The Western is a weird genre. As much as people like to define it by it’s tone and visual style, it is more often identified by the setting of the films. There’s a reason that Westerns can have such varied subject matter like revenge, justice, greed, charity, the supernatural (see Pale Rider for an example of that), and war. However, when most people think of Westerns, they think evil Native Americans, white hats and black hats, horse riding, and the railroad coming in. That’s why we needed people like Sergio Leone. We needed directors who would take the Western genre, strip it of all reverence (since Leone was Italian, not American), and give it new light. That was the purpose of the Dollar Trilogy (Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly), to give Westerns a new light outside of the traditional mold. After those, however, Leone took revisionist Westerns to a new level with this film, Once Upon A Time In The West.
Brett McBain and his family is killed by Frank, a gunslinger known for his sadistic and bloodthirsty ways. He does this so that the land will go to a railroad tycoon that he works with, Morton. However, McBain got married while he was away and his new wife arrives soon after the killing and inherits the land. Meanwhile, a gunman known as Harmonica comes in looking for the person who killed his brother.
If the plot sounds like a typical Western, then it’s because that was the purpose. Sergio Leone took inspiration from other Westerns for his films, but this one was written by referencing as many as he could. The result of his constant referencing was that it would seem familiar to people, especially those who have seen many other Westerns. How it changes is the execution. This is a deconstruction, in which the common tropes of the West are given weight to explore why they work. We normally would not think about the implications of the railroad tycoon trying to buy up land, but that’s what this film does. We wouldn’t expect to see how being a sadistic killer could make one into a bad businessman, but this film does that.
The aspect standing alone is Harmonica, who would have been played by Clint Eastwood if Clint Eastwood wasn’t still angry about THe Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Harmonica is very much like The Man With No Name, in that he is a loner who has his own goals. And that makes him the wild card in this film, the Han Solo of the film: everyone has a motive and conscience except for him.
Charles Brosnan portrays Harmonica well and Claudia Cardinale plays Jill, McBaine’s new wife, as a character who is detached and cold, but not uncaring. However, the true highlight is Frank, played by Henry Fonda. Many didn’t feel llike he would work well playing a villain, but that’s why he’s perfect. He is a true lucifer figure: you wouldn’t believe him to be evil until you’re caught in his evil web.
As Westerns go, this might very well be THE best. It takes the spirit of the West and shows that it understands that spirit better than others. As far as the progress of the genre, this is the last major breakthrough for Westerns: never again would the understanding of Westerns be challenged and portrayed better. The film uses long stretches of silence between the violent bursts, but that is the point that the film drives home: the violence of the West was not important, but what that violence caused.
Directed by Sergio Leone
Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson