Once Upon a Time in the West


2h 45m 1969
Once Upon a Time in the West

Brief Synopsis

A mail-order bride enlists an outlaw and a mystery man to help protect her land from a ruthless cattleman.

Film Details

Also Known As
C'era una volta il West
MPAA Rating
Genre
Drama
Western
Release Date
Jan 1969
Premiere Information
New York opening: 28 May 1969
Production Company
Euro International Films; Rafran Cinematografica, S. p. A.
Distribution Company
Paramount Pictures Corp.
Country
Italy and United States

Technical Specs

Duration
2h 45m
Sound
Mono
Color
Color (Technicolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.35 : 1

Synopsis

In the West during the 1870's, Frank, a ruthless killer, sends three of his henchmen to a remote railway depot to wait for The Man, an impassive gunman whose trademark is playing sad songs on a harmonica. The Man guesses their murderous intent when they refuse to answer a question about Frank, and he kills them before they can reach for their guns. Meanwhile, rancher Brett McBain and his three motherless children await the arrival of Jill, a New Orleans prostitute whom Brett has recently married. Suddenly, Frank and his gang appear and gun down Brett and the children. They plant evidence implicating Cheyenne, a notorious half-breed. Arriving at the ranch, Jill finds a burial service being conducted and learns that McBain's promise of wealth was for the future when his property, through which a new railroad must pass, would become the center of a thriving community. Too frightened to remain in the area, Jill is forced to auction off her property. Frank, who is employed by Morton, a crippled railroad executive, tries to fix the sale, but The Man appears with Cheyenne in tow and buys the land for $5,000--the exact amount of the reward money for capturing Cheyenne. The Man then returns the land rights to Jill but refuses to explain his actions. A short time later, he rescues Frank from an ambush by his own men who had sold their loyalty to the double-crossing Morton. The Man still refuses to explain his motives or reveal his true identity to Frank, but he returns to the ranch to help Jill with the work and to protect her from Frank. Cheyenne, who is now on friendly terms with The Man, also arrives after being cleared of the McBains' murders. He has been wounded in a gunfight with Morton's men. Frank eventually shows up to face The Man in a gun duel, and he is shot before he has time to draw his gun. Before Frank dies, The Man explains to him the reason for the vendetta: when The Man was 15 years old, Frank forced him to play the harmonica while his older brother was tortured and hanged. With his mission accomplished, The Man says goodby to Jill and rides off with the mortally wounded Cheyenne. Alone at the ranch, Jill distributes water to the men who are helping to build the new railroad town.

Film Details

Also Known As
C'era una volta il West
MPAA Rating
Genre
Drama
Western
Release Date
Jan 1969
Premiere Information
New York opening: 28 May 1969
Production Company
Euro International Films; Rafran Cinematografica, S. p. A.
Distribution Company
Paramount Pictures Corp.
Country
Italy and United States

Technical Specs

Duration
2h 45m
Sound
Mono
Color
Color (Technicolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.35 : 1

Articles

Once Upon a Time in the West


The word "masterpiece" gets tossed around far too often but if any film deserves that appellation, it's Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). Director and writer Sergio Leone hit the international film world hard with such spaghetti Westerns as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) but for Once Upon a Time in the West he used elements and specific references from decades of Westerns as an elegiac tribute to the genre. But the film is much more than just the ultimate Western; it's an epic tale of loyalty and mystery, a study of landscapes and faces, a beautiful and all too-human film.

The plot of Once Upon a Time in the West is disarmingly simple. A powerful landowner is waiting for his new bride (Claudia Cardinale) to arrive from New Orleans when he's killed by thugs. The newly installed widow discovers that a railroad is coming through the land, which of course the local railroad boss wants for himself. Complicating things is the railroad boss's cold-blooded killer (Henry Fonda of all people) who is being stalked by a shadowy stranger (Charles Bronson). Complicating things even more is the bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards) who has his own plans. You can tell Once Upon a Time in the West is going to be a different kind of Western from the opening scene. It's a ten-minute-plus scene of three men waiting for a train to arrive. There's almost no dialogue and very little overt action but it's a gripping visual sequence that was praised by the great novelist Graham Greene for its "almost balletic quality." Leone had wanted the lead actors from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly to play the three roles in this scene but when Clint Eastwood refused he scrapped that idea.

