version|. The hero goes into a small hotel, throws himself on to the bed, and says to the girl, “ lake off my boots” (and she takes them off), “Massage my feet” (and she starts to massage his feet). This should have been the beginning of an erotic encounter. But Leone interrupted me: “Yeah, yeah. She massages his feet slowly, very slowly … and he falls asleep.” He had a tendency to neutralize the possibility of a sexual relationship.’
In other respects. Bertolucci remembers, Leone didn’t miss a trick. ‘The treatment said that Claudia Cardinale “appears for the first time when she gets down from the train and she’s wearing the latest fashions from New Orleans”. Leone said, “The door of the railroad carriage opens. Focus on the steps of the train. You see the feet coming into view, then the camera gets covered by her skirt, and we realize that she hasn’t got any knickers on.” I think this is beautiful: a person who is immediately connoted, or delineated, by her sex.’29
As Bertolucci recalls, Vienna, Joan Crawford’s character in Johnny Guitar, was the cinematic model for Jill McBain. Claudia Cardinale confirms this. Jill is the dark lady who develops into the fair lady. A stock figure in the classic Western is the ‘dance-hall girl’ (as postwar Hollywood coyly called her) who travelled out West to escape her past. She is usually alienated from the rest of the ‘respectable’ townsfolk, and thus more willing and able to understand the hero’s moral conflicts, to offer sympathy and revive the hero’s (lagging commitment to his ‘crusade’. Yet (unlike the hero, usually) she is deeply committed to town values. Jill McBain evidently grew out of this stock figure. She has come to Sweetwater from one of the finest whorehouses on Bourbon Street. At first she reacts to the threats she encounters by behaving as she would have done back in New Orleans: ‘If you want to, you can lay me over the table and amuse yourself — and even call in your men. Well, no woman ever died from that. When you’ve finished … I’ll be exactly where I was before — with just another filthy memory.’ But, she confides to Cheyenne when she gets to know him better, she had hoped for better things. She describes meeting McBain, ‘who looked like a good man. Clear eyes, strong hands. And he wants to marry you. which doesn’t happen often, and he says he’s rich, which doesn’t hurt. So you think, “Damn you. New Orleans. Now I’ll say yes and go live in the country. I wouldn’t mind giving him half a dozen kids after all. Take care of a house. Do something, what the hell” ’… ‘You deserve better,’ replies Cheyenne. ‘The last man who told me that is buried out there,’ is Jill’s reply.
During this long exchange, cross-cut with a discussion between Morton and Frank, it becomes clear that the rootless Cheyenne would desperately like to treat Jill as some kind of mother-substitute. As he prepares to leave, he sentimentally observes, ‘You know. Jill, you remind me of my mother. She was the biggest whore in Alameda and the finest woman that ever lived. Whoever my father was, for an hour or for a month, he must have been a happy man.’ At their final meeting, towards the end of the story, he approvingly confides, ‘My mother used to make coffee this way — hot, strong and good.’ By this time, Jill has overcome her initial disillusionment and decided to stay and make a go of things: she has changed from whore to pioneering woman, reluctantly believing in the promise of the new Western town.
Jill also becomes ‘earth mother’ to the hot and tired railroad gangs, working just outside her new home: a very Italian conceit. (Claudia Cardinale had appeared five years before as ‘the young girl of the springs’ who offers spa water to depressed film director Marcello Mastroianni, helping to ‘restore him to life’ in Fellini’s 8½.) In truth, she is carefully groomed for this role throughout the film. Cheyenne helps her build and light a fire. Harmonica stops her from packing her bags and returning to New Orleans: he strips her of ’the latest fashions’ she is wearing, leaving her with more practical clothes to fetch water from the Sweetwater well. This extraordinary sequence, which at one point seems to threaten a rape, also shows Harmonica to be Jill’s protector: the stripping removes all traces of white lace from her dark costume, so she will not become a sitting target for Frank’s hit-men. She is still wearing her practical working clothes when Cheyenne takes his final leave of Jill by gently patting her behind — a gesture which associates him with the workmen outside (her ‘sons’) who, he has sheepishly warned her, may occasionally attempt the same (‘You can’t imagine how happy n makes a man feel … Make believe it’s nothing’). As the train pulls in, and both Harmonica and Cheyenne exit, the rail gang gathers around Jill, and history takes over.
Finally, though, whereas the behaviour of all the male characters impacts upon events, Jill McBain remains a rather passive, reactive figure. At no stage in the story, until the very end, docs she take the initiative. But her function in the film is crucial: she brings into focus all the other ‘worn-out stereotypes’ and is the only character to survive and adjust to the modern world. Nevertheless, l cone was presenting her survival at the end with ambiguity: ‘From one point of view, it is optimistic — in that a great nation has been born … It’s been a difficult birth, but all the violence has made the greatness possible. From another point of view, it is pessimistic, undoubtedly — because the West has given way to the great American mFatriarchy, the worship of “Mom”. America has come to be based on this, and the arrival of the railroad ushers in the beginning of a world without balls. The great force in American life — part of its formidable success story — is based on women with iron balls, so to speak. I’m pretty sure that Rockefeller’s grandmother came from a whorehouse in New Orleans.’30
The final result of the many script conferences involving Leone, Bertolucci and Argento was a treatment, or story, consisting mainly of descriptions, suggestions tor visual images, and stage directions. Bertolucci remembers it as ‘huge … about three hundred pages long’. He was then offered the opportunity to direct a half-hour film about myths of theatricality, with Julian Beck and members of the Living Theatre Croup. It was called The Barren Fig Tree, later retitled Agony as part of the portmanteau film Lore and Anger. ‘As I wanted very much to make a film of my own, I divorced myself from the team,” Bertolucci recalls. He proceeded to Partner, adapted from Dostoevsky’s novel The Double, in which the style of mid-1960s Godard was allied to some of the camera movements of Once Upon a Time in the West.
Dario Argento went straight on to contribute to the scripts of several Italian Westerns. On one of these. The Fire Man Army, he directed a few sequences; and, by 1969. he felt ready to make his solo directorial debut, a Hitchcockian suspense film called The Bird with Crystal Plumage. It was, he now confesses, the experience of working on Once Upon a Time in the West which set him on course: ‘I was lucky enough to work near Leone. I don’t think he particularly wanted to be my maestro — he isn’t the kind of person who surrounds himself with apprentices — but his knowledge transmits itself… When I started on my debut film, I followed the lesson of Sergio and took on a lot of beginners amongst whom there was cinematographer Vittorio Storaro … However, for the music I called in Ennio Morricone. This was another thing I’d learned from Sergio.’31
The conferences took place from January to April 1967- Midway through this period, on 9 March, Carla Leone gave birth to a son, Andrea. It was fortunate that Sergio had already named his production company Rafran, because Andrea’s name could also be incorporated into it — to join Raffaella and Francesca. Or maybe Leone had that in mind all along. Sergio Donati quipped that ‘he had to call him Andrea; either that or change the company’s name’.32
But Donati was by now feeling very bitter. He had spent months working uncredited on The Good, The Bad and The Ugly with the promise of writing the script of Sergio Leone’s next film. But he had heard nothing since December: ‘I refused every offer. And I waited — January, February, March — near the phone … And then I understood that ho was working with Argento and Bertolucci. But not a word. And then, at the end of April, ring, ring! Sergio said to me, “The two intellectuals, they abandoned work. How can we go and make a movie?” He seemed disappointed by them. I was very offended.’33 This feeling deepened the more Donati heard Leone refer dismissively to ‘my old scriptwriters’ (Vincenzoni and Donati). As Donati saw it, Leone may have been ‘aware that cinema was changing’, that it was the time to be talking about Brecht and Cahiers du Cinéma, but that did not absolve him from his obligation to the writers who had helped to make his name. ‘So I stayed with Sergio for two weeks, together, to make the skeleton, the outline, to tell each other the scenes very clearly. That was really a state of a farce. I never met Bertolucci and Argento at that time. The story they produced was not so gigantic. It was eighty pages. Then 1 wrote the whole script in twenty-five days, I think. Working like hell, scarcely getting up from my seat. And 1 had to rewrite just two things. If you read the shooting script, everything was shot exactly as in the script. Including the fly at the station.’34
The reason Sergio Donati emphasizes ‘the fly’ is that Dario Argento subsequently claimed this aspect of the opening sequence as his idea; and further that he had a hand in the ‘screenplay’ rather than just the initial treatment.35 This still infuriates Donati, who observes that Argento couldn’t even say with certainty what colour the cover of the screenplay was, because he never set eyes on it. ‘I’m very angry about Argento’s behaviour: Bertolucci, though, always told the truth.’36
So, what was the state of the treatment when Donati received it? ‘All his intentions were in there, but it was slow and rhetorical … It was not Sergio Leone. There were very good intentions, but no substance.’ Donati, whose early fiction reveals a fondness for the romantic, injected some of this flavour into the script. He had previously written a treatment for a Western, in which the protagonist, unbeknown to the audience or the townspeople, is slowly dying over twenty-four hours, due to a gunshot wound in the belly. This fate was reserved for Cheyenne in the new script. ‘The best thing I did, I guess, was to give a meaning to the story of Once Upon a Time in the West. I mean, this railroad which unites one ocean to the other one is the end of the frontier, the end of adventure, the end of the lonely hero and so on. This was much of me. And I invented the man with no legs, this Mr Morton who wants to reach the other ocean.’37
‘I put together the kind of script Leone likes — with interminable descriptions, allusive dialogue, long biographies of the characters, and many different suggestions on how to direct the sequences. He often said to me, “When you’re writing a script, you should give me as many options as you possibly can.” We always had to indicate three or four different possibilities, so he could choose which one to use when he was actually setting up the scene. I fought against many things which are still in the film — some of which turned out to be pretty good. For instance, the interminable scene in the saloon in the desert, where nothing happens. As for the final duel. I did manage to persuade Sergio to make it slightly shorter than the ones in his previous films — in fact I would even have left the duel outside the camera’s field of vision, and just shown Claudia Cardinale’s reactions to it.’38
Some elements of the treatment survived the transition, especially those that happen before the story gets going. When Bertolucci saw the finished film he recognized certain sequences: ‘There was one part which was miraculously similar to what I had written. It was the part where the family is waiting tor Claudia Cardinale to arrive, and they are putting cakes on some tables out of doors. (There was no dialogue. I wrote it thinking about The Searchers.) I remember some pages where with great detail I’d described the sounds of the cicadas which were interrupted by these very worrying silences — and then the white duster coats, and dust clouds, of the bandits who came out of the cornfields. I had written “cornfields” because I had brought the West into my Emilian countryside.’39
The unusual gestation of the story and screenplay might explain, in turn, why the finished film is so full of ‘quotes from all the Westerns I love’ — or, as Sergio Leone put it, such a mosaic made up of ‘references to individual Westerns’. This can be seen as the first truly postmodernist movie, made by a cinéaste for cinéastes. It begins with High Noon and The Iron Horse, and moves on to Shane, Pursued and The Searchers. The characters in the early sequences include John lord’s statuesque black actor Woody Strode, the wall—eyed heavy of countless 1950s Westerns. Jack Elam, and a man playing a harmonica — like Silent Tongue in Run of the Arrow or, as I cone put it, ‘Bronson’s harmonica is also Johnny’s guitar’. Once Henry Fonda has appeared on the scene — ‘the glacial Fonda in my film is the legitimate son of the intuition which John Ford brought to Fort Apache’ — and Jill has taken her buggy-ride through Monument Valley, the middle sequences refer to Winchester ’73 (the trading post), Shane again (the funeral), Johnny Guitar (the wooden model of the railroad), and Warlock (Cheyenne’s search for a mother). The character of crippled railroad baron Mr Morton is derived from a succession of wheelchair-confined patriarchs who try to run their landholdings with a rod of iron in 1940s and 1950s Westerns. The debate about business and gunplay nods in the direction of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, while Jill’s preparation for her role as water-bearer resembles the equivalent scene in Man of the West. Cheyenne’s unusual way of travelling on Morton’s train is from Man Without a Star, the auction again refers to Liberty Valance and 1-rank’s cautious walk down the Flagstone street recalls Rio Bravo. Mr Morton’s death is from Western Union, Cheyenne’s conversation about Jill being patted on the behind is from Jubal, Harmonica whittling on a piece of wood is from The Magnificent Seven and the final duel is edited just like the last reel of The Last Sunset. The ending comes from the ’end of track’ in John Ford’s The Iron Horse. All in all, there were about thirty references to other Hollywood Westerns — confirmed by at least one of the participants in the pre-production meetings.
