Once upon a time in the West: Sergio Leone’s Postmodern fairy-tale is one of the greatest Westerns ever made
Director Sergio Leone’s magnum opus, Once upon a time in the West(1968), starring Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, Charles Bronson and Jason Robards, is considered one of the greatest Westerns ever made. Like the title suggests, its an exaggerated, fairy-tale for adults, set in the old West.
“the rhythm of the film was intended to create the sensation of the last gasp that a person takes just before dying. Once Upon a Time in the West was, from start to finish, a dance of death, all of the characters in the film, except Claudia are conscious of the fact they will not arrive at the end alive…”.
The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard called Sergio Leone the first postmodernist film director . Though I am not exactly sure about that, Leone certainly was the first director to bring Postmodernism to the genre of Western . Leone came on the scene when the appeal of the traditional Hollywood western was waning. His Dollars Trilogy infused fresh blood into a dying genre and made a star out of Clint Eastwood. Leone came from a family with deep roots in the Italian filmmother was a silent movie actress and his father directed and acted in films during the silent era. Leone grew up admiring the American westerns of director John Ford. He loved those movies to death, but he did not agree with their ‘politics’ and their optimistic worldview. So when it came time to make his own westerns, he took the basic themes and characters from the Hollywood westerns and then transported them to a bleak, arid, surrealistic landscape. His worldview was un-apologetically amoral and pessimistic. He turned the archetype of the moral Western hero into a ruthless killer who is concerned only with his own survival . His three Dollars films were highly stylized ,operatic melodramas, which were unabashedly populist entertainment and was lapped up by audience all over the world. But the populist nature of those films prevented the critics from fairly assessing his work during their time and he would have to wait a while before he received his fair share of critical appreciation.
And talking about ‘Waiting for a While‘, Waiting is an important component in viewing Leone’s films. The biggest virtue a film viewer needs to posses in appreciating the cinema of Leone is Patience. Because it would take a while for things to happen. Though Leone is more closely associated with Akira Kurosawa,the pacing of his films are very similar to that of another Japanese master Yasujirō Ozu. Leone’s films move at a slow, deliberate pace and he is more interested in the gradual build up rather than the ultimate pay-off , which happens very suddenly and quickly. He did this intentionally because one of the issues he had with the American films was that they moved very quickly. Things happened so fast that he never got time to digest it. His films are specifically designed in such a way that the viewer feels the passing of time. A Leone scene isn’t just another movie scene. Attention is paid to every small detail as Leone squeezes the very last morsel out of every scene. When Wachowski Brothers’ film The Matrix released in 1999, people were amazed by a new technology used in the film called bullet time; in which the action is slowed down to such an extend that we can see the full trajectory of a bullet as it is fired from a gun till it reaches it’s destination. But almost thirty years before The Matrix, there existed something called Leone time, where, without any camera tricks or special effects, the action is slowed down to a point where even someone spitting on screen becomes an elaborate ritual. And elaborate rituals are what Leone’s films are made of . Rituals created from vignettes and moments taken from traditional Hollywood westerns and then modernized, subverted or reinvented to suit Leone’s European sensibilities. The manipulation of time, the Postmodernism– where the characters and scenes has their roots in old Hollywood films rather than real life- , and the extravagant, operatic quality – thanks mainly to the great music scores by maestro Ennio Morricone ; the phenomenal work of Photographer Tonino deli coli and Avant-Garde sets and costumes by Carlo Simi – are the main components of the Leone film aesthetic. Then there are his visual trademarks; The tight close-ups of sweaty, sunburned faces inter-cut with wide vistas; the soaring crane shots that’s timed to a specific piece of music or the use of montage , where the scenes are rapidly cut together to music as in a a music video. Each Dollars film was a step towards a full realization of this aesthetic . The Fistful of Dollars was a leaner – About 100 Mins long – and fast paced film. The Next, For a Few Dollars More was more than 2 hrs, with more subplots and characters than the first one. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly was a true epic at about 3 Hrs long , with the story set in the backdrop of the American civil war. Once upon a time in the West (OUATITW from now on), that came after the Dollars trilogy , marked his zenith as a maker of European westerns and provides a full exhibition of the Leone Style. Leone’s Dollar movies were made with the backing of European financiers on small budgets . But OUATITW was bankrolled by Paramount Pictures with a generous budget, which allowed Leone to run riot with his imagination. The sets and costumes are far more baroque and spectacular than his previous films, making OUATITW the best looking film of all Leone Westerns. There’s an extraordinary amount of detailing through which we get a sense of the life in the West. Paramount’s backing allowed Leone to shoot the film in Monument Valley, which was his Idol John Ford’s favorite location. He was also able to hire big stars like Henry Fonda and Claudia Cardinale.