Leone had first thought he'd finished with the Western after making The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and started to plan a film that would later become Once Upon a Time in America. But that project proved troublesome so he turned to the idea of Once Upon a Time in the West. A chance meeting at a screening of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly connected Leone with two collaborators on the story who would later become accomplished directors themselves: Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris, 1972) and Dario Argento (Suspiria, 1977). The trio hammered out a story drawing from decades of American history and films (though much of the plot came from Johnny Guitar (1954) as they later admitted). The detailed story was expanded by Sergio Donati (The Big Gundown(1966), and uncredited work on Leone's two previous films) to a full script in about a month. Much later, the English-language dialogue would be written by Mickey Knox, a former actor who worked on numerous translations during this period. (Like nearly all Italian films, Once Upon a Time in the West was filmed without sound so all the dialogue and sound effects were dubbed later, even for the Italian version.)

Most of the cast were chosen for their memorable faces or familiarity among Western fans but Leone had always wanted to work with Henry Fonda. For Leone's earlier films, Fonda was just too expensive but now that he had the money it was a challenge to interest Fonda because of the language barrier. Fonda had passed on the film originally because the hastily translated script seemed clumsy but Eli Wallach told him that he really should meet with Leone. Fonda did so, saw Leone's earlier films and was so impressed he signed aboard almost immediately. (Oddly enough, Leone was still trying to get Clint Eastwood into the film, this time for the role that Charles Bronson would play.)

Filming took place at Italy's Cinecitta Studios and on location in Spain (for the town and ranch-house) and John Ford's favorite stomping ground Monument Valley (for the flashback and several establishing shots and short scenes). Leone turned again to his favorite composer Ennio Morricone and had most of the music already recorded before production began so that it could be played during actual filming.

Once Upon a Time in the West opened in 1969 to somewhat confused critical reaction. Audiences in France loved it but in the U.S. the distributor panicked and chopped out nearly 20 minutes. But sharp viewers (including the directors Stanley Kubrick and Sam Peckinpah) began to take notice of this masterful achievement and it soon began to acquire the reputation it deserves.

Leone only made two more films A Fistful of Dynamite (1971) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984). However, he'd been preparing to do far more: an epic about the siege of Leningrad, a Civil War story with Richard Gere and Mickey Rourke, a version of Don Quixote in the present day. Still, the few films that Leone was able to complete remain essential viewing.

Producer: Bino Cicogna (executive producer), Fulvio Morsella
Director: Sergio Leone
Screenplay: Dario Argento (story), Bernardo Bertolucci (story), Sergio Donati, Mickey Knox (dialogue), Sergio Leone (also story)
Production Design: Carlo Simi
Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli
Costume Design: Carlo Simi
Film Editing: Nino Baragli
Original Music: Ennio Morricone
Principal Cast: Claudia Cardinale (Jill McBain), Henry Fonda (Frank), Jason Robards (Cheyenne), Charles Bronson ("Harmonica"), Gabriele Ferzetti (Morton), Paolo Stoppa (Sam), Frank Wolff (Brett McBain), Woody Strode (Stony), Jack Elam (Knuckles), Keenan Wynn (Sheriff), Lionel Stander (Barman).
C-166m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Lang Thompson