Amid the numerous citations, there was also to be an element of self-homage in the final duel: As Leone remembered, ‘It is there that Lee kills Gian Maria Volonté in For a Few Dollars More, that Clint, Eli and Lee face each other in The Good. The Bad and The Ugly — there, too, that Bronson triumphs over Fonda. It is the arena of life, the moment of truth, and that’s why I included the shot where you see all that rocky- pass behind Bronson and Fonda.’ Leone wanted even more extreme Techniscope close-ups than before; there was evidently not going to be a rapprochement with the classic Western on this score: ‘It is because the eyes are the most important element to me. Everything can be read in them. When Fonda kills his adversaries on the street of Flagstone, helped by Bronson on the balcony, and he looks up at him, all his character, all his problems are in that look, and also the announcement of his end — for nothing will count from now on but to understand what Bronson wants.’40
Leone took time out from his work on the screenplay to play a part in an Italian Western — his first appearance in front of a camera since The Bicycle Thieves of twenty years before. He was invited to appear by his old friend the French actor Robert Hossein, who was directing and starring in Cemetery Without Crosses (1967, co-written by Dario Argento), and who aimed in the film to include some ‘typically Leonian moments’. Carla Leone remembers how excited Sergio was about the project: ‘Sergio loved him a lot, because Hossein was completely crazy. Simpatico, a fascinating man. His father Andre used to write music for movie soundtracks… Hossein asked him to be as bold as he liked with the role, although Sergio didn’t participate in the making of the film.’41
Cemetery Without Crosses is about a footloose Mexican gunfighter called Manuel, who gets revenge on a wealthy rancher called Will Rogers for lynching his best friend — the husband of his beloved Maria (Michèle Mercier). The film owes a lot to Johnny Guitar, so Argento must have been taking notes. In one sequence, Manuel (Hossein) hitches up his horse and strides into a seedy Wild West hotel. The hotel clerk is a short, rotund man in wire glasses, white shirt, waistcoat and string bow-tie, with a short beard (plus a bald wig). This is Sergio Leone. He smokes a cigar, reads a newspaper, doesn’t look up. even as he says offhandedly, ‘That’ll be a dollar for the room and fifty cents more if you’re planning to take a bath.’ A noisy row is going on upstairs (‘I want my money’/‘Go to hell’). Manuel looks up, but the clerk, oblivious, just spits, bites on his cigar and says, ‘Pay me the money now.’ But he then raises his eyes slowly, as a slap is heard in the upstairs room. ‘That’s all you’re getting,’ says a man’s voice. ‘Get outta here.’ A furious girl rushes down the stairs shouting, ‘Scum! Pig! His old man and brothers are all bastards!’ The clerk gets the key and leads Manuel up the stairs, still ignoring the mayhem. As the girl meets him halfway, she says, ‘I’ll make him pay for this — I’ll get him,’ and a woman’s coat flies out of the door, landing in the clerk’s face. He looks up disapprovingly, removes his cigar and says, ‘Go on now, I don’t want trouble with Rogers.’ The sequence lasts just over a minute, and is an explicit parody of the equivalent scene in For a Few Dollars More, which of course was parodic in the first place. No wonder Cemetery Without Crosses was dedicated to Sergio Leone. Leone’s slow-burning performance gives an idea of how he liked such parts to be played. But he had no illusions about his acting talent: ‘When I saw myself in the film’, he said. ‘I decided I would not repeat the experience: the horses acted better than I did.’ He chose to conserve what thespian gifts he had in future for miming and acting out roles for the actors he was directing.
Meanwhile, Leone was busy distancing himself from the world of ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ as he negotiated with major Hollywood stars. In a television interview for a French news programme in spring 1967, dressed in a smart suit and tie, he told a reporter excitedly, ‘We’ll he shooting in Monument Valley, with some scenes in Spain because we can use old trains and railroads there. It’ll cost about $4 million and we have Italian actors Claudia Cardinale and Enrico Maria Salerno (the original Mr Morton] and also the Americans Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Frank Wolff, Robert Ryan [the original sheriff], Jack Elam, Woody Strode and many others.’ He pronounced Woody Strode as ‘Woody Strody’ and his hand was shaking. But Fonda was at the top of the list: ‘To play the character of Frank, a very bad man, I wanted an unexpected actor. Frank is an outlaw with political ambitions: a totally ignoble assassin. And to act the part of such a bad man I needed someone who had always represented “the good”. I needed Henry Fonda.’42
Of course, Leone had previously courted Fonda but had been unable to get around the actor’s agent. Now he had an indisputable reputation, but there were still problems. Fonda had recently played the part of an ageing villain in Ftrecreek (1967), but Leone’s script went much further in its presentation of ‘the meanest man you ever saw’. The version Fonda received was written in stilted English, a direct translation of Donaci’s words: ‘I didn’t dig it and I turned it down. I told the fellas I was lunching with that some Italian producer was flying in to try to talk me into doing it. “Who?” they asked. “Sergio somebody.” “Sergio Leone?” I said yes, and they all fell down. Seems Sergio Leone had made the three biggest box-office pictures to come out of Italy … Well, I went home and called an old, valued friend, Eli Wallach. I told him I wasn’t wild about the script. “Pay no attention to the script,” Eli told me enthusiastically. “Just go. You’ll fall in love with Sergio. You’ll have a marvellous time. Believe me!” ’43
So Fonda agreed to meet Leone in person, with Eli Wallach’s friend Mickey Knox as interpreter. He was sent a new translation of the script, prepared by Knox. Fonda’s first words, as the director later remembered them, were ‘I’m used to the old methods. I can always turn down a film offer. But if I accept, I like to give full authority to the director. That’s how it is. Now, before I agree to anything I’d like to sec your films.’44 Leone was usually at his worst when meeting a charismatic actor for the first time, and his lack of confidence tended to make him seem abrupt and diffident. But this time, Fonda had pressed exactly the right button. Evidently he was an excellent judge of character. Whether or not Fonda actually offered to ‘give full authority to the director’, he had evidently sussed the best way of putting Leone at his ease. According to Mickey Knox, “The meeting was very cordial.’45 So, Leone recalled, ‘Early one morning, in a private projection room in Hollywood, with the patience of a saint he saw without interruption Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. When he came out, it was already late afternoon. “Where’s the contract?” was the first thing he said.’46 In fact, Fonda stopped short after ‘about half of the third one’. Rut by the end of this marathon. he was suitably impressed (‘I had a lot of fun, all by myself. I thought they were funny and entertaining in every possible way.’) and was satisfied that Eli Wallach had not been wrong.
