Jason Robards did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Cheyenne in “Once Upon a Time in The West”.
By Louis Morgan
Sergio Leone's characters in his westerns are usually left with a great deal of mystery, and many of his characters are a man of few words. This is true for that of the drifter Harmonica (Charles Bronson), and the brutal assassin Frank (Henry Fonda) in this film, but here (as he also did in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) has one character a man who does not mind speaking his mind. In this case it is portrayed by Jason Robards an outlaw whose whole character arc seems to be revealing exactly who he is, this also represented by his musical theme which starts out cold and slowly becomes more lively throughout the film as we learn more about Cheyenne.
This film is filled with four classic entrances for the characters that are all just perfect for each character. Cheyenne's first appearance is at a trading post where we hear a gun fight clearly go on outside, and the victor of the gunfight walks in covered in shadow who turns out to be Cheyenne clearly having just escaped from his captors. Robards establishes Cheyenne perfectly in this scene as a very certain type of man. The way he handles the room of somewhat nervous patrons, despite being hand cuffed, is perfect in the way he sets up Cheyenne as a very particular sort of an imposing figure. Robards instantly makes his own particular stamp on the film.
His first scene shows his terrific ability to seem like a dangerous man in the way he quickly moves, and incisively spots any potential threats. Robards is particularly great is when he only points to freeze a man reaching for a gun, and then later uses that man's gun to shoot out his own handcuffs. Robards is excellent having just the right playfulness along with conveying the right sort of threat with Cheyenne as well. It is really brilliant way he sets up Cheyenne here as he makes it possible that he could be hero in the nice bits of humor he puts in his performance, but as well as through his more menacing demeanor he conveys as well.
His next scene he appears to the recently married as well as widowed Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) at her secluded farmhouse to inquire about why her family was murdered, since he and his gang were framed for the killings. His scenes with Cardinale shows much more to Cheyenne, and Robards is great in the way he opens up the outlaw and showing the true nature of the man. The scenes between Robards and Cardinale are quite effectively played particularly by Robards who almost makes them romantic in a way. In these scenes Robards shows Cheyenne to be essentially a good man, despite being a bandit, by just having a great deal warmth in his portrayal of Cheyenne treatment of the very mistreated woman.
Robards's performance here is one of the reasons why this film is as good as it is. As Cheyenne he really brings his all and gives a consistently entertaining performance. The scene where he saves Harmonica well being held by Frank's men is absolutely incredible thanks to each of Robards's reactions as he dispatches each of the men in an efficient as well as comedic fashion. Robards is just very enjoyable throughout, and his scenes with Bronson are great. The two work together brilliantly and they bring out the best of the dialogue through Bronson's more dead pan delivery against Robards's more acerbic method of speaking.
It would have been easy enough to be a scene stealing comic relief, or a weightier more tender depiction of an outlaw with a heart of gold. Robards takes neither approach and instead just goes about doing both. He is amazing in every scene whether it is hilarious back and forth with Bronson about the amount of money Judas got for Jesus, or if it is one of his poignant moments at the end of the film where he brings a great deal of weight to the themes of the film about the end of a certain kind of man in the west, that is particularly powerful why Cheyenne is being so reflective in that moments at the very end of the film.
Jason Robards here knows exactly when and how to make his impact on the film and does it wonderfully well. Where Frank, Harmonica, and Jill we see most of what they do Cheyenne is really the supporting facet of the film because there are many instances where he does something entirely off screen. Robards makes the most of his character in every second he does have, and along with the way his musical theme unfolds Robards unfolds Cheyenne in an equally effective fashion. Robards has the talkative character of the film, and he never wastes that fact. He is always an energetic presence, always a humorous presence, and even one that makes a surprising emotional impact. This is a great performance by Jason Robards that is fitting of his incredible film.