Once Upon A Time In The West

Once Upon a Time in the West

The word "masterpiece" gets tossed around far too often but if any film deserves that appellation, it's Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). Director and writer Sergio Leone hit the international film world hard with such spaghetti Westerns as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) but for Once Upon a Time in the West he used elements and specific references from decades of Westerns as an elegiac tribute to the genre. But the film is much more than just the ultimate Western; it's an epic tale of loyalty and mystery, a study of landscapes and faces, a beautiful and all too-human film. The plot of Once Upon a Time in the West is disarmingly simple. A powerful landowner is waiting for his new bride (Claudia Cardinale) to arrive from New Orleans when he's killed by thugs. The newly installed widow discovers that a railroad is coming through the land, which of course the local railroad boss wants for himself. Complicating things is the railroad boss's cold-blooded killer (Henry Fonda of all people) who is being stalked by a shadowy stranger (Charles Bronson). Complicating things even more is the bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards) who has his own plans. You can tell Once Upon a Time in the West is going to be a different kind of Western from the opening scene. It's a ten-minute-plus scene of three men waiting for a train to arrive. There's almost no dialogue and very little overt action but it's a gripping visual sequence that was praised by the great novelist Graham Greene for its "almost balletic quality." Leone had wanted the lead actors from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly to play the three roles in this scene but when Clint Eastwood refused he scrapped that idea. Leone had first thought he'd finished with the Western after making The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and started to plan a film that would later become Once Upon a Time in America. But that project proved troublesome so he turned to the idea of Once Upon a Time in the West. A chance meeting at a screening of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly connected Leone with two collaborators on the story who would later become accomplished directors themselves: Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris, 1972) and Dario Argento (Suspiria, 1977). The trio hammered out a story drawing from decades of American history and films (though much of the plot came from Johnny Guitar (1954) as they later admitted). The detailed story was expanded by Sergio Donati (The Big Gundown(1966), and uncredited work on Leone's two previous films) to a full script in about a month. Much later, the English-language dialogue would be written by Mickey Knox, a former actor who worked on numerous translations during this period. (Like nearly all Italian films, Once Upon a Time in the West was filmed without sound so all the dialogue and sound effects were dubbed later, even for the Italian version.) Most of the cast were chosen for their memorable faces or familiarity among Western fans but Leone had always wanted to work with Henry Fonda. For Leone's earlier films, Fonda was just too expensive but now that he had the money it was a challenge to interest Fonda because of the language barrier. Fonda had passed on the film originally because the hastily translated script seemed clumsy but Eli Wallach told him that he really should meet with Leone. Fonda did so, saw Leone's earlier films and was so impressed he signed aboard almost immediately. (Oddly enough, Leone was still trying to get Clint Eastwood into the film, this time for the role that Charles Bronson would play.) Filming took place at Italy's Cinecitta Studios and on location in Spain (for the town and ranch-house) and John Ford's favorite stomping ground Monument Valley (for the flashback and several establishing shots and short scenes). Leone turned again to his favorite composer Ennio Morricone and had most of the music already recorded before production began so that it could be played during actual filming. Once Upon a Time in the West opened in 1969 to somewhat confused critical reaction. Audiences in France loved it but in the U.S. the distributor panicked and chopped out nearly 20 minutes. But sharp viewers (including the directors Stanley Kubrick and Sam Peckinpah) began to take notice of this masterful achievement and it soon began to acquire the reputation it deserves. Leone only made two more films A Fistful of Dynamite (1971) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984). However, he'd been preparing to do far more: an epic about the siege of Leningrad, a Civil War story with Richard Gere and Mickey Rourke, a version of Don Quixote in the present day. Still, the few films that Leone was able to complete remain essential viewing. Producer: Bino Cicogna (executive producer), Fulvio Morsella Director: Sergio Leone Screenplay: Dario Argento (story), Bernardo Bertolucci (story), Sergio Donati, Mickey Knox (dialogue), Sergio Leone (also story) Production Design: Carlo Simi Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli Costume Design: Carlo Simi Film Editing: Nino Baragli Original Music: Ennio Morricone Principal Cast: Claudia Cardinale (Jill McBain), Henry Fonda (Frank), Jason Robards (Cheyenne), Charles Bronson ("Harmonica"), Gabriele Ferzetti (Morton), Paolo Stoppa (Sam), Frank Wolff (Brett McBain), Woody Strode (Stony), Jack Elam (Knuckles), Keenan Wynn (Sheriff), Lionel Stander (Barman). C-166m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning. by Lang Thompson

TCM Remembers Charles Bronson - Sept. 13th - TCM Remembers Charles Bronson this Saturday, Sept. 13th 2003.


Turner Classic Movies will honor the passing of Hollywood action star Charles Bronson on Saturday, Sept. 13, with a four-film tribute.

After years of playing supporting roles in numerous Western, action and war films, including THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960, 8 p.m.) and THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967, 1:15 a.m.), Bronson finally achieved worldwide stardom as a leading man during the late 1960s and early 1970s. TCM's tribute will also include THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963, 10:15 p.m.), Bronson's second teaming with Steve McQueen and James Coburn, and will conclude with FROM NOON TILL THREE (1976, 4 a.m.), co-starring Jill Ireland.

TCM will alter it's prime-time schedule this Saturday, Sept. 13th. The following changes will take place:

8:00 PM - The Magnificent Seven (1960)
10:15 PM - The Great Escape (1963)
1:15 AM - The Dirty Dozen (1967)
4:00 AM - From Noon Till Three (1976)

Charles Bronson, 1921-2003

Charles Bronson, the tough, stony-faced actor who was one of the most recognizable action heroes in cinema, died on August 30 in Los Angeles from complications from pneumonia. He was 81.