Fonda described his preparations for the part at an American Film Institute seminar in autumn 1973: ‘Now, I read the script again, and I know that the guy he wants me to play is a heavy … So I went over to a guy in the Valley, an optometrist, and I had myself fitted for contact lenses that would make my eyes dark — because I didn’t think my baby blues would be the proper look for this heavy character. I grew a moustache which was little bit like John Booth’s, who shot Lincoln.’ Thus transformed, Fonda arrived in Rome. He recounts what happened next m Ins autobiography My life: ‘Sergio, w ho spoke no English, took one look at me and let loose a volley of rapid-fire Italian, gesturing wildly with his hands and arms as he spoke. An interpreter stood beside him and the first word in English I heard was “Shave!” And the next thing was “Throw away the brown eyes. Where are the big blues? That’s what I bought.” ’47 Leone was to remember that he got his way by more subtle means: ‘I said nothing to him about it. I delayed the filming of his scenes. Each day, I suggested that he remove one of the elements which were masking him. First the thick black eyebrows. Then the moustache. Finally, where his eyes were concerned, I said that his contact lenses made his “look” vacant, lie listened to all these suggestions without appearing to agree with them.’48
But in retrospect, both Fonda and Leone recalled that it was during the filming of the McBain family massacre that the penny finally dropped. I his was not the first of Fonda’s scenes to be filmed, but it was the first where he grasped Leone’s intention. Until then he’d just been ‘doing what he was asked to do’. ‘There’s this happy rancher and his family. They’re getting ready to eat outside their cabin, smiling, laughing. A shot rings out and the eighteen-year-old daughter of the family falls dead with a bullet through her eye. Her father looks up and a bullet gets him right in the forehead … A six teen-year-old youth comes out of the barn and bam! He’s dead. That leaves a nine-year-old boy standing in the middle of the worst massacre you can imagine. The camera cuts to a long shot and from behind the sagebrush on the desert come five ominous figures, all wearing long gray [actually brown] dusters. black, wide-brimmed hats, and they’re carrying rifles and side arms. Slowly, they converge on this little boy. Cut to him. Cut to the advancing men. Cut to the terror in the kid’s eyes. Cut to the back of the central figure of the five desperadoes. Very slowly the camera comes around and that’s what Sergio was going for all the time. The main heavy. “Jesus Christ, it’s Henry Fonda!” ’49
Leone elaborated: ‘ “Now I understand!” he said to me … The audience would be struck in an instant by this profound contrast between the pitiless character Fonda is playing and Fonda’s face, a face which for so many years has symbolized justice and goodness.’ He wanted to build on ‘the intuition which John Ford bought to hart Apache’ when he cast Fonda as ‘an unpleasant, authoritarian colonel who violates moral codes and treaties with the Indians’. This man Leone wanted as Ins smiling, blue-eyed child killer. As lie liked to put it, with a measure of dramatic exaggeration, ’The vice-presidents of the companies I have had dealings with have all had baby-blue eyes and honest faces and what sons of bitches they turned out to be! Besides, Fonda is no saint himself. He has had five wives. The last one fell out of a window while trying to murder him. He stepped over her body and went to the theatre to act his part in Mr Roberts as if nothing whatever had happened.’50
From then on, Fonda became much more confident in his relationship with the director. As Leone noted with some amazement, ‘lie didn’t behave at all with the temperament of a star, he was as docile as a child.’ He seemed obsessed with the finer points of his craft: ‘I was surprised by his requests for directions. If he had to hold a glass, he would ask me, “Do I use my right hand or my left?” It was the same with each shot … At one such moment. I called over the interpreter so we could clear things up between us. “Let Henry know that I’ve spent all my life worshipping him as an actor. Today, my dream has come true and I am directing him in one of my films. But he never stops asking me about completely futile details. Is he mocking me? I rate him so highly as an actor that I simply don’t understand why he is asking me such utterly banal questions. He could easily resolve such problems without me.” Then Fonda replied, “Leone is right, but he must understand that I’ve always been a highly disciplined actor. I think of myself .is a soldier taking orders from a general who is the director. And I don’t have the right to make the slightest mistake.” ’51
Leone remembered, ‘Hank seemed uneasy, uprooted m his unaccustomed role, as if he were embarrassed at finding himself in this different kind of part and it seemed to me that he was reacting with a performance which was monotonous and undeveloped. Then finally I saw the rushes and it was my turn to say, “Now I understand!” He had created such a mosaic of subtleties in his expressions; he had designed a character so real and human that he ran the risk of having his personality overwhelm the other actors around him.’52
Sometimes Fonda’s uneasiness comes over m his performance: but it fits his character’s frustration at working for someone he doesn’t respect. Still, other difficulties surfaced, Henry Fonda didn’t like working with horses, least of all mounting them. He took some persuading that he was expected to act while a tape played Ennio Morricone’s music, even though this helped to bridge language difficulties. And Leone had problems w hen dressing him: ‘No matter what I put on him — even the most worn-out old rags — he always seemed a prince, with his noble walk and aristocratic bearing … his way of placing one foot m front of the other has an unequalled aesthetic effect.’ Mickey Knox is still amused by the memory of these sessions: ‘I’ll never forget Sergio and Henry Fonda trying to find a proper hat for Fonda. I was with them. They tried hundreds of hats for hours.’53
Where Fonda was concerned, the main difficulty was that Leone worked all hours of the day and then some, so there was a danger he would become tired out. As Eli Wallach had also discovered, the sequences shot in Italy and Spain didn’t seem to pay too much attention to union regulations. Mickey Knox, who was on the set as interpreter and translator of the English-language version, recalls that ‘the normal working day was fifteen to seventeen hours … Leone hated to quit shooting at the end of a day. He always argued with the production manager, saying, “What are you talking about? We have only been shooting for eight hours. It’s not finished yet.” Well |Henry Fonda) didn’t like it too much. He complained a bit, and Leone tried to make it easier for him.’54
‘Normally’, Leone recalled, ‘I need few rehearsals for a take — four or five — to be sure the scene is good. With Fonda I could have done with less, but I always ended up taking a dozen. I never tired of it; yet it wasn’t false adulation. I risked exhausting him [Fonda was sixty-three at the time] and tiring myself as well, but the temptation and the pleasure of working with him were so great.’55 John Landis, who as a young man found himself in Almeria doing some stunts on the film, recalls overhearing a typical conversation: ‘Sergio Leone made a long, long speech. “’Ank . . . ‘Ank,” he said, “I want you to do this with your hands.” To which Fonda replied, “Sergio, you say, ‘Action’, I’ll draw the gun, and then you say ‘Cut”, okay?” ’56 After hours of this, the two men would sometimes discuss painting. Fonda’s own paintings, Leone felt, ‘reminded me a little of the Italian “magic realist” painters’. Their combination of meticulous technique and fantasy (‘a kind of silent creativity without indecision’) helped Leone to understand what made the actor tick. God, in both cases, was most definitely in the details.
While in Los Angeles wooing Fonda, Leone had made his pitch for the role of Harmonica, in inimitable style, to Clint Eastwood. Evidently the months following the dub of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly had made the heart grow slightly fonder. According to Eastwood, Leone delightedly acted out every single moment of the opening sequence for him. After some fifteen minutes, the actor interrupted him: ‘Wait a second, where are we headed with this?” When he found out, he decided that Once Upon a Time was definitely not for him.57 Leone made the same pitch to James Coburn, with a similar result, he also thought about Terence Stamp for the part. Early on in the project, the names of Rock Hudson and Warren Beatty were mentioned to him, but he was certain the audience would roar: ‘What the fuck is going on? They’re ruining the atmosphere!’58 Leone finally decided that the face of forty-six-year-old Charles Bronson would provide a much more suitable climax to the opening sequence — even though the actor had never had a starring role before. Bronson was known as a character actor, specializing in ethnic lough guys, lie had already played his fair share of native Americans: Hondo in Aldrich’s Apache and the half-breed Captain Jack in Drum Beat, both in 1954; the Sioux Blue Buffalo m Sam Fuller’s Run of the Arrow (1957) and the Mexican Indian Teclo in Guns for San Sebastian (1967). For Drum Heat, he had changed his surname from Buchinsky, which had an ‘un-American’ sound to it at precisely the wrong time in Hollywood. But in all this work, Bronson had been, by his own estimation, no more than ‘the anchorman’, his name always appearing after the leads’. As he told Leone when they met in Los Angeles, he was disillusioned with the work he was being offered, and had resolved to leave Hollywood for Europe.59
Leone’s longstanding desire to cast Bronson hinged upon his physiognomy. As Jean-Luc Godard once wrote of Gary Cooper’s face, ‘it belongs to the mineral kingdom’. Returning to one of his favourite riffs, Leone reckoned of Bronson, ‘He is Destiny … a sort of granite block, impenetrable but marked by life. I met many important people in the States — businessmen, heads of corporations — frankly, people who were even harder than the Bronson character. And they have exactly the same smile as Charles Bronson; menacing, unsettling.’60 This was precisely what Leone required for the pan: ‘A face made of marble. A half- breed who implacably pursues his revenge. A man who knows just how long to wait, before he kills the man responsible for the death of his brother. Since he is an Indian, he already hates the white man. And he w ill torture Frank with the names of all his victims. But he must always have an impassive look on his face. He doesn’t talk much. He expresses his sadness with the harmonica. His music is a lament which comes from deep down. It is visceral — attached to an ancestral memory.’61 As the last descendant of ‘an ancient race’, the character is identified only by that harmonica lament: he truly is a Man with No Name.
In 1967, Leone recalled. Paramount executives ‘wanted to lock me up in an asylum’ for suggesting Bronson’s name in preference to ‘all the stars on offer’. This had been one of the reasons he broke off negotiations with United Artists. But Paramount eventually agreed. Charles Bluhdorn was still keen to give Leone his head and his minions were too scared to contradict him. Once on board, Bronson was pleasantly surprised by Leone’s evident intelligence, and his exhaustive knowledge of the Western, though he didn’t necessarily share the director’s grand design for the picture, it was never a question of showing Americans how to make a Western,’ Bronson reflected. He felt that Leone’s films were ’destined for a strictly European audience, and particularly an Italian one … Italians love violence and can laugh at it… Above all, these films amuse them.’62 Bronson was tutored by harmonica soloist Franco De Gemini about ‘how to put his hands around the instrument, how to breathe, etc.’63 Most of Bronson’s discussions with the director, though, were about how he should move. As a figure of ‘Destiny’, his presence is vaguely supernatural: always there, just out of shot, ready to appear when he is needed. At such times, he seems to slide into frame: from behind a railway carriage, or a post, or seen through a window. He is usually photographed in profile, and in extreme close-up. During the final duel, the camera zooms slowly into Bronson’s piercing blue eyes, and lingers for some twenty-two seconds, in the tightest close-up of any Leone film. Claudia Cardinale recalls of Charles Bronson’s behaviour off-camera: ‘He is a very solitary person. He sat around with his cap pulled down over his eyes so as not to have to see anyone and not to have to greet anyone. He always had a rubber ball in his hand which he would bounce continuously. It was difficult to get a smile out of him. We got along fine, though, maybe because I am an introvert too.’64
If Harmonica is presented to us as an avenging ghost, Cheyenne, the chaotic ‘romantic bandit’, usually appears within the frame of a doorway accompanied by the amplified sound of slamming doors. He is never truly at home; out of doors he is always on the run, indoors he moves very slowly. His most dramatic shift from one terrain to the other occurs when he flees the plush interior of Mr Morton’s railroad carriage by using the lavatory’s chain as a stirrup, the sound of the flush his departing fanfare. Leone had the forty-seven-year-old Jason Robards in mind from the outset: ‘The part was tailor-made for him. The character is a mixture of several contradictory sentiments. At the beginning of the film, he doesn’t seem very bright. But the scene on the train [where Cheyenne travels beneath the carriage, and later fires a gun which is hidden in his boot] demonstrates to us how resourceful and intelligent he can be. Even if he comes over in an almost grotesque way, lie is filled with a kind of reality which reinforces his mythic status. He knows that he belongs to a world which has to perish. And Jason Robards was as close to him as anyone could be.’65
Like Leone, Jason Robards Jr was the son of an actor in silent films. Having graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, he made his name in two revivals of Eugene O’Neill, The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night, during the early 1960s reappraisal of O’Neill’s work. His first film which attracted critical attention was a straightforward adaptation of Long Day’s Journey where he played the heavy-drinking, self-destructive Jamie Tyrone. Leone first saw him on the Broadway stage: ‘I was completely won over. He’s an astonishing actor. He comes over as having an unsettling force of character inside him, combined with a romantic look. It is true that he looks like Humphrey Bogart but he could also play Leslie Howard roles, which Bogart couldn’t.’66
Sergio Donati wasn’t so sure that Robards would suit the part of Cheyenne, to which he felt particularly attached: ‘Robards is a great theatre actor, someone whom the technicians applaud when he’s finished filming a scene … He’s one of those actors who, in the industry phrase, doesn’t translate to the big screen. He hasn’t got any eyes, I think that’s Ins problem.’67 And, for Leone, he would have to use his eyes a lot. Moreover, Robards had a reputation for being difficult to work with, Leone already had first-hand experience of the problems that might lie ahead: ‘When we had our first interview, Robards arrived completely drunk. I was disillusioned. And so I left. His agent begged me to give him a second chance. I agreed, but added, “If Robards is ever drunk on set. I’ll break the contract. And if that happens you, his agent, must undertake to pay for every single scene I’m obliged to reshoot with a replacement actor.” But there was no problem at all. Even if he drank all night, Robards was always on the set, punctually and professionally.’ On only one extraordinary occasion did Robards interrupt the shooting, as Leone remembers: ‘We had learned about the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Robards broke down and cried. He came to ask me if we would be continuing to work that day. It was one o’clock in the afternoon. I shut down everything until the next day. Honestly, Jason was an exceptional man: a thin skin, a disillusioned romantic and an actor of genius!’68
At the time of his casting, Robards had only one previous Western to his credit (the sedentary Big Hand for the Little Lady in 1966), but this inexperience proved useful to his character. At one point, Cheyenne’s horse gallops away from Sweetwater before he is fully in the saddle, an uncool exit which contrasts with Frank’s slow, deliberate style of horsemanship. In the shooting script Cheyenne is described on a Wanted poster as ‘Manuel Cheyenne Gutierrez.’ but in the film, with his gravelly American voice, Robards never for one moment convinces as a Mexican bandit. Leone was to say he had a particularly soft spot for Cheyenne as ‘the same type of person as Eli Wallach in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: but there is more warmth in him, a humanity which, with a mixture of drollery and sadness, gives him a particular philosophy of life’. At one point Cheyenne says to Jill, ‘I’ll kill anything — but never a kid. Be like killing a priest; a Catholic priest that is.’ Robards’s style of acting — verging on self-parody even when he is being macho — reflects this. In the last reel, he stands outside the main action, looking at himself in a shaving mirror: the only bandit in a Leone film not to be a player in the final game. His duel with ‘Mr Choo Choo’ has taken place offstage, and has been a fumbled, almost accidental affair.
