In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “Leoni does such an expert job of exploding the rules of the genre, while also faithfully adhering to them, that it feels like a classic western, and a whole new take on classic westerns at the same time.”
“Tell me, was it necessary that you kill all of them? I only told you to scare them.”
Possibly the single most important and influential name when it comes it westerns, is director John Ford. From the silent era, through to well into the 50s, his movies defined what westerns still look and feel like to this day. But post Ford, there were a couple of other blokes who played a big role in taking what Ford started, and pushed it to new limits of violence, grit and an almost nihilism. Sam Pekinpah deserves some of the credit for his work on The Wild Bunch, but there’s another man who almost rivals John Ford for the stamp he left on the genre, Sergio Leoni. And after he made westerns huge again with the Clint Eastwood starring Dollars trilogy, he took it to even more extreme lengths with Once Upon a Time in the West.
Three dirt covered scum bags wait at a train station with guns drawn. When the locomotive finally arrives, only one man disembarks, Charles Bronson as Harmonica. After a few jaw clenched words, he quickly dispatches the three gunmen. Meanwhile, homesteader Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) prepares for the arrival of his new wife. But before she gets there, McBain and his entire family are gunned down by the black hatted Frank (Henry Fonda). It turns out, the McBain property has access to the only water in the region. Water needed by the company building a railroad through the area. So instead of paying for the water, the railroad sent Frank to scare the McBains away. Only Frank got a little carried away.
Leaving evidence at the scene of the crime to frame local outlaw Cheyenne (Jason Robards), Frank and the railway assume the land is now ownerless and up for grabs. Until the new Mrs McBain (Claudia Cardinale as Jill) shows up and stakes her claim. Now Frank, Harmonica, Cheyenne and the rail baron all get caught up in the fight for Jill’s land. With some on the side of good, some on the side of bad, but most firmly in the grey in between.
Leoni goes out of his way to kill every preconception about westerns in the opening minutes. The almost dialogue free opening focuses on the three gunmen at the train station for so long, it’s easy to assume that the movie will be about them. Until they’re gunned down mere seconds after Harmonica’s arrival. And the only thing that could make the murder of a young child even more jarring than it already is, is a camera move that reveals the gunman is none other than American screen hero and all around good guy, Henry Fonda.
I’ve wanted to watch Once Upon a Time in the West for a long, long time. I had read a lot about it and it took me ages to track it down. But the wait was well and truly worth it. Leoni does such an expert job of exploding the rules of the genre, while also faithfully adhering to them, that it feels like a classic western, and a whole new take on classic westerns at the same time.
Charles Bronson is perfect as the stony, quiet man of honor. While Jason Robards is much more effective as a roguish scoundrel and gun slinger than I ever would have given him credit for. And as good as they are, Henry Fonda still stands above them, relishing being the villain for one of the very few times in his career. Which makes Claudia Cardinale’s performance up against these dudes all the more impressive. Because without her, there’s no reason for us to care about anything these dudes do.
As usual, Leoni has some troubling ideas that mean even his most scrupled characters have horribly misogynistic tendencies. What makes it even worse, is how easily those moments could be dropped without losing anything from these characters or the story. But, I can chalk that up to the era’s antiquated ideas about gender and look past it to appreciate what might be one of the grittiest, dirtiest westerns I have ever seen.