He was born Charles Buchinsky on November 3, 1921 in Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania, one of fifteen children born to Lithuanian immigrant parents. Although he was the only child to have graduated high school, he worked in the coalmines to support his family until he joined the army to serve as a tail gunner during World War II. He used his money from the G.I. Bill to study art in Philadelphia, but while working as a set designer for a Philadelphia theater troupe, he landed a few small roles in some productions and immediately found acting to be the craft for him.

Bronson took his new career turn seriously, moved to California, and enrolled for acting classes at The Pasadena Playhouse. An instructor there recommended him to director Henry Hathaway for a movie role and the result was his debut in Hathaway's You're in the Navy Now (1951). He secured more bit parts in films like John Sturges' drama The People Against O'Hara (1951), and Joseph Newman's Bloodhounds of Broadway (1952). More substantial roles came in George Cukor's Pat and Mike (1952, where he is beaten up by Katharine Hepburn!); Andre de Toth's classic 3-D thriller House of Wax (1953, as Vincent Price's mute assistant, Igor); and De Toth's fine low-budget noir Crime Wave (1954).

Despite his formidable presence, his leads were confined to a string of B pictures like Gene Fowler's Gang War; and Roger Corman's tight Machine Gun Kelly (both 1958). Following his own television series, Man With a Camera (1958-60), Bronson had his first taste of film stardom when director Sturges casted him as Bernardo, one of the The Magnificent Seven (1960). Bronson displayed a powerful charisma, comfortably holding his own in a high-powered cast that included Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen. A few more solid roles followed in Sturges' The Great Escape (1963), and Robert Aldrich's classic war picture The Dirty Dozen (1967), before Bronson made the decision to follow the European trail of other American actors like Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef. It was there that his hard, taciturn screen personae exploded in full force. In 1968 alone, he had four hit films: Henri Verneuil's Guns for San Sebastian, Buzz Kulik's Villa Rides, Jean Herman's Adieu l'ami which was a smash in France; and the classic Sergio Leone spaghetti Western Once Upon a Time in the West.

These films established Bronson as a huge box-office draw in Europe, and with some more stylish hits like Rene Clement's Rider on the Rain (1969), and Terence Young's Cold Sweat (1971) he soon became one of the most popular film stars in the world. It wasn't easy for Bronson to translate that success back in his homeland. In fact, his first few films on his return stateside: Michael Winners' Chato's Land, and The Mechanic (both 1972), and Richard Fleischer's Mr. Majestyk (1973), were surprisingly routine pictures. It wasn't until he collaborated with Winner again for the controversial Death Wish (1974), an urban revenge thriller about an architect who turns vigilante when his wife and daughter are raped, did he notch his first stateside hit. The next few years would be a fruitful period for Bronson as he rode on a wave of fine films and commercial success: a depression era streetfighter in Walter Hill's terrific, if underrated Hard Times (1975); Frank Gilroy's charming offbeat black comedy From Noon Till Three (1976, the best of many teamings with his second wife, Jill Ireland); Tom Gries tense Breakheart Pass; and Don Siegel's cold-war thriller Telefon (1977).

Sadly, Bronson could not keep up the momentum of good movies, and by the '80s he was starring in a string of forgettable films like Ten to Midnight (1983), The Evil That Men Do (1984), and Murphy's Law (1986, all directed by J. Lee Thompson). A notable exception to all that tripe was John Mackenzie's fine telefilm Act of Vengeance (1986), where he earned critical acclaim in the role of United Mine Workers official Jack Yablonski. Although he more or less fell into semi-retirement in the '90s, his performances in Sean Penn's The Indian Runner (1991); and the title role of Michael Anderson's The Sea Wolf (1993) proved to many that Bronson had the makings of a fine character actor. He was married to actress Jill Ireland from 1968 until her death from breast cancer in 1990. He is survived by his third wife Kim Weeks, six children, and two grandchildren.

by Michael T. Toole

TCM Remembers Charles Bronson - Sept. 13th - TCM Remembers Charles Bronson this Saturday, Sept. 13th 2003.

