Once Upon a Time in the West ()

directed by Sergio Leone
featuring Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Jr., Gabriele Ferzetti

Show Synopsis

In Sergio Leone's epic Western, shot partly in Monument Valley, a revenge story becomes an epic contemplation of the Western past. To get his hands on prime railroad land in Sweetwater, crippled railroad baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) hires killers, led by blue-eyed sadist Frank (Henry Fonda), who wipe out property owner Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) and his family. McBain's newly arrived bride, Jill (Claudia Cardinale), however, inherits it instead. Both outlaw Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and lethally mysterious Harmonica ...


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Apr 21, 2020

Once Upon A Time In The West During The Pandemic

There are so many ways of thinking about the American West and trying to interpret it through film. The Italian director Sergio Leone's 1968 film "Once Upon A Time In The West" borrows themes from many earlier westerns, including "Johnny Guitar" (1954) a film involving a former prostitute who owns property needed by an oncoming railroad, while making an unmistakable contribution to the genre of its own. Leone's film, in turn, is alluded to in Quentin Tarantino's recent film involving the golden age of the western, "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood".

"Once Upon a Time in the West" is a large-scale film running nearly three hours. The film builds slowly and is deliberately difficult to follow. The film combines two stories, one involving a harmonica-playing gunman seeking revenge for the brutal killing of his brother and the other involving the attempt to wrest a property needed by the railroad away from its owner by violent, unlawful means. The film opens violently but with a great deal of deliberation in a manner apparently unconnected from either story. It takes a while for the situation to become clear, and for me it took a second viewing and some reading.

This film stars three separate outlaws: Henry Fonda as the cold, ruthless, and stony-faced Frank is the villain of the piece and delivers a remarkable performance. Charles Bronson plays "Harmonica" on his mission of revenge. Jason Robards plays "Cheyenne". The three outlaws act separately from each other and the latter two are shown with complexity and sympathy. The film stars as well Claudia Cardinale as Jill, a former prostitute from New Orleans and the wife of the owner of a property coveted by the railroad. The railroad man is willing to do almost anything to get the property.

The film develops gradually while building tension. It emphasizes posturing and facial expressions of the characters and of their immediate surroundings. The film also shows many of the characters and places involved in a small western town and in a growing settlement. The scenery is stunning. The individual scenes tend to be lengthy. They also frequently cut-away to a different scene at a critical time. The film is known as well for its musical score and for the leitmotifs that accompany the different outlaws.. Many viewers have found that "One Upon a Time in the West" is operatic in character in its passion, length, and music.

The film is full of violence and killing. In addition it involves a great deal of smoldering sexuality involving the widow, Jill. The film resolves as Harmonica's motive for revenge becomes clear and as the steam engine chugs into the new town. The violence and outlawry of the Old West, the film suggests, ultimately leads to the establishment of a community to grow in harmony and to the overcoming of its individualistic, anti-social beginnings. This is a theme of many westerns and part of the American ideal and vision.

I have been watching many westerns during the pandemic to think about how they portray the West and the development of our country. The best of these films are more thoughtful that is sometimes supposed and offer a means for reflection on our country. "Once Upon a Time in the West" appears on many lists of best westerns and best films; and it is listed by the National Film Registry, Library of Congress as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." I enjoyed watching this film and thinking about its portrayal of the American West.

Robin Friedman


Aug 23, 2010

The perfect film.

From the first frame, the viewer's senses of sight and sound will be completely captivated. The sound is heightened so that every click, every drip of water, every movement is amplified to meet the absorbing visual imagery on the screen.
This is a morality tale of good and evil forces, with good not having an unqualified victory in the end. Henry Fonda is the all-out evil one, with Jason Robards and Charles Bronson in that grey area inbetween. Claudia Cardinale is the woman who arrives to marry a 'good man' and finds only his body and those of his family. And so this extraordinary film rolls forward into a faultless 'assault' of the senses.
The director, Sergio Leone, gets a satisfyingly perfect performance from each of his major players, with drawn-out close-ups on sunburnt, fleshy faces, while he uses music : (a wonderful main theme of eleven notes on a banjo is one memorable leitmotif), and the haunting harmonica of the character Harmonica (Charles Bronson) to give the feeling of a deserted wasteland where the law is absent.
Everything is geared to feel larger than life - a giant world of simmerintg violence, greed and retribution. This amazing film is truly perfection.

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