According to executive producer Fulvio Morsella, who oversaw some of the post-synchronization, Robards turned our to be ‘one of the greatest dubbers I ever saw … When you listened to the tape of the dubbing, which you had to many times, you couldn’t recognize his voice because he changed it so often. “You want me to sound like this or like that?” he’d say. He could really use his voice.’69
The male leads were unusually mature for an Italian Western: Fonda was sixty-three, Bronson and Robards in their late forties. Spaghettis, post-Fistful, had become associated with youthfulness. But at least Leone had the twenty-nine-year-old Tunisian-Italian Claudia Cardinale: the woman described by David Niven, in typically suave style, as ‘after spaghetti, Italy’s happiest invention’. Nevertheless, Leone was relieved that she was not too Italian. At an early stage in the project, Carlo Ponti had been interested in participating, and unsurprisingly proposed Sophia Loren for the part. Leone said, ‘I somehow couldn’t see her as a tart from New Orleans.’70
Cardinale had made her first film appearances in France, after winning a local beauty contest. Introduced to Italian audiences in Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), she had attracted critical attention, aged twenty, as the beleaguered teenage mother in Visconti’s Rocco; then in Fellini’s 8½. Groomed for stardom following the departure of Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren for Hollywood, she’d featured in multinational productions such as Cartouche (1962), The Leopard (1963), Samuel Bronston’s The Magnificent Showman (1964), Blake Edwards’s The Pink Panther (1964) and Richard Brooks’s The Professionals (1966). Married by then to producer Franco Cristaldi, Cardinale had nevertheless not entered the Lollobrigida-Loren league, and was being cast largely to inject sophistication, to display a ‘Latin’ temperament, and to wear low-cut dresses. Her sex-goddess image was reinforced by Visconti who, in selling The Leopard, said of her: ‘She is a splendid cat, stretched out on the vast couch, waiting to be petted — but watch out! The cat will become a tiger.’ Still, Fellini had seen her potential as an earth-mother figure in 8½ and it was this very Italian combination which made her ‘credible’, in Leone’s eyes, to play his tart-cum-water-bearer. She also represented, above the line, a star who would satisfy the Italian investors.
For Cardinale, Leone’s huge, charismatic, trademark close-ups were a large part of her attraction to the piece, and she found him a generous employer: ‘Sergio worked with me in an affectionate, intelligent way: every time I had to act a scene, he would put on my music, the music for my character. And this really helped me to concentrate, to remove myself from the real world.’71 Cardinale had already been introduced to the score when l.cone called on her, tape in hand, to act out the part he wanted her to play: ‘While he was speaking, we were listening together to the music of the Him. And, while I listened, I understood every moment of the Him, shot by shot, before seeing any of it on the screen.’ They also shared an appreciation of the culinary arts. After a long day’s shooting, Leone would talk Him with her in a Roman or American restaurant: ‘The pleasure of Sergio was watching me eat a huge number of things. Me was watching me as I ate. happy because he was always saying that he couldn’t. But then, he would be eating as well — and a lot.’72
Cardinale also found the locations helpful to characterizations ‘When we went to work in Monument Valley, that majestic, beautiful place communicated a certain kind of emotion. We were staying in a motel (the Goulding Trading Post, where John Ford and his repertory company had stayed) in the middle of nowhere, practically the only people there. We didn’t have much contact with the Americans: actually, we had more contact with the Navajo Indians when we went to film on their reservation — discreet people, silent, observing us from a distance. Sergio, in that kind of environment, felt it was his — he was really happy — like a small child, euphoric.’73
However, Cardinale’s first scene (indeed, the first of the film to be shot, in April 1968) took her to Cinecittà. There, Leone was less in his element. It was the scene where Frank is lying on a suspended bed, on top of the naked Jill, who is desperately fighting for her life (‘What a little tramp. Is there anything in the world you wouldn’t do to save your skin?’/‘Nothing, Frank’). It was an unusual scene with which to begin a long schedule. The set was closed to all but the fifty- strong crew, and the scene took two days to shoot. But Paramount’s publicists had hyped it as ‘the first true love scene of Henry Fonda’s entire career’, and called a press conference just before the cameras rolled. It was, said Cardinale, like being on a theatre stage in a very uncomfortable pose while an audience of not-very-interested strangers stared at you. Cardinale observed Fonda’s evident embarrassment and was, she recalled, rather embarrassed on his behalf. ‘Mr Leone introduced me to Henry Fonda. We’d never met before. We shook hands, said our polite “How do you dos” and soon after, there we were on the bed together and making passionate love in front of a camera.’74
Before shooting began, Cardinale bad had a private discussion with Leone about whether it was absolutely essential for her to take all her clothes off: I said, “I think it is a bigger challenge to look sexy with one’s clothes on, or at least some.” Sergio replied, “It would look pretty silly for a girl to be making love on a bed with her clothes on, wouldn’t it?” And we argued. Eventually, Sergio said, “Are you an actress or not? If you are the actress I believe you to be, you will not even notice you’re nude once you begin acting the scene.” And so he got his way.’75 Following late 196os movie conventions, Henry Fonda kept his shirt on; Claudia Cardinale removed her corsets. For the later scene, where Jill lounges in the bathtub of a Flagstone hotel room, they compromised on ‘flesh-coloured panties’. ‘I kept praying that the soap bubbles would not suddenly disappear … and when I got out of the bath, clutching a towel and continuing to act, I kept wondering, “Am I properly covered?” It was a risky scene.’76
Leone was taking risks of his own. He was filming the ‘first true love scene’ of his career, too. If Henry Fonda looked embarrassed, Sergio Leone might have been feeling equally so. Cardinale remembers him ‘betraying his tension by always playing with something in his hands, a pack of cigarettes, matches, whatever … Sometimes I would come up behind him and block his hands!’77 Leone was to concede that he ‘did have some problems filming the love scenes, but Claudia helped me a great deal. She behaved as if she had a man of twenty-five lying on top of her instead of sixty-five — and he played the scene with his usual tact and discretion.’78
For Tonino Valerii, this film, like the ‘Dollars’ trilogy, continued to show that Leone ‘didn’t really understand the woman’s psychology … Look, the Claudia Cardinale character is taken identically from Johnny Guitar. The situation is the same, the character is the same. The big difference is that Claudia has to sleep with an old man who is Henry Fonda. This is misogyny, no? Leone had difficulty relating to women characters, probably because of his relationship with his mother. I heard him say once that the only relationships which interested him were masculine friendships. Always.’79 But at least Cardinale was content that the film’s events all revolved around her character; and she especially liked Jill McBain’s ‘grit, and her determination. She knows what she wants and she sticks to it until she gets it. You don’t find many women’s parts like that in Westerns.’80
For the boss of the A. and P.H. Morton Railroad Company, Leone eventually chose a distinguished stage actor, well known in Italian films since the Fascist era. Rome-born Gabriele Ferzetti had been a matinée idol in the 1950s, playing authorized versions of historical figures in Puccini (1952), Giacomo Casanova (1954) and Donatello (1956). He had become recognizable internationally via Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), and was Lot in John Huston’s The Bible (1966) but his film career was coasting. To theatre critics, Ferzetti was renowned for his ‘patrician manner’. This was his first appearance in a Cinecittá-style movie, and, whereas the Americans in the cast were happy to follow Leone’s lead and simply ‘be’, Ferzetti was evidently giving a ‘performance’. At times, this gave the impression that Ferzetti was slumming it in an Italian Western, which, happily, fitted the character he was playing.
Sergio Leone knew (from his viewing of The Iron Horse if from nowhere else) that no single railroad company had ever attempted to lay tracks across the whole continent of America in the 1860s. Yet Mr Morton, the archcty pal capitalist, starts his grand project in sight of the Atlantic, and hopes to see the Pacific before creeping ‘tuberculosis of the bones’ kills him. So, like all the other main characters m the film, he represents, as Leone explained, something which refers to history but is not strictly part of it. His name (like Mortimer in For a Few Dollars More) show’s that he has something to do with death. In his case, this something takes the form of a trail of slime he leaves behind him, snail-like: ‘two beautiful shiny rails1. Leone went on to explain that ‘like Bronson, Ferzetti’s character is centred on a single goal — to arrive with his train at the Pacific, and knowing as he does, like the others (more even than the others, because he is so ill), that he is condemned.’81
On set, Leone relied for atmosphere upon tapes of Ennio Morricone’s main musical themes, which, this time, had all been written, performed and recorded in advance: ‘Everyone acted with the music, followed its rhythm, and suffered with its “aggravating” qualities, which grind the nerves.’82 Sergio Donati remembers vividly a particular instance: The music was played for the scene when Claudia arrives and there are the dead people laid out on the tables. It was in Almeria, it was sunset and everybody on the set was crying. Even the grips, the tough guys were crying.’83 Morricone’s music inspired Leone’s choreography. The composer remembers, ‘I believe Sergio regulated the speed of the crane which follows Claudia Cardinale when she comes out of the station, in time with the musical crescendo.’84
The music was slower in tempo than usual, more stately, with less variations; and there was much more of it. This time, there was no ‘sproing!’ of the maranzano, no grunting chorus, no whipcracks, pistol shots or bird cries to punctuate the driving rhythms. Leone was deliberately getting away from the riot of imagery in his earlier Westerns, and the music, which resembled a 1940s Hollywood score at times, matched this change of emphasis. The expansive main title theme summoned the wide open spaces, the arrival of the railroad and, with added glockenspiel, the character of Jill McBain. There was an ominous trumpet dirge, sometimes played on amplified guitar, with harmonica w’ails superimposed: this was called ‘As a Judgement’, and accompanied the McBain family massacre and the final duel (as well as appearances by Harmonica and Frank). Cheyenne’s character had a casual clip-clopping piano and banjo melody. A rough-and-ready barroom stomp entitled ‘Bad Orchestra’, played on slide-whistle, tuba, ban|o and violin, was prepared for the arrival at the fledgling town of Flagstone. Meanwhile, Morton was afforded an optimistic ‘Pacific’ theme, with piano rumblings breaking in with the sound of waves; and solo harmonica laments, played by Franco I)c Gemini, ‘spoke’ for Bronson’s character. The harmonica was for Morricone ‘a nostalgic campfire instrument that American composers have always associated with the solitude of the country’, hut for Leone it was ‘more sinister’, played with the hands cupped over the microphone in the style of a blues musician — only much, much slower. Morricone delightedly claimed that for this film, ‘finally, we were just about liberated from the deguello’. And yet, the trumpet-dirge version of ‘As a Judgement’ still bears a family resemblance to the mariachi tune in Rio Bravo, as Henry Fonda rides past the railroad workers at Sweetwater.
