Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) – A Spaghetti Western Masterpiece

Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” opens with three characters, I thought, trying to rob an upcoming train. The ten minutes of suspense really works when they want to introduce the main characters. And I thought these three guys were the main characters in this film. Meanwhile, they are just waiting for the train to come, for whatever reason, we never know. One guy sitting on the bench tried to relax but a fly tried to bother him. Another guy just stood there while drinking water on his hat. Then, the other guy just enjoys the sunshine while seeing whether the train has come or not.

After the train came, a package came and their mission completed. Then, a harmonica sound rang beside the train and the protagonist appeared. He asked whether they provided one more horse or not but the three of them only answered they didn’t provide it. In a sarcastic tone, the main characters say they carry more than one horse. They feel angry and annoyed by the treatment of the harmonica guy. And it’s just silent, silent, silent, and then the shootout came at first from the main character, killing three characters at once with a gun.

After completing the Dollars trilogy: “A Fistful of Dollars”, “For a Few Dollars More,” and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”, Sergio Leone actually just wanted to retire. After directing a lot of spaghetti western films, he felt that this time was over. However, United Artists asked Leone to make a western film once again, for the last time, luring a big budget. He also wants his favorite actor, Henry Fonda, to be invited to collaborate as the antagonist in this film. This is the first movie where Henry Fonda portrayed an evil character.

“Once Upon a Time in the West” combines all references to western and cowboy films into one. You can call it especially “The Magnificent Seven”, the 1960 version, and “High Noon”. It’s a timeless cult-classic western movie, not only referring to time but a memory containing a universal theme. This movie has many plots such as courtroom drama, action, shooting, romance, thriller, mystery, and others. Feel like this movie simply has a lot of things in it including what spaghetti western was like.

This movie conveys multiple plots of three or four main characters. First, there is the Harmonica (Charles Bronson). Second, there is the notorious criminal bandit, Cheyenne (Jason Robards). Fourth, there is Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) who wants to have a new life after her family is killed. And finally, there is Frank (Henry Fonda), the antagonist and the midpoint of all these stories. Each character has their own story and their own music theme too. Leone introduces them mysteriously using his own style: classic, full of motivation, and comic. Slowly, the movie tries to draw you into the atmosphere of this film, how hot the atmosphere is in this film, and how instinctive it is.

“Once Upon a Time in the West” emphasizes a style on its storytelling, using cinematic appeal, the movie has everything. One of the reasons why this film is strong when talking about tones is movement and suspense. Every character moves slowly, doesn’t talk much, like the protagonist, the Harmonica, doesn’t say much unless he wants to. Similar to the first opening sequence, for more than 10 minutes, the characters just sit, stay and wait. The suspense is amazing and every shootout scene, there is suspense where the protagonist is cornered by the enemy. My favorite one is when the negotiating scene between Frank and Harmonica in a bar.

The film is quiet but also crowded with so many characters of more than 100 people in a frame. Every frame is beautiful and indeed, Sergio Leone tries to avoid making his films not seem like a set in a studio. Therefore, it’s really hard to record a voice from every conversation when they are outside. They dub the sound to make it sounds clear. The movie is monotonous and dull at first especially when you aren’t familiar with films like this, including classic films. Yet, believe me, your boredom turns into one of the most fascinating movies you have ever seen.

Speaking of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock is indeed one director who is very consistent with this trademark and style. Indeed, it’s also difficult when comparing with Leone, especially with different trademarks. From a wide lens shot to the amazing pictures of Monument Valley, every count of this movie is gorgeous. This movie inspired many other films including Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino often uses trunk shots in each of his every movie where this movie also has the shot. Vince Gilligan was also inspired by Sergio Leone’s films including the shootout scene in a middle of nowhere in “Breaking Bad“. This movie spawns many pop culture.

In addition, the film is simple but every character is very deep. I think the most human character in this film is Jill McBain. At first, you think that she is just a whore to these three characters. In fact, she is the most powerful character and a driven character for the protagonist. She just came to her family’s village but only left their bodies. She went through a lot of pressure including how she could survive. In the end, she understood why she had come to the city, not having to cry or just be quiet, but she did get what she got.

Likewise with the protagonist, Harmonica and Cheyenne, and also the antagonist, Frank. Harmonica deserved what he wanted to find, just like the flashback scene where everything answers the main plot why he doesn’t have a name. Another reason why he has a Harmonica has an answer and all of this is connected with Frank. There is Cheyenne, initially meeting Harmonica guy but it seems they dropped each other through expressions. But, they work together and also understand each other if they have the same path. In the end, they were friends and helped each other even though it looked like they weren’t fully friends.

Sergio Leone likes to tell its stories through pictures, not through dialogue or anything. He really likes close-ups but I love every close up in this movie. All of the character expressions describe everything, describing how terrifying they are. With great Ennio Morricone’s score, this movie is just amazing, gorgeous, and beautiful. “Once Upon a Time in the West” is a trip, an adventure, a thrilling movie with