Words: Ced Yuen
A hitman (Henry Fonda) murders a family to get their land. He frames a bandit (Jason Robards) for the crime. The bandit forges an alliance with the woman who now owns the land (Claudia Cardinale), and a mysterious harmonica-playing gunman (Charles Bronson), who seems to have his own agenda for pursuing the hitman.
Some Westerns are more accessible than others. It is a sliding scale - on one end are the lightweight ones, that feature upbeat heroics and gunfights; stories set in the Old West that could in reality occur elsewhere. For example, there are very clear parallels between Howard Hawks’ 'Rio Bravo' and John Carpenter’s 'Assault On Precinct 13'.
On the other end of the scale, there are the Western heavyweights, which are all about the spirit and the mythology of the Old West. These are films where a shot of a bleak, empty field is just as important as a smoking gun; where the land itself is as important as the people living on it. 'Once Upon A Time In The West' is such a film.
In the 165-minute running time, there are a handful of gunfights. It’s not about action. This story is long and slow, almost dreamlike, and meditative. Anyone calling this film “action packed” or “a shoot-‘em-up classic” is outright lying. This is not a stereotypical cowboy story about a single hero/anti-hero (usually John Wayne or Clint Eastwood) who rides into town and saves the day. There is no adventure; there is no hero.
Leone’s film is an ensemble affair without a clear protagonist, as if to say that the American Old West is bigger than all of us, and that we are equally insignificant. It certainly feels that the land is more important than anything. The land gets more screen time than any single character, and it is the land that gets the story going. As the first railroads are built, signifying the end of the Old West, it feels that this is Leone’s love letter to a time gone by.
Whether or not this is indeed the wonderful film that everybody says it is, it is undeniable that this is a wonderfully made film. The direction is flawless, resulting in one coherent, epic tale that stays on the good side of melodrama. The cinematography is breathtaking - almost every shot can be taken in isolation and framed.
The editing, in particular, is extraordinary. One particularly memorable cut blends the smoke and sound from a gun in one scene, with the smoke and sound from a train in another scene. This is done masterfully, creating a visual and audio bridge from one scene to another. This kind of seamless editing, though unnecessary, adds to the smoothness of an already flowing narrative.
Ennio Morricone’s music is the icing on the cake. Edda del Orso’s wordless vocals in the main theme give the film an aura of haunting beauty. A harmonica gives the film an eerie quality, while the use of electric guitar gives confrontational scenes an ominous, deadly charge. This is one of those rare scores capable of transforming a film, making it feel truly special. Simply put, it is one of the best and most fitting scores ever composed for a Western.
The picture quality of the film is remarkable. It has been fully restored by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, which has enhanced the gritty style of the film. It also benefits from a great high-definition transfer. From the wrinkles on the actors’ faces to the shine on their guns and the dust on their coats – every detail is discernible. Essentially, this is the best that the film has ever looked.
The extras are a little underwhelming. Aside from being able to choose between THE ‘original’ and ‘restored’ cuts of the film, there’s little here that didn’t already exist on the 2-disc DVD set that came out in 2003. There is a commentary track with contributions from various film historians, directors, and select cast and crew. There is a 3-part documentary about Sergio Leone and the production of the film. For the more academic viewers, these may be of interest. Others can feel free to ignore.
This is, undoubtedly, the definitive version of a very special experience. It is perhaps too heavy for those who do not consider themselves fans of the genre, but for those who do, this is nirvana. Existing fans should not even pause to consider – you must add this your collection.
- Commentary – with contributions from film historians Sir Christopher Frayling and Dr. Sheldon Hall, directors Alex Cox, John Carpenter and John Milius, select cast and crew including Claudia Cardinale.
- Documentaries – 3-part series including interviews, photo clips, information on Sergio Leone’s path to becoming a filmmaker, the production of the movie.
- Railroad: Revolutionising the West – Photos and film clips of historical relevance to the movie
- Locations: Then and Now
- Production Gallery – Film production and on-location photos
- Theatrical Trailer (HD)
'Once Upon A Time In The West' is available to purchase at Amazon.co.uk etc.