Morricone remembers, ‘The Cheyenne theme was born almost instantaneously, without discussion. We were in the recording studio, I started to play the piano, Sergio liked it and I wrote it.’85 Leone differed somewhat in his recall. Initially, the Cheyenne theme was the one aspect of Morricone’s work which didn’t quite fit: ‘“You’ll sec,” Ennio insisted, “with instrumentation and arrangement it will create a different effect.” I let myself be convinced, up to the moment when we reached the recording studio where eighty musicians w-ere waiting, all professionals. Ennio stands at the podium, gives his instructions and begins to make the orchestra play. At the end of the piece he saw my face behind the glass — impassive, still unimpressed — and he understands that the music still doesn’t appeal to me. “So what’s going on?” he asks as he enters the booth. “Well, sorry, it’s just that this music seems crap to me — just as it did four months ago. You told me that everything would be different with the arrangement but nothing has changed!” Ennio goes to the room next door, to the studio, and asks me to follow him. saying, “Come to the piano and explain to me once again what you want for your character, because I don’t know what more I can do. I’ve already tried fifteen themes like this one!” Immediately I ask him: “Have you seen Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp?” “Yes,” he replies, “but what has that got to do with Cheyenne?” Then I explain. “Well, Cheyenne is the Tramp. He has at the same time intelligence and instinct, he’s a bandit and a lout, a son of a bitch, but he has the capacity for friendship. So there shouldn’t just be violence in Cheyenne’s theme, but also a great tenderness, because he’s a sweet, romantic character, proud and full of love.” When he’d heard all these descriptive words, Ennio begins to play: “Tan, tan tan tan tan, tanti tan tanti tan.” He’s composed the music by instinct and I say to him “That’s IT. That’s the one.” ’86
Cheyenne’s theme was the closest Morricone ever came, when working with Leone, to a straightforward musical cliche from the Western: the plodding horse, the campfire whistle, the lazy rhythm. The only unusual features were that it was also scored for electric piano, and it tended to break off — mid—phrase — just as the audience was getting used to its repetitions; like a leitmotif which stops dead. Alessandrom, as usual, did the whistling: at first, he adopted the shrill style of the ‘Dollars’ scores, but ‘Ennio asked me not to do this kind of whistle, he wanted something soft and tired, with no vibration. Different, lustful of Dollars w as heroic whistling. For a Few Dollars More was aggressive, very strong, this was to lx- softer and more relaxed.’87
Morricone had also composed in advance a theme for the opening sequence, the long wait by the three pistoleri at Cattle Corner Station. It was to take four days to film, the last sequence to be shot in Spain (along the railway line near Estación de Calahorra, outside Guadix). The fly buzzing around Jack Elam’s marmalade-coated growth of beard predictably took much longer than anticipated. A jar full of flies was produced by the prop man, but in the end, according to production manager Claudio Mancini, ‘We managed to do it with just one fly.’ The rusty water which drops on Woody Strode’s head took three hours. But Ford alumnus Strode was happy to oblige for his egregious Italian director: ‘The close-ups, I couldn’t believe. I never got a close-up in Hollywood. Even in The Professionals. I had only three close-ups in the entire picture. Sergio Leone framed me on the screen for five minutes … That’s all I needed. When I got home and saw Papa Ford, I told him, “Papa, there’s an Italian over there that just loves the West, and he’s not going to do another Western because they call them Spaghetti Westerns.” I said, “Will you autograph a picture for him?” ’88
While he was planning the sequence, Leone decided the music that had been written was not right; he would use a complex mix of amplified ‘natural’ sounds instead. Morricone recalls: ‘There was something very important that I’d told Sergio. I had been, some time before, to a concert in Florence where a man came on to the stage and began, in complete silence, to take a stepladder and make it creak and squeak — which went on like this for several minutes, and the audience had no idea what it was supposed to mean. But in the silence, the squeaking of this stepladder became something else. And the philosophical argument behind the experiment was that a sound, any sound at all from everyday life, isolated from its context and isolated by silence, becomes something different that is not part of its real nature… I recounted this experience to Sergio, who already had these things in his blood, in his own ideas about silence. He made those extraordinary first ten minutes of Once Upon a lime from that idea. In my opinion, that was one of the best things Sergio did in this film.’89
So, at the mixing stage, the opening sequence became a symphony of exaggerated sounds interrupted by just one mumbled line of dialogue: the creak of a wooden door, the sound of chalk on blackboard, a windmill in serious need of oiling, the wind, crunching footsteps, the whimperings of the station agent, the fluttering of a caged bird (as one of the pistoleri makes angry cat sounds at it), the crowing of a cock, the windmill again, the slamming of a metal door — and all of this before the words a SERGIO LEONE FILM appear superimposed on a riveted door with ‘Keep Out’ painted on it. When he first saw the sequence, Morricone called the soundtrack ‘the best music I’ve ever composed’. Carlo Sum remembers that ‘Some little idiot tried to oil the mechanism of the windmill just before we recorded it. Sergio exploded, because he wanted that irritating sound at all costs!’90
Morricone reckons that Bronson’s harmonica originated in early twentieth-century serial music: ‘At the Conservatory, I studied the whole history of music, certainly, hut with particular reference to Arnold Schoenberg and serial music. I use this kind of music very often, on screen, where I integrate it into the very heart of tonal fragments. In Bronson’s harmonica theme, for example, I incorporated a little scries of interior sounds, part of a tonal language. I’ve never been tempted to abandon serial music, in which I believe, and my researches with Nuova Consonanza have led me to transpose results such as these to the cinema.’91 But the melodies remained simple to absorb, even if the orchestrations were complex and sometimes eccentric. ‘For Harmonica. I used just three notes of the instrument, for a public which is used to a simple form of music, articulated. I’d say, as a physical force like a heartbeat.’92 Mr Morton’s ‘Pacific’ theme consists of just six notes descending a scale, while three-note citations of ‘As a Judgment’ accompany confrontations between Frank and Harmonica: simple, memorable and minimalist.
Crossover moments were scored after filming was completed. Leone had taken a great deal of trouble creating usual links between his big sequences: Harmonica getting up from the platform of Cattle Corner Station/Brett McBain’s shotgun; Timmy’s death/a locomotive’s soundtrack and whistle; Jill making coffee/Mr Morton removing ‘a small obstacle from the track’, a toy figure; Frank in bed with Jill/Harmonica peering through some lace curtains. Many of Morricone’s musical crossovers helped to reinforce them; ‘to make spectators understand what dialogue couldn’t explain’, as Leone put it. These included a few bars of ‘As a Judgment’ for Harmonica’s first appearance and of Cheyenne’s theme for the bandit’s arrival at the trading post; the ‘Judgment’ theme played lightly on strings for Harmonica’s first meeting with Frank; the main title theme on solo violin for the scene on the hanging bed at the Navajo cliffs; piano played as if it was percussion for Frank’s anxious walk down the street in Flagstone; and a reprise of Cheyenne’s theme for the discussion with Jill about patting her behind — before ‘As a Judgment’ crashes m for the final, tightly choreographed, duel.
The score was recorded, as usual, at the Forum Studio, only this time with a larger orchestra, consisting of members of the Roman Union of Musicians: teachers from the Santa Cecilia Academy, musicians from the RAI and Theatre of the Opera orchestras, assembled specially for the project. Choral work was performed by Alessandroni and his Cantori Moderni with soprano solos by Edda dell’Orso (‘the human voice as musical instrument, vocalizing without a text’). The most lavish orchestration for a melody, which unkind critics were to liken to ‘Oh, Sweet Mystery of life’, was devoted to Jill’s theme. It is heard first, during the eighty-five-second track and crane shot showing her arrival at the town of Flagstone: m a single shot she walks from the train, followed by porters carrying her luggage, along the platform, into the station master’s office where we can see her talking through a letterbox window; she then walks into the broad main street, as the camera rises over the roof tiles to reveal the entire wooden town of Flagstone and the desert beyond. This was the shot for which ‘Sergio regulated the speed of the crane … in time with the musical crescendo’. The tracking clement lasts forty seconds, the crane forty-five seconds; the most flamboyant shot Leone had ever attempted. Edda dell’Orso’s voice rises to a crescendo as the camera reveals the main street. The theme is heard last during the 140-second zoom and pan which concludes the film: the railroad workers gather round Jill as she distributes waiter to them, the locomotive reverses from the end of track, and Harmonica rides away to the right of frame with the body of Cheyenne slung over the bandit’s horse. In the year Morricone recorded the final version of the score he also recorded twenty other soundtracks and served on the jury’ at the Cannes Film Festival. His career had progressed a lot since Fistful days.
* * *
Leone’s ‘cinematic fresco of the birth of America’ takes place in four main settings. The isolated farm, the developing town, the railroad, the American desert: there would be far fewer settings than in the picaresque The Good, The Bad and The Ugly; fewer even than in For a Few Dollars More. But they would be unusually elaborate ones. ‘I wanted to shoot the film on the actual locations, but found that this was impossible. There was no longer a wilderness that would look like it did in 1870. There were too many power-lines crossing the horizon, too many highways and billboards and far too many farms and ranches. Too much modernity in camera range.’93 Also, more prosaically, ‘Italy and Spam were better for reasons of economy: also I wanted to work with my own crew, and American unions can be very irritating indeed.’
The Sweetwater location was ten kilometres from Tabernas, thirty kilometres from Almeria, a few hundred yards from the N324 just before it meets the Almeria/Sabas road. By 1967, as a result of boom times for farmers, extras, stunt people, wranglers and construction workers in southern Spam (though not for technicians), there were two cinemas in the tiny village of Tabernas alone and one of its narrow- streets had even been named ‘Cinema Street’. If only there had been sound stages and post production facilities as well, Almeria’s gold rush would have been sustained: as it was, the locations were too far away from the studios and laboratories in Madrid. But Leone built his most elaborate sets there. A ranch-house, surrounding outhouses and stone well were built — to Carlo Simi’s design — on this location: the two-storey ranch-house was constructed out of logs, with a sloping doublepitch roof covered in wooden tiles and a balcony above the entrance. It resembled a huge chalet (rather than the traditional log cabin) with behind it the greyish rocks of the Almerian desert and around it purple rosemary and sage with almond and olive trees — a very elaborate establishment in which to bring up three children, particularly since there is no farm-land in evidence. In front of the house was placed a large tree- stump, the traditional explanation of how a wooden house happens to be there in the middle of the desert. Most of the set is still there: today it is known as ‘Western Leone — poblado del oeste’ Carlo Simi recalls that ‘Sergio originally wanted the house to be in America, and we recced the area around Las Vegas but couldn’t find anywhere suitable … he wanted the structure of the house to be very solid indeed, given the fact that it was supposed to have been built by a stubborn Irishman with a vision. The builder, a young Spaniard, got me a consignment of huge wooden logs which had been used in Orson Welles’s Falstaff. Very substantial. which is why it is still standing.’94
Leone constructed a railroad track down a shallow canyon leading to the Sweetwater set, and had the locomotive and rolling stock brought to the location on trucks: they were then craned on to the new railroad. He had been given permission to ‘enlarge a pass, so I could bring my trucks along its side’; he could also hide the locomotive behind the hills. The production only had two locomotives: Carlo Simi decorated the Morton train with ‘elegant elements, the passenger carriage in Assyro-Babylonian style to display wealth and power’, but the workers’ tram was more stripped down.95 One of the locomotives was customized to look like an 1875 ‘Genoa’ type, of the Virginia and Truckee railroad. The wooden sleepers which were laid for the film were to be subsequently reused to extend ‘Western Leone’. The town of Flagstone was built a few hundred metres beyond the existing railroad track at Estación de Calahorra, where some of the brick-built structures (the bank, the saloon, various stores and dwellings) still stand. Leone leased 100 acres of land around Calahorra. It was close enough to the mainline station at Guadix to control the logistics of moving the locomotive from one set up to another. In a siding near Guadix, there are still some rotting ‘Wild West’ carriages. The Flagstone set cost $250.000, more than the entire budget of Fistful of Dollars — and for that Sergio Leone was able to construct the ‘new’ wooden town of Flagstone, complete with its station, hotel/saloon, Bank of Abilene, stores, barbershop, stables, blacksmith’s, theatre, offices, dwellings and side streets leading off the wide main street; with the Sierra de Baza mountains in the background. Parts of the town were completed, parts were just being started and parts were under construction — ‘just’, as Leone said, ‘as it would have been at the time’. The interiors of the station, saloon, stables and barbershop were also constructed. In the finished film, the only time we see the entire town is when Jill arrives at the station and it is revealed from above.