Turner Classic Movies will honor the passing of Hollywood action star Charles Bronson on Saturday, Sept. 13, with a four-film tribute. After years of playing supporting roles in numerous Western, action and war films, including THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960, 8 p.m.) and THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967, 1:15 a.m.), Bronson finally achieved worldwide stardom as a leading man during the late 1960s and early 1970s. TCM's tribute will also include THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963, 10:15 p.m.), Bronson's second teaming with Steve McQueen and James Coburn, and will conclude with FROM NOON TILL THREE (1976, 4 a.m.), co-starring Jill Ireland. TCM will alter it's prime-time schedule this Saturday, Sept. 13th. The following changes will take place: 8:00 PM - The Magnificent Seven (1960) 10:15 PM - The Great Escape (1963) 1:15 AM - The Dirty Dozen (1967) 4:00 AM - From Noon Till Three (1976) Charles Bronson, 1921-2003 Charles Bronson, the tough, stony-faced actor who was one of the most recognizable action heroes in cinema, died on August 30 in Los Angeles from complications from pneumonia. He was 81. He was born Charles Buchinsky on November 3, 1921 in Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania, one of fifteen children born to Lithuanian immigrant parents. Although he was the only child to have graduated high school, he worked in the coalmines to support his family until he joined the army to serve as a tail gunner during World War II. He used his money from the G.I. Bill to study art in Philadelphia, but while working as a set designer for a Philadelphia theater troupe, he landed a few small roles in some productions and immediately found acting to be the craft for him. Bronson took his new career turn seriously, moved to California, and enrolled for acting classes at The Pasadena Playhouse. An instructor there recommended him to director Henry Hathaway for a movie role and the result was his debut in Hathaway's You're in the Navy Now (1951). He secured more bit parts in films like John Sturges' drama The People Against O'Hara (1951), and Joseph Newman's Bloodhounds of Broadway (1952). More substantial roles came in George Cukor's Pat and Mike (1952, where he is beaten up by Katharine Hepburn!); Andre de Toth's classic 3-D thriller House of Wax (1953, as Vincent Price's mute assistant, Igor); and De Toth's fine low-budget noir Crime Wave (1954). Despite his formidable presence, his leads were confined to a string of B pictures like Gene Fowler's Gang War; and Roger Corman's tight Machine Gun Kelly (both 1958). Following his own television series, Man With a Camera (1958-60), Bronson had his first taste of film stardom when director Sturges casted him as Bernardo, one of the The Magnificent Seven (1960). Bronson displayed a powerful charisma, comfortably holding his own in a high-powered cast that included Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen. A few more solid roles followed in Sturges' The Great Escape (1963), and Robert Aldrich's classic war picture The Dirty Dozen (1967), before Bronson made the decision to follow the European trail of other American actors like Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef. It was there that his hard, taciturn screen personae exploded in full force. In 1968 alone, he had four hit films: Henri Verneuil's Guns for San Sebastian, Buzz Kulik's Villa Rides, Jean Herman's Adieu l'ami which was a smash in France; and the classic Sergio Leone spaghetti Western Once Upon a Time in the West. These films established Bronson as a huge box-office draw in Europe, and with some more stylish hits like Rene Clement's Rider on the Rain (1969), and Terence Young's Cold Sweat (1971) he soon became one of the most popular film stars in the world. It wasn't easy for Bronson to translate that success back in his homeland. In fact, his first few films on his return stateside: Michael Winners' Chato's Land, and The Mechanic (both 1972), and Richard Fleischer's Mr. Majestyk (1973), were surprisingly routine pictures. It wasn't until he collaborated with Winner again for the controversial Death Wish (1974), an urban revenge thriller about an architect who turns vigilante when his wife and daughter are raped, did he notch his first stateside hit. The next few years would be a fruitful period for Bronson as he rode on a wave of fine films and commercial success: a depression era streetfighter in Walter Hill's terrific, if underrated Hard Times (1975); Frank Gilroy's charming offbeat black comedy From Noon Till Three (1976, the best of many teamings with his second wife, Jill Ireland); Tom Gries tense Breakheart Pass; and Don Siegel's cold-war thriller Telefon (1977). Sadly, Bronson could not keep up the momentum of good movies, and by the '80s he was starring in a string of forgettable films like Ten to Midnight (1983), The Evil That Men Do (1984), and Murphy's Law (1986, all directed by J. Lee Thompson). A notable exception to all that tripe was John Mackenzie's fine telefilm Act of Vengeance (1986), where he earned critical acclaim in the role of United Mine Workers official Jack Yablonski. Although he more or less fell into semi-retirement in the '90s, his performances in Sean Penn's The Indian Runner (1991); and the title role of Michael Anderson's The Sea Wolf (1993) proved to many that Bronson had the makings of a fine character actor. He was married to actress Jill Ireland from 1968 until her death from breast cancer in 1990. He is survived by his third wife Kim Weeks, six children, and two grandchildren. by Michael T. Toole