The opening scene of OUATITW is a classic example of the Leone aesthetic. It is perhaps ‘the’ greatest opening sequence in movies and unarguably the best scene that Leone has ever directed. We see three gunfighters – played by Woody Strode, Jack Elam and Al Mulock– entering a railway station. It looks like they have come to ‘receive’ someone. But the train is two hours late , so they have to wait around till the train arrives. As they wait, the audience is also made to wait, as Leone concentrates on what each one is doing to kill time . One of them plays with a fly; another one is cracking his knuckles and the other is distracted by water leaking from the water tank above. The decrepit windmill in the background is making creaky sounds which act as eerie background music to the scene.Finally, the train arrives and we see the three Gunmen getting ready with their weapons. Now it is obvious that this isn’t a social call. The train stops and the threesome wait for their man to come out. But it looks like he is not on the train. They are about to leave, when they hear the ominous sounds of a harmonica. As the train slowly pulls out of the station, the figure of Charles Bronson appears on the screen. He exchanges some tense glances and terse dialogue with the Three men. Then suddenly, violence erupts . The men shoot it out and Bronson is the only man standing at the end of the shootout. This scene, which is almost 15 minutes long, has just about 4 lines ofwound not find a purer cinematic moment than this one. No soundtrack music is played during the scene and natural sounds like turning wheel in the wind and sound of a train are used. It should be noted that this opening\credit sequence is very different from the Credit sequences in the Dollars films; where credits appeared over specifically designed Rotoscopic images of red and white, accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s loud, quirky score. This is Leone making a strong statement that this film is going to be very different from his previous westerns.
This scene has its roots in Fred Zinneman’s acclaimed film High Noon(1952). But there, the gunfighters wait for the main villain to arrive, but here,Leone subverts it to show the movie’s hero arriving. Leone’s homages and subversion continue in the next scene where the McBain family is massacred by Henry Fonda’s villain Frank. The scene has elements taken from Shane and The Searchers, two completely different westerns. The scene begins like in Shane , where the little boy sees the hero coming out of the woods. But then it morphs into the attack on the homestead by the Comanches in The searchers, were the Comanche chief Scar wipe out the family of Ethan Edwards. We expect the arrival of the hero, but its the main villain who is introduced in this scene. And who would be playing the Villain who wipes out the entire McBain family, including an angelic little boy?. None other than Henry Fonda, John Ford’s noble hero, who played Abraham Lincoln and Wyatt Earp. Casting of the princely, blue-eyed Fonda as the cold assassin is the ultimate act of subversion by Leone.
The first hour of the film is basically Leone introducing each of the five main characters in the film. The characters are more or less broad western archetypes. We get the good guy dressed in white, the bad guy in dark .The main , or rather only female character in the film Jill, played by Claudia Cardinale is a mix of the virtuous frontier housewife and the Whore with a heart ofcharacter of Jill seems to be inspired from Claire Trevor’s character in John Ford’s Stagecoach as well as Joan Crawford’s in Johnny Guitar.Then there is the Good-bad character of Cheyenne , played by Jason Robards. It’s a typical Leone character ,in the vein of Tuco in The Good the Bad and the Ugly, who is more of a Man-child and provides the comic relief . Finally, there is the character of the Railroad Baron, Mr. Morton played by Gabriel Ferzetti ; the representative of the business class invading the west. Each character has their own musical theme, as in an opera. The music was written by Ennio Morricone even before filming began and Leone would play the music in the background for the actors on set. The score is considered one of Morricone’s greatest compositions. It takes a while for the audience to understand the plot of the film. The plot is not Leone’s main concern anyway. He is more concerned with setting up elaborate set pieces. There is a massacre, a funeral, an extended scene in a Trading-post, a lengthy action scene set on a moving train; all building up towards the final fairy tale ending when the railroad arrives in the town of Sweetwater. The performances of the actors also mirrors this deliberate, self-conscious style. They are fully aware of the archetypal nature of their characters they are portraying . Their every move, every line-delivery looks choreographed.
The ritualistic nature of the film makes it more of a religious epic, with characters also standing in for broad religious archetypes. Christianity is one of the most prominent themes in Leone’s films and its portrayal is always Catholic and Latin. Charles Bronson’s character is the angel. Bronson has a superhuman control over space and time. He seems to know everything about every character in the film;their past, present and even their future. Fonda’s Frank is the devil . At the beginning of the film we see him destroy the McBain family . The entire family is massacred before ‘ The Holy Mother‘ Jill can join them . The theme of integration and disintegration of ‘The Holy Family‘ is there throughout in Leone films. In A Fistful of Dollars , Its Marisol, her child and husband who make up the family. They are separated by the villain Ramon and reunited by Eastwood’s mysterious stranger. In the Good, The Bad and The Ugly, we have the Ramirez brothers, Tuco and Pablo who are on the opposite sides of the moral divide; one is a priest, the other is a Bandit. In For a Few Dollars More ; It is Douglas Mortimer’s quest for revenge against the Bandit Indio, for raping and murdering his sister. In this film too,there is the theme of revenge fueled by the murder of a family member, with Bronson obsessively pursuing Fonda for murdering his brother . The betrayal by a friend is another one of Leone’s major themes; with the name of Judas being repeatedly invoked. In The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Tuco calls Blondie a Judas, here its Cheyenne who calls Harmonica with the same name for selling him out for five thousand Dollars. Claudia Cardinale’s Jill seems to be a mixture of the two Marys from the new testament; the Madonna and the Whore. In the end, she becomes the mother of the new town of Sweetwater ,and in turn, the creator of the new world that would emerge with the arrival of the railroad and the destruction of the old West of Harmonica, Frank and Cheyenne.