Carlo Simi based Flagstone largely on archive photographs of El Paso, Texas, a town partly built of red brick, partly of wood. Simi recalls that ‘We built the station, the platforms, and the town deployed beyond them. I put the saloon at its heart, which Sergio liked a lot. We were both after extreme realism where possible.’96
So it was Rome for some interiors (April 1968), then the provinces of Almeria and Granada for exteriors, then Monument Valley (July 1968) — roughly the same length of shooting schedule as for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. One of the reasons Leone chose the Sierra dc Baza and the Sierra de I.os Filabres was because ‘the area had a similar colouring to the red earth of Utah and Arizona’, and when he was shooting interiors at Cinecittà, ‘I was more meticulous and detailed than a Visconti; I even had brought that particular dust of that particular colour all the way from Monument Valley. I think a meticulous approach to the particular is a great help and support to the actor … Visconti has been criticized for being too fussy. You can’t be.’97
Simi remembers dressing the set of Frank’s Navajo hideout: ‘I put adhesive on the wall and we sprayed it with sand. Sergio said. “Are you certain about the colour?” “Of course.” “Hadn’t you better fly over and get some. Carlo?” “Sergio, you’re mad! How can I possibly do that?” “You’re right. We’ll find someone else.” And he did.’98 Monument Valley, the last location to be used, was essential, Leone said, for the twenty-five-second shot into the sun of the buggy passing West Mitton Butte, East Mitton Butte and Merrick Butte on the Arizona side of the Valley, the thirty-second shot of the next stage of the journey deeper into the Valley, and the arrival of Jill and Sam at the specially designed trading post (with one of the Mittons in the background). It was also essential for the flashback, where the young Henry Fonda and his gang kill Harmonica’s elder brother (played by production manager Claudio Mancini) by hanging him from an arch. This brick arch was built near a small airport about fifteen miles north of Monument Valley (on the Utah side), two miles from Highway 163 which links Gouldings Lodge and Mexican Hat. In the early 1980s the arch was still more or less intact, but by 1985 the central section had collapsed leaving only the brick supports.99
The arrival of the train at Flagstone reveals the fruits of Leone’s love tor detail. Out of the rolling stock come cattle, stock buyers, a soldier in uniform, a disabled child, a mother and well-dressed little girl, some black porters, a native American woman, some carpetbaggers, an elderly prospector with his burro and some ‘redskin warriors’. Sacks of feed, tools, crates and barrels are unloaded — including one improbably labelled ’Olive Oil’. Cluttered interiors, too, revealed Leone’s obsession with fact, detail and texture as well as his ambition to create an ‘elegant wise en scene’ Visconti-style: the fading family portraits, billowing curtains, cigar smoke, incense and dust of Visconti’s The Leopard became the fading photographs, unused wedding bouquet, rosary-beads and drawers full of musty documents inside the Sweetwater ranch-house in Once Upon a Tone in the West. For Visconti, the interiors of the huge Sicilian villa created an impression of elegant decay, an old world hanging on at a time of radical change; for Leone, the interiors of Sweetwater showed period clutter, gave carefully selected biographical information about Brett McBain and told the audience something about the woman who was rummaging through McBain’s things. Sweetwater was credible and it told a story. The Leone sequence built to two moments which may well have been inspired by Visconti: |ill looks at herself in the dirty mirror, puckers her lips and brushes the hair from her face; in the ball sequence of The Leopard Angelica (Cardinale) does precisely the same thing. Then Jill lies on a four-poster bed and rolls on to her back as the camera zooms slowly, slowly down from above, filming her through the black lace canopy. Tonino Delli Colli was particularly pleased with this shot, even though he felt the change of focus was ‘not quite perfect’. It is elegant and luxurious, but 11 also shows how. the longer Jill \t.i\s, the more she is in danger of becoming enmeshed in a spider’s web of someone else’s making.
Luciano Vincenzoni, whose relationship with Leone ‘had soured a little’, reckons that Leone’s eye, and distinctive approach to visualization, came into their own with this film. ‘Sergio can be heavy, exaggerated — as in certain of his violent scenes … but he is never squalid. Other directors are squalid, because that’s the way they were born, and because they give in too easily to the demands of the production. If the producer says he can only give you two days for a scene, and Leone knows he needs six. he will ask for eight; another person would agree to do it in a day and a half. Leone is capable of going beyond the shooting schedule for twenty weeks — which costs six billion lire — and of shooting half a million metres even if on the screen you’ll only see four and a half thousand of them. Someone who manages to impose himself to this extent is a very able director. Bravissimo. But then he finds he’s got all these beautiful things he’s filmed, and of course he doesn’t want to throw anything away; every frame is like a child to him . . . Let’s take the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West. You’ve got Leone’s cinematographic memory — High Noon — with the three killers who are based at the station, and then there’s this extraordinary “look”. He constructed the planking with thousands of railway sleepers … This is a great plastic idea. Another director would have said in his place, “Well, there’s some grass, there’s some stones. Isn’t that the same thing?” Or, alternatively, the huge drugstore in the middle of the desert. Leone wasn’t worried that this should be credible: what was important to him was the fact that it should give a depth to the scene … For Leone always has to make an effect. Every time.’100 Carlo Simi had agreed with Leone that ‘the traditional little station made of commonplace wood was out: we wanted a non-construction, which had grown out of bits and pieces over time’.
Tonino Delli Colli prefers to describe the High Noon sequence as ‘Leone setting up the theatre’.101 A theatre where the costumes were deliberately past their best: ‘I rummaged’, Leone affectionately recalled, ‘in the Western Costume warehouses in Hollywood among John Ford’s and his friend’s old cast-offs. Western Costume is a kind of department store of costumes, funded by the major American studios … Everything that has been made and used — collars to cuffs — eventually finishes up there. When I visited, they naturally showed me all the latest things, things which looked fresh and new that I had already seen in television films. But I explained I was a poor Italian film director with limited means at his disposal and was wondering if they had any leftovers lying around in the warehouse. And they replied that they had quite a lot of material in the basements, hut that the costumes were practically in rags. This made my search very easy … after some time spent rummaging there with my costume designer, I managed to find exactly what I wanted.’102 In future, Leone would always use Western Costume, as well as the Rome-based Pompeii.
Mickey Knox was very struck by the care Leone took over ‘the look’ he was creating, and contrasts it with his Hollywood experience: ‘For example, those long coats called dusters they wear … In the American Westerns, they discarded that idea because they weren’t attractive. You know, they had tight pants, gun belts and so on.’ Leone proudly told me: When the Americans went on about the costumes in Once Upon a Time in the West, as they did, and asked where I had copied them from, I said, “I haven’t invented anything — I’ve just gone back to the original.” The “dusters” were a practical kind of garment, because they were the only protection a cowboy had, when he stayed away from town out m the desert for several days at a stretch — the only protection against the terrible dust of the desert in the daytime, and the downpours of rain at night. And the dusters were good with whisky stains, too. Sometimes they were covered in buffalo grease, as a protective surface. So when the cowboys took them oft they almost stood up by themselves! American authors depend too much on other screenwriters and don’t go back enough into their own history.’
Mickey Knox was equally impressed by ‘the interior of the inn where Charles Bronson first meets Jason Robards . . . That inn was very authentic because it was a very rough-hewn kind of place. Most other Westerns showed bars just like the bars today in the sense of lighting. But Leone’s use of lighting was very authentic. It was very dimly lit. There was that magnificent moment when Jason Robards pushed the gas lamp towards Bronson, who was sitting in the dark. You start seeing his face when the lamp reaches it.’103 ( The ‘inn’ sequence also gave Knox the opportunity to chat with fellow blacklist victim Lionel Stander, the man who famously whistled the ‘Internationale’ in an elevator scene of No Time to Marry, a 1938 comedy, and who was thirty years later living as an expatriate in Rome.)
For Carla Leone, it all related to her husband’s passion for looking at and collecting ‘well-made things, in antique shops in Rome; he loved the feel of the materials themselves — the marble, finely carved wood, precious metal and inlay; the craftsmanship and the worked materials directly appealed to him’.104 At around the time of Once Upon a Time in the West, she recalls, he bought a piece of seventeenth-century Roman furniture, originally designed by the architect Borromini as a ‘prie-Dieu’ or small prayer stool with ledge tor prayer books and devotional literature: Leone was fascinated to discover that when Borromini delivered it to his client the piece had proved too cramped for kneeling purposes, so it had become a small desk in a cardinal’s bedroom instead. He also ‘admired very much the workmanship of antique silver — cutlery, plates, birds and animals. The way the material was worked by skilled hands in the past.’