Once Upon a Time in the West on DVD


When the Western went out, it went out with a bang in the summer of 1969. Sure there have been Westerns since that time, even some genuinely great ones, but the release a month apart of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West conveniently mark a sharp gasp after the long dismantling of the genre begun in the mid-1950s. Both are shot through with romantic fatalism, progressive politics, a deep melancholy and are obsessed with the effects of technology. It would be nice to think that critics and reviewers caught this at the time but the controversy over the violence of The Wild Bunch apparently fogged anything else. Once Upon a Time in the West (or OUATITW as buffs sometimes call it) had premiered in Italy right before Christmas 1968 but didn't hit American shores for several months. In the few decades since then it seems if not necessarily a greater film than The Wild Bunch then perhaps a more mature one.

From the fairy-tale title, you know Once Upon a Time won't be wallowing in gritty realism, though in many ways it is one of the most historically honest Westerns ever made. Paradoxically, it's also nearly a Western abstraction: the characters have specific names but could easily be The Woman, The Bad Guy, The Banker, The Drifter, while they're set loose in a stark plot about railroad versus ranchers. Leone isn't ignoring his characters or neglecting to tell a story but is just not focused primarily on getting to the next scene. Just look at the audacious opening sequence featuring three gunmen waiting for a train to arrive. It runs about eight minutes, has just a few sentences of dialogue and in a way nothing happens. One man is annoyed by a buzzing fly, another has water dripping on his head. A windmill creaks. The station attendant sputters a bit then disappears. A Western Waiting for Godot perhaps but it doesn't play that way. There is a pay-off, though like the rest of the film there's a sense of loss, almost as if Leone has recreated something that no longer exists and then can't bear to look away. In the rest of the film watch the long shots of meals being prepared, of a wagon making its way slowly to an outlying farm, of the railroad being built. Once Upon a Time isn't dull by any stretch, filled as it is with shoot-outs, massacres, attacks on trains, prisoner escapes, schemes, betrayals and such but these aren't the entire point as they might be in, say, a B-movie or TV Western.

The film's story was developed by the odd trio of Leone, arthouse director Bernardo Bertolucci and critic/future horror maestro Dario Argento, then scripted by Leone's regular collaborator Sergio Donati. All were fans of Westerns and consciously tried to shape the film into both a tribute and a critique. Thus not only the iconography and story draws from classic Westerns but their focus is reflected even in the casting of Henry Fonda and the filming in John Ford's stomping ground Monument Valley (which earlier had a major influence on American art by crucially shaping the look of George Herriman's Krazy Kat). But there was no way they could create a pure Western--whatever that might be--even if that had been their goal. American optimism and manifest destiny wasn't native to them while growing up in post-war Italy and then developing a left-leaning political consciousness didn't incline them to take the genre at face value. They were hardly alone in this since dozens of directors across the globe were rethinking everything from crime films to comedy to sex romps. Leone and company, though, weren't shouting at the audience. Whatever else you might find in it, Once Upon a Time really is just a Western. You don't need to share their politics any more than you do the conservatism of Howard Hawks and John Wayne to appreciate Rio Bravo.

There are a lot of stories about the casting of Once Upon a Time, about how the stars of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly were approached for cameos in the opening, about alternates for this role or that. But it's difficult if not impossible to imagine topping who eventually appeared in it. Henry Fonda cast against type as a ruthless killer, Italian beauty queen Claudia Cardinale as the bride who finds herself an unexpected widow, B-movie tough guy Charles Bronson as a mysterious avenger, grand actor of Italian cinema Gabriele Ferzetti as a scheming millionaire and theatre crossover Jason Robards as maybe the hero. (Oddly enough both Fonda and Robards had previously played Abraham Lincoln.)

An additional key element was the music by Ennio Morricone, somewhere around his 70th score in seven years but hardly exhausting his creativity. Morricone continued the use of a theme for each character as he did in Leone's previous Westerns but expanded and underlined that until when, say, Jason Robards appears on screen it's almost as if to give an aria. In fact numerous commentors have noted that the music, unhurried pace, and even violence of the film make it resemble an opera (though that wouldn't be a first: Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West premiered in 1910).