Leone’s films were never as political as the films of Sergio Corbucci or Damiano Damiani- Both of whom were strong proponent of left-wing politics through their films. But Leone was also, if not downright critical ,but ambivalent regarding American notions of freedom and progress. We see an undercurrent of anti-Capitalist commentary in the Dollar films. It is much more pronounced here in OUTIW, especially with the character of Mr. Morton and the tactics he uses to outsmart even the evil Frank. It is interesting to note that Frank ends up becoming a sort of noble figure at the end of the film, when he rides into confront Harmonica. Frank tried to become a businessman like Morton, but failed , because he is- as he calls himself – ‘Just a Man’ . And he is no match for businessmen like Morton , who are invading the west and will ultimately wipe out ‘Men‘ like Frank and Harmonica.. This is Leone’s most political movie and he may have been influence by his co-writers (and fellow film-makers) Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento in this.. But Leone refrains from any extreme form of violent political activity seen in many Italian Westerns of the 1960’s. Its nowhere near a Django or A Bullet for the General. This a very somber, very elegiac movie that is both a celebration and a critique of the American Westerns and American West. Leone , being a European , brings the outsiders point of view of ‘looking in’ at American cinematic myths . He seems to find them alternatively thrilling, violent, extreme, repulsive, and often ridiculous and his Westerns are an amalgamation of all these conflicting feelings. Sometimes We could find all these emotions pouring out through the course of a single scene. Take the extended scene at Lionel Stander’s trading post. The trading post is part stable, part saloon, part storehouse. We see Stander talking animatedly to jill at the beginning of the scene. Then Jason Robards’ bandit Cheyenne barges in and the tone of the scene changes. The scene becomes even more ominous, when there is stand off between Cheyenne and Bronson’s Harmonica , who seems to have been present at the post all the time. But then , It is followed by a rather ridiculous scene where Cheyenne puts a gun to another inmate , and forces him to shoot his handcuffs . Once Cheyenne leaves with his gang members, Stander resumes his animated conversation with Jill. This scene with its abrupt shifts in tone , which at first glance looks rather silly and by the way was entirely cut out of its initial U.S. release, is the typical Leone scene.
Or take the final shoot-out between Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson, which again goes on for at least 15 minutes. We have been waiting for this moment for almost three hours now. But still, Leone is in no mood to hurry things. He again makes everything very deliberate and ritualistic. The scene is choreographed like a dance. The characters walk. They wait. They circle each other. They stare at each other. They squint. They spit. They take off their jackets. They wince. Just when they finally seem prepared to shoot , Leone uses a flashback. i mean, right at the point that they are about to pull out their guns, he goes back in time. Snatches of this flashback has been playing intermittently throughout the film from Bronson’s perspective, where we see a tall, dark figure(out of focus) slowly walking towards the screen. Now, Leone’s camera closes in on Bronson’s eyes, which could be the biggest close-up of all times, and the figure finally comes intorealize that it was the image of a young Frank that Bronson has been reminiscing all this time. The flashback scene is equally bizarre. Its a scene set in the Monument Valley and there is a Roman arch right in the middle of it. We see Bronson as a young boy ,with his brother standing on his shoulder with a rope around his neck. Fonda thrusts a harmonica into the boy’s mouth and asks him to play it for his dying brother. The moment the flashback ends, the shootout happens with Harmonica gunning down Frank. Its all over in a matter of a seconds.
When Paramount hired Leone to make another western, they were expecting something rip-roaringly entertaining as the Dollars films. Instead, what they got was the biggest , most expensive art western ever made. OUATITW was a radical shift from Leone’s previous films. Hence it was not the success the producers were hoping for. After the The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Leone had decided that he wont make any more westerns. But when Paramount’s generous offer came along, he couldn’t refuse. So he decided to make this film as a mournful eulogy to the West and thefilm was cut by about half an hour for the American release, but still the film flopped. It was a huge success in France , where it played for about 2 years in a theater in Paris.. This film was a turning point in Bronson’s career as he graduated from a ensemble star – in films like The Great Escape and The Dirty Dozen – to the lead actor. He would go on to greater success playing variations of the Stone-faced avenging angel in films like Death Wish. The critical reaction to the film was very negative, as it was the case with Leone’s films at the time. The American film critics were prejudiced against Leone , for what they thought was the corruption of their sacred movie genre by an Italian filmmaker. But sometime in the Seventies this changed and a new breed of critics started re-assessing Leone work . Today, both Leone and OUATITW is held in high esteem. Leone’s influence can be found everywhere; from music videos to films of Tarantino . OUATITW is considered Leone’s greatest film. Some critics consider it the greatest Western ever made. Which again is something i am not sure about. For one, its not a traditional Western. Though it is not exactly a revisionist western or a send-up of westerns. At best,one could call it an Ironic is very self-conscious, meta movie, that always remains at an ironic distance from the viewer. But one thing is sure; It is one of the greatest films ever made, where we see a great film Auteur working at the height of his powers.