Leone’s melancholy epic seemed to dictate a certain pace as well as a meticulous look. As Leone told me: ‘The rhythm of the film … was intended to create the sensation of the last gasps that a person takes |ust before dying. Once Upon a Time in the West was, from start to finish, a dance of death. All the characters in the film, except Claudia, are conscious of the fact they will not arrive at the end alive … And I wanted to make the audience feel, in three hours, how these people lived and died — as if they had spent ten days with them: for example, with the three pistoleri at the beginning of the film, who are waiting for the train and who arc tired of the whole business. I tried to observe the character of these three men, by showing the ways in which they live out their boredom … So we had the fly, and the knuckles and the dripping water. They are bored because inactive.’105
Leone saw this stretching of time as partly inspired by Japanese cinema (Ozu, Kurosawa) with ‘its utilization of silence, giving a pleasing rhythm to the films’ and partly a reaction against the frenetic pace of 1940s and 1950s Hollywood films: ‘My childhood and adolescence were lived under the sign of “speed”. Then I noticed that all the directors I assisted were alike 111 their obsession with moving fast … They constrained the actors to accelerate their dialogue to the point where you couldn’t hear the last syllables of one speaker or the first of the other. Never the slightest interval to show that a person might wish to think about it before replying. I didn’t agree with this system. I found it too artificial … The sense of pondering a reply I could only find in Japanese cinema. And so I was influenced by it … I’d wanted for a long time to give this rhythm to a film. To make camera movements seem like caresses. Tonino Delli Colli was put out about it, at first.’106
Certainly the slow pace and elaborate technical set-ups made the film, from the visual point of view, seem a highly rhetorical exercise. All seemed to go well with the interiors shot in Rome, but when he was filming at Tabernas Sergio Leone suddenly panicked. If the film continued at this pace, he calculated, it would probably run for at least three and a half hours. Sergio Donati was contacted in Rome. Donati recalls that “he had stopped the movie for a couple of days — covered by insurance — and phoned me, and he was very humbled at that time. “Sergio. I cannot do it … Come here and we have to cut twenty to forty minutes” he said. And I came by car with my wife and son and babysitter, it was in the summer and there was the French “events of May” — La Revolution — and I stayed for two or three weeks: when I arrived on the set, for the first time I saw Sergio in crisis, saying: “I was sure I could film it by altering the rhythm. But I’m not sure I can.” So I stayed in Almeria and cut while he was filming.’107
Drastic action had to be taken on the run, which was not at all how Leone liked to work, bight groups of scenes were cut from the shooting script — most of which had already been shot; and key lines of dialogue were then transposed to surviving scenes which hadn’t. Some of the words between Jill and Sam in the Flagstone stables (a scene which went) were moved to the buggy-ride towards Monument Valley. A scene in the foyer of the Flagstone hotel, where Jill is given title deeds to the Sweetwater ranch by “Signor O’Leary’ from the bank, and recalls that Brett McBain once called that piece of earth ‘a dream, a great and splendid dream’, was cancelled and turned into Harmonica’s later lines “You don’t sell the dream of a lifetime’ and ‘He got the rights to build it. I saw a document, it was all in order.’ A scene in the Flagstone barbershop — just before the auction chaired by the County Sheriff — m which the barber tells Frank that there’s a man outside ‘and he’s whittlin’ on a piece of wood … I’ve got a feeling when he stops whittlin’, something’s gonna happen!’ was cut and the lines given to Cheyenne as he turns to the camera and introduces the final duel. A scene where Harmonica knocks on Cheyenne’s door in the hotel, and pauses ‘with regret’ as he pulls a gun on him was deleted, and became an exchange of glances at the top of the stairs m the auction sequence. A long sequence where Harmonica searches for Wobbles on a crowded passenger train went completely, and so did the sequence (to which Bertolucci referred) which had Harmonica being massaged by a Mexican woman before being beaten up by three deputies.108
These cuts, transpositions and rearrangements led l.cone, inevitably, to some continuity errors in the finished film. Harmonica appears in Monument Valley and at Sweetwater bearing the scars from Ins beating by the deputies. Frank enters the Flagstone saloon looking cleanshaven, with his hair well groomed, for no apparent reason: originally he was to have gone to the saloon from the tonsorial parlour, Leone had often said that he “reacted against the bad habit of having to simplify and explain everything’, and so it was no surprise that the film had complexities that only became clear on second viewing. But the changes he had to make with Donati on the set because he had seriously miscalculated the overall length were more serious than that. And they left their mark on his finished film. According to Tonino Valerii the signs were always there in Leone, and his pacing difficulties would dog him for the rest of his career: “Sergio was very impressionable to ideas which were put to him – ideas which he then absorbed from his environment. He hadn’t read anything — Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Kafka — and if you don’t read you don’t know how- to tell a story … Sergio was a fantastic visualizer, and he understood the dynamics of film so well. But he’d entered the film business too early in his life — before he had found a culture for himself. When someone starts in the business, he no longer has much time — no? It is most important that he has a culture before becoming a film-maker, as a resource.’109
Extraordinarily, the budget of Once Upon a Time in the West remained manageable throughout all these changes: ‘It was a miracle,’ Leone recalled, ‘the way it happened. A Hollywood producer told me that “if it had been made by us at that time, the film would have cost us ten million dollars. Minimum.” Remember we’re talking about 1968. The cast above the line cost in the region of $1.5 million — but the total cost came to only about $3 million. So the cost of the film, less the salaries of the stars, was only just over $1 million. Which really is miraculous, given the cost of the main set. And for that Paramount allowed me to make a Western the way I wanted to make it.’110 Mickey Knox reckons that ‘Sergio was very lucky in that he was also one of his own producers [with Bino Cicogna, ‘a very rich and noble man’, following a break with Grimaldi] . . . So he could keep the budget in his mind fairly loose … He also had a very good relationship with the head of Paramount — a Gulf and Western company. [Bluhdorn] liked Leone a lot. Thought he was a great director.’ So there was no interference from Hollywood.111
But, where money was concerned, Knox adds that Leone personally was a curious mixture of generosity and tight-fistedness: generous at giving dinner parties, tight-fisted with the production money, with paying hills and with giving credit where credit was due. In other words, a man with a mean streak: ‘The crew had a great respect for him because they were scared of him. He knew what he wanted … He had always seen the picture in his head … But I’ve got to tell you that you could be dying of thirst and lying in the gutter, he’d step over you and walk away. He had very little concern about others. He was a very tough guy. That’s an aspect of him I didn’t like. To give you an example, we were staying in a motel in Monument Valley … During the evenings the whole crew always left good tips for the Indian waiters, because that’s what these people earn to live. Sergio never left any tips for them. When I told him about this, he said the money he paid for the food already included a gratuity. I told him that it didn’t leave them that much, and they needed it… I told him personally years later that “you were great as a director, however, as a human being you were a turd”. I used the Italian term stronzo because it is much better … and Leone laughed.’ Knox concludes that when he was working Leone had a streak of ‘ugliness in his character, actual as well as spiritual. He saw the movie in his head In-fore he ever did it. Plus he was a great storyteller. Leone was shallow as hell; he was bereft of profound ideas. But nobody topped him in the technique of making a movie.’112
Just before the ‘Cattle Corner’ sequence was completed, Knox remembers, the actor playing ‘Knuckles’ — Al Muloch — committed suicide by throwing himself out of a hotel bedroom window, dressed in his full Western costume: ‘Actually I was with Claudio Mancini in a hotel room and we saw the body coming dowm past our window. I guess In- was a very troubled guy. Nobody knew what the hell was wrong with him, or why he did it. I think he was a Canadian. The interesting part was that we went down, and the body was on the ground. There w’as Sergio Leone over there. Claudio Mancini put him in his car and drove him to the hospital. But before that, Sergio said to Mancini, “Get the costume, we need the costume.” The guy was dying there, and Leone was asking for the costume!’
Sergio Donati confirms: ‘When we were editing Once Upon a Time, every time we looked at (Muloch’s) performance, Leone would say, “Why couldn’t he have died just a day later? I had one more close-up to do!” ’113
Mickey Knox had been promised, or thought he had been promised, a single card credit at the beginning for ‘original English dialogue’ and ‘Leone didn’t honour the contract. He put my name on the list of technicians [at the end of the credits — Dialogue by Mickey Knox].’ Maybe this was how he ‘got his revenge’. But at least one sharp-eyed enthusiast noticed his name: ‘Ironically, working with Leone is the one thing I am famous for. I was in Paris having dinner with a friend one time, later on, and at the next table saw Joe Losey sitting with someone I didn’t recognize. “Mickey, how are you doing? Let me introduce you,” he said. Joe introduced me to Graham Greene. I said, “Wow, what a pleasure to meet you. I’ve read a great deal of your work.” Graham Greene said to Joe, “I’m sorry. I didn’t catch the name.” Joe said. “Mickey Knox.” Graham Greene, said “Oh, yes, you wrote the English dialogue for Once Upon a Time in the West, didn’t you?” ’114
Another consolation for Knox was that Hollywood producer Harold Hecht — a very friendly witness in blacklist days, publicly revealing a list of all the communists he knew — asked him for a favour at the start of the shoot: ‘Once day Sergio said to me, “Have lunch with me. Somebody’s coming from New York, and you can translate for me.” I said okay. So we went to the Cinecittà [studio] restaurant, and I asked who he was going to meet. He said something that sounded like “Harold Hecht”. I said, “Harold Hecht?” He said, “Yeah, he has the rights to two Dashiell Hammett books, and if I agree to direct them, they are going to be produced.” At this point, Harold was a producer. I said, ”Oh, really?” He said yes. In walked Harold. He changed colour, from sort of gray to white, when he saw me. I did the translating and finally Harold left. Sergio asked, “What do you think?” I said, “Harold Hecht is a crook.” Well, all you have to do is tell an Italian that. That they understand. So Sergio turned him down. A few days later, I got a call from an agent I knew in New York, saying Harold Hecht had called him and asked him to tell me that if Sergio Leone agreed to do these movies, there would be $20,000 in cash in an envelope for me. I said, “Why did he say that?” The agent said, “He feels you might oppose the deal for personal reasons.” I said, “Oh, no, I would never do anything like that.” [Laughs] That was my revenge on Harold Hecht.’115
Leone’s ‘farewell’ to the Western had a mixed reception among Italian audiences who were about to welcome Terence Hill and Bud Spencer into their hearts. As Leone later said, ‘I can still remember, after the opening in Rome, one period in particular — a greengrocer who worked near the Piazza Venezia — coming up to me and saying, “Leone’s gone crazy — he can’t say a fucking thing straight any more. America must have had a bad effect on him.” Eventually, though, Once Upon it Time in the West had the same kind of succes d’estime as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. When they came out, both films had a rough ride in the first instance — and it was only after a few months that the word of mouth began to spread, among students and cineastes, in colleges and schools particularly in France and West Germany. Even in Australia. Critics began to appraise my earlier films, which I thought was hilarious.’ Leone also remembered the earliest reactions to the film m Paris: ’There was a phrase going around Paris menswear houses, just after Once Upon a Time in the West opened. The phrase was “This year, the style is Sergio Leone.” Somehow the French film-going public was better prepared for a kind of cinema which was slow and reflective.’ One of Leone’s favourite after-dinner stories was about the projectionist who worked in the cinema near the river Seine, at the end of the Boulevard St Michel. When Leone visited the cinema — where Once Upon a lime had run. uninterrupted, for two years — he was surrounded by young enthusiasts who wanted his autograph: all except one, the projectionist, who approached him and said, ‘I kill you! The same movie over and over again for two years! And it’s so SLOW!’116
Luca Morsella remembers going into a London bookshop and asking for a copy of Halliwell’s Film Guide, to which the assistant replied, ‘What do you want that for?’ ‘What do you mean?’ he asked. ‘Open it at Once Upon a Time in the West and see what you think of its judgments,’ replied the assistant. Morsella dutifully opened the book and read: ‘Immensely long and convoluted epic Western marking its director’s collaboration with an American studio and his desire to make serious statements about something or other. Beautifully made, empty and very violent. This film has the longest credits of all . . .’ ‘See,’ said the assistant. ‘It can’t be reliable.’ When he got home Morsella told Sergio about the incident, and he sent a still from the film to the shop with the inscription ‘To the defender of my reputation — Sergio Leone’.117
Except in France, however, the film did not do nearly as well at the box office as the ‘Dollars’ films. In Italy, it grossed $3.8 million (compared with The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’s $4.3 million). In Paris, it sold 5.5 times as many tickets as the preceding film and 5 times as many as For a Few Dollars More. It remains one of the most successful films ever to have been released in France.