The DVD release of Once Upon a Time is pretty much everything you could hope for. Of course the film is letterboxed and though it naturally loses something on a TV set (never ever pass up a chance to see this one in a theatre), Leone's use of close-ups come across well on the smaller screen. Though the Techniscope widescreen format had some problems it allowed for sharpness that Cinemascope frequently couldn't accomodate. The film's transfer to DVD captures the look very well. There's a fascinating commentary track which is mostly Leone biographer Christopher Frayling but has contributions from film historian Sheldon Hall, actress Claudia Cardinale and directors Alex Cox and John Carpenter. There's a second disc with three documentaries about the making of the film (really it's basically just one documentary broken into three parts), a look at railroads in the West, photos of locations then and now, along with the standard assortment of a trailer and mostly useless actor profiles. But then you don't need the disc for information on Charles Bronson's career. Having a real treasure like Once Upon a Time in the West should be enough.

To order Once Upon a Time in the West, go to TCM Shopping.

by Lang Thompson

Once Upon a Time in the West on DVD

When the Western went out, it went out with a bang in the summer of 1969. Sure there have been Westerns since that time, even some genuinely great ones, but the release a month apart of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West conveniently mark a sharp gasp after the long dismantling of the genre begun in the mid-1950s. Both are shot through with romantic fatalism, progressive politics, a deep melancholy and are obsessed with the effects of technology. It would be nice to think that critics and reviewers caught this at the time but the controversy over the violence of The Wild Bunch apparently fogged anything else. Once Upon a Time in the West (or OUATITW as buffs sometimes call it) had premiered in Italy right before Christmas 1968 but didn't hit American shores for several months. In the few decades since then it seems if not necessarily a greater film than The Wild Bunch then perhaps a more mature one. From the fairy-tale title, you know Once Upon a Time won't be wallowing in gritty realism, though in many ways it is one of the most historically honest Westerns ever made. Paradoxically, it's also nearly a Western abstraction: the characters have specific names but could easily be The Woman, The Bad Guy, The Banker, The Drifter, while they're set loose in a stark plot about railroad versus ranchers. Leone isn't ignoring his characters or neglecting to tell a story but is just not focused primarily on getting to the next scene. Just look at the audacious opening sequence featuring three gunmen waiting for a train to arrive. It runs about eight minutes, has just a few sentences of dialogue and in a way nothing happens. One man is annoyed by a buzzing fly, another has water dripping on his head. A windmill creaks. The station attendant sputters a bit then disappears. A Western Waiting for Godot perhaps but it doesn't play that way. There is a pay-off, though like the rest of the film there's a sense of loss, almost as if Leone has recreated something that no longer exists and then can't bear to look away. In the rest of the film watch the long shots of meals being prepared, of a wagon making its way slowly to an outlying farm, of the railroad being built. Once Upon a Time isn't dull by any stretch, filled as it is with shoot-outs, massacres, attacks on trains, prisoner escapes, schemes, betrayals and such but these aren't the entire point as they might be in, say, a B-movie or TV Western. The film's story was developed by the odd trio of Leone, arthouse director Bernardo Bertolucci and critic/future horror maestro Dario Argento, then scripted by Leone's regular collaborator Sergio Donati. All were fans of Westerns and consciously tried to shape the film into both a tribute and a critique. Thus not only the iconography and story draws from classic Westerns but their focus is reflected even in the casting of Henry Fonda and the filming in John Ford's stomping ground Monument Valley (which earlier had a major influence on American art by crucially shaping the look of George Herriman's Krazy Kat). But there was no way they could create a pure Western--whatever that might be--even if that had been their goal. American optimism and manifest destiny wasn't native to them while growing up in post-war Italy and then developing a left-leaning political consciousness didn't incline them to take the genre at face value. They were hardly alone in this since dozens of directors across the globe were rethinking everything from crime films to comedy to sex romps. Leone and company, though, weren't shouting at the audience. Whatever else you might find in it, Once Upon a Time really is just a Western. You don't need to share their politics any more than you do the conservatism of Howard Hawks and John Wayne to appreciate Rio Bravo. There are a lot of stories about the casting of Once Upon a Time, about how the stars of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly were approached for cameos in the opening, about alternates for this role or that. But it's difficult if not impossible to imagine topping who eventually appeared in it. Henry Fonda cast against type as a ruthless killer, Italian beauty queen Claudia Cardinale as the bride who finds herself an unexpected widow, B-movie tough guy Charles Bronson as a mysterious avenger, grand actor of Italian cinema Gabriele Ferzetti as a scheming millionaire and theatre crossover Jason Robards as maybe the hero. (Oddly enough both Fonda and Robards had previously played Abraham Lincoln.) An additional key element was the music by Ennio Morricone, somewhere around his 70th score in seven years but hardly exhausting his creativity. Morricone continued the use of a theme for each character as he did in Leone's previous Westerns but expanded and underlined that until when, say, Jason Robards appears on screen it's almost as if to give an aria. In fact numerous commentors have noted that the music, unhurried pace, and even violence of the film make it resemble an opera (though that wouldn't be a first: Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West premiered in 1910). The DVD release of Once Upon a Time is pretty much everything you could hope for. Of course the film is letterboxed and though it naturally loses something on a TV set (never ever pass up a chance to see this one in a theatre), Leone's use of close-ups come across well on the smaller screen. Though the Techniscope widescreen format had some problems it allowed for sharpness that Cinemascope frequently couldn't accomodate. The film's transfer to DVD captures the look very well. There's a fascinating commentary track which is mostly Leone biographer Christopher Frayling but has contributions from film historian Sheldon Hall, actress Claudia Cardinale and directors Alex Cox and John Carpenter. There's a second disc with three documentaries about the making of the film (really it's basically just one documentary broken into three parts), a look at railroads in the West, photos of locations then and now, along with the standard assortment of a trailer and mostly useless actor profiles. But then you don't need the disc for information on Charles Bronson's career. Having a real treasure like Once Upon a Time in the West should be enough. To order Once Upon a Time in the West, go to TCM Shopping. by Lang Thompson