In America, the film was withdrawn and recut after its lukewarm reception at New York previews. Out went the fourteen-minute scene at the trading post, the two-minute scene of Morton and Frank at their hideout m the Navajo cliffs, the seventy-five-second scene of Frank returning to Morton’s railway carriage and discovering two corpses, and the four-minute scene of Cheyenne’s death — following his run-in with ‘Mr C’hoo Choo’. Once Upon a Time may have been, as one critic put it, ‘an opera in which the arias are not sung but stared’, but American audiences (and timid studio executives) just thought the film was too long and too slow. As a result, twenty minutes’ worth of footage was removed — so that cinemas could at least squeeze an extra performance into the daily programme — leaving the main action sequences intact but destroying the overall shape of the work. Geographical and narrative continuity — difficult to follow in any case — was unceremoniously dumped on the floor. Perhaps the executives should have heeded the advice of composer Arnold Schoenberg when he once warned opera-house managers about the dangers of trying to reduce the length of Wagner’s music dramas, however much they might be tempted to do so: when you try to shorten a long work by removing parts of it, he told them, you do not make it into a shorter work, merely into a long work that happens to be short in places.
Where Once Upon a Time was concerned, the decision to abridge the work just didn’t have the desired effect. Time magazine headed its review of the shortened version (13 June 1969) ‘Tedium in the Tumbleweed’. The review asserted, ‘The fun is over. When the first Italian Westerns washed up on American shores … everyone assumed they were great satire and that Director Sergio Leone was either a big put-on or a superb conman. Leone’s newest effort … proves that he is simply a serious bore … The intent is operatic, but the effect is soporific. The only thing capable of carrying this film is a stagecoach — the one headed out of town.’
It duly headed out of town, with a trailer — ‘The widow, the land- grabber, the outlaw, the gunmen … in a new kind of Western’ — involving two shots that had already been cut from the film: Frank revisiting Morton’s railway carriage, and a vertical shot of Frank facing Jill which, tilted sideways, became the two of them on the suspended bed. On the American domestic market Once Upon a Time made $1 million, one-sixth of the gross for the faster-moving, more heavily plotted, less talkative The Good, The Bud and The Ugly. As Henry Fonda succinctly expressed it, ‘It didn’t pull a dime.’ Fonda was particularly amazed that whenever the film was shown on late night television the commercial break occurred just at the moment he draw’s his gun — after the McBain massacre. The networks simply could not accept Henry Fonda killing a child. ‘The decision to cut the film was particularly disastrous,’ Leone admitted, ‘because it was very carefully constructed like a geometric exercise — or rather, like a riddle taking the form of a rebus — with all the fine little components playing their part in the whole, and with all the component parts revolving around the centre. Like a labyrinth. It’s a concept that appeals to me very much.’118
Leone’s one consolation was that his favourite moment in the film — when the final flashback is shared by Harmonica and Frank, after the final duel — was still intact: ‘The memory emerges in fragments, through the film. Like theatrical elements. The public doesn’t recognize at once the person who is walking towards them. He comes from the depths of the image, just as he comes from the lower depths of memory. And the viewer doesn’t recognize Fonda until the moment when Fonda begins to recognize Bronson. That is, during the duel. Frank is shot in the heart. Surprise makes him turn his back. He does not see his enemy. He doesn’t know that he’s just turned his back on him. He even tries to holster bis gun as if everything could begin again. But it is the end of the flashback. And he dies.’119 As Frank falls to the ground Harmonica returns to him the musical instrument which traumatized him as a child — and I rank nods, silently, as there appears a two-second slow-motion shot of the young Harmonica falling to the ground. Monument Valley in the distance. The two men arc recalling precisely the same moment, without a word needing to be said between them. Just a death-rattle on the harmonica. And the rest is silence. It takes Frank two minutes to die, from the moment he is shot m the heart.
In expressing his disappointment at the American cuts, Leone later concluded that a general unwillingness to take the Western seriously enough may also have contributed to the executive decision. This may have been special pleading on his part: ‘Nowadays, the audience is no longer so fascinated by the Western. Maybe this has got something to do with the use Hollywood and American television have made of this genre in the past. Or the fact that rural themes no longer appeal to an urban audience — but, against that, the backbone of audiences for the Western in its early days was immigrants in cities. Also, Westerns cost lust as much as any other films — and sometimes much more these days, when everything has to be done from scratch. Howard Hawks or someone once said that you can’t make a good Western without dust, rocks and actors who know how to have gunfights and get on a horse. That costs money. But in the long history of American Western films, there’s never been one that’s made a great deal of money. Unless you count Gone with the Wind (which I don’t) or a Broadway satire like Blazing Saddles.’120
In the film-making community, Once Upon a Time in the West has continued to polarize opinion. The up-and-coming ‘movie brat’ generation, then at film school, rated it very’ highly indeed. John Boorman was a director much admired by Leone, and in his Money into Light, Boorman returned the compliment: ‘The Western went into decline when writers and directors became self-conscious and introduced psychological elements. John Ford and others worked from the blood. Sergio Leone’s “Spaghetti” Westerns revitalized the form because he consciously reverted to mythic stories, making the texture and detail real, but ruthlessly shearing away the recent accretions of the “real” West and its psychological motivations. Unfortunately this was not understood in Hollywood … Sam Peckinpah was the only American director to take the hint from Leone … In Once Upon a lime in the West, the Western reaches its apotheosis. Leone’s title is a declaration of intent and also his gift to America of its lost fairy stones. This is the kind of masterpiece that can occur outside trends and fashion. It is both the greatest and the last Western.’121
Stanley Kubrick admired the film as well. So much so, according to Leone, that he selected the music for Barry Lyndon before shooting the film m order to attempt a similar fusion of music and image. While he was preparing the film, he phoned Leone, who later recalled: ‘Stanley Kubrick said to me, “I’ve got all Ennio Morricone’s albums. Can you explain to me why I only seem to like the music he composed for your films?’’ To which I replied, “Don’t worry. I didn’t think much of Richard Strauss until I saw 2001!’122 Barry Lyndon could have been Once Upon a Time in Georgian England: the music, the choreography, the deliberate pace, the ritualized duels. Leone reckoned, though, that maybe Kubrick didn’t quite have the common storyteller’s touch to pull it off.
But Wim Wenders wrote of Once Upon a Time in the magazine Filmkritik, in November 1969: ‘I don’t want to see any more Westerns. This one is the very end, the end of a craft. This one is deadly . . . Leone’s film is completely indifferent towards itself. All it shows the unconcerned viewer is the luxury that enabled it to be made: the most complicated of camera movements, the most sophisticated of cranes and pans, fantastic set designs, incredibly good actors, a gigantic rail way construction site with all the trappings, built for the sole purpose that in one scene a buggy might drive through it. Yes, and Monument Valley, THE REAL MONUMENT VALLEY, not a pasteboard replica propped up from behind, no, the genuine article, in AMERICA, when John Ford shot his Westerns. It was at this point in the film, when the unconcerned viewer might feel reverence, that I became, when I saw the film for the second tune, very sad: I felt like a tourist in a Western . . . when for the first time you see Henry Fonda’s ghastly face; when Henry Fonda finally shoots down the boy; then it becomes clear why Woody Strode and Jack Elam are only there in the credit sequence. Their death is that of a genre and of a dream. Both of them American.’ When I asked Wenders why he reacted quite so strongly, he replied, it was because it was the end of a genre, and because it turned the Western into an abstraction where the images no longer signify themselves.’123
Still, the students of May 1968 flocked to see Once Upon a Time in the West, half a mile up the boulevard from the Sorbonne. Brecht and the v-effect, Barthes and capitalism’s reluctance to ‘display its codes’, and deconstruction (a freshly minted word) of Hollywood movies were all part of that season’s haute couture. A new print of Sergei Eisenstein’s October was circulating, to celebrate the fiftieth birthday of the Soviet Revolution, and Cahiers compared Sergio Leone’s cinema — faces as types, the linkage and collision of images, rhythmic cutting — with Eisenstein’s theory and practice of intellectual cinema’. Bertolucci, interviewed by a Parisian film magazine, said Once Upon a Time was ‘Leone’s film I like the best, even if it is a little too intellectual’. Umberto Eco later added, i cone’s film represents the cinema of frozen archetypes. if a film contains one frozen archetype, everyone says it’s terrible. But if it contains hundreds of them, it becomes sublime. The archetypes begin to talk among themselves.’124
Leone’s writers were amazed at this turn of events. ‘Intellectual?’ explodes Luciano Vincenzoni. ‘Do you imagine Sergio Leone with a philosophy? Come on! He was a primitive of movies. A great director on the set. That’s it.’ But in the wake of Once Upon a Time in the West Leone started giving interviews that created a very different impression: ‘He was so surprised to be successful and he started to take himself too seriously. And there was a moment in which he supposed himself to be something between Bernard Shaw and Karl Marx … While I was sitting with him giving an interview, many times I had to stop him and say, “Please Sergio, slow down, don’t say those stupid things.” He discovered Sergio Leone through the journalists and critics. He discovered himself.’125 Sergio Donati, equally flabbergasted that Leone should project himself as an intellectual to the cinéastes of 1968, confirms that the director began to remake himself in the image of the critics; also to become a celebrity, Hitchcock-style, which was something very unusual m Italian popular cinema: ‘He started to build a personality for himself, no? He started to build a big belly as well, a beard of a prophet, and he gave interviews all the time which masqueraded his real ignorance.’126
Hence, the writers assert, the references to Céline and the attraction of using ‘the two intellectuals’ rather than his customary collaborators. Hence, too, his presentation of himself as ‘the author’ and tendency to downplay the contributions of other people. The critics wanted to believe in ‘Leone’ as a single, all-encompassing intelligence, and so he began to become that mythical person. From this point on, says Donati, Sergio Leone’s public statements have to be divided by at least two and corroborated. From this point on, by the same token, his writers would become more critical, sour and even ‘snobbish’— at first in private, then from the mid-1980s in public. The truth probably lay somewhere in the middle. Bertolucci’s retrospective verdict is that: ‘[Sergio’s] movies are good directly at the surface level. There are other layers, but I think Sergio was stronger as a pure talent of mise en scène — the relationship between the camera, the bodies of the people in front of it, and the landscape — than as a philosopher. [He sometimes talked] a bit like a super-critic, almost a philosopher of the cinema. That was the weaker part of him. He was generous with ideas about the camera and emotions and his extraordinary tricks. That’s why I went to see The Good, The Bad and The Ugly on the first day at 3 p.m. And that’s why I had to work with him.’127
Sergio Leone, meanwhile, announced to the world that his dream was to remake Gone with the Wind . . .