Quotes

He not only plays. He can shoot too.
- Cheyenne
Not bad. Congratulations. Tell me, was it necessary that you kill all of them? I only told you to scare them.
- Morton
People scare better when they're dying.
- Frank
You're the one who makes appointments.
- Frank
And you're the one who doesn't keep them.
- Harmonica
How can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? The man can't even trust his own pants.
- Frank
The reward for this man is 5000 dollars, is that right?
- Harmonica
Judas was content for 4970 dollars less.
- Cheyenne
There were no dollars in them days.
- Harmonica
But sons of bitches... yeah.
- Cheyenne

Trivia

Al Mulock, who played one of the three gunmen in the opening sequence, committed suicide on the set.

Henry Fonda originally turned down a role in the picture. Director Sergio Leone flew to the United States and met with Fonda, who asked why he was wanted for the movie. Sergio replied, "Picture this: the camera shows a gunman from the waist down pulling his gun and shooting a running child. The camera pans up to the gunman's face and... it's Henry Fonda."

The credits, concluding with Director Sergio Leone, last over ten minutes into the start of the film.

Harmonica, Frank, and Cheyenne.

Henry Fonda prepared for his role as the villain "Frank" by arriving in Italy with a pair of brown colored contact lenses. When Sergio Leone saw them, he ordered them removed. Leone had planned an important close-up shot of Fonda and wanted those blue eyes.

Notes

Filmed in the United States (Arizona and Utah) and Spain. Released in Italy in 1968 as C'era una volta il West. Subsequent release versions were cut to between 132 and 144 min.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States Spring May 1969

Released in United States March 1976

Released in United States 1980

Released in United States June 16, 1989

Released in United States 2008

Released in United States 2009

Shown at New York Film Festival September-October 1980.

Shown at Film Forum in New York City June 16, 1989.

Shown at Tribeca Film Festival (Special Event) April 23-May 4, 2008.

Shown at San Francisco International Film Festival (World Cinema) April 23-May 7, 2009.

Techniscope

Re-released in Zurich July 26, 1991.

Re-released in Paris February 21, 1990.

Released in United States Spring May 1969

Released in United States March 1976 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (The 48-Hour Cowboy Movie Marathon) March 18-31, 1976.)

Released in United States 1980 (Shown at New York Film Festival September-October 1980.)

Released in United States June 16, 1989 (Shown at Film Forum in New York City June 16, 1989.)

Released in United States 2008 (Shown at Tribeca Film Festival (Special Event) April 23-May 4, 2008.)

Released in United States 2009 (Shown at San Francisco International Film Festival (World Cinema) April 23-May 7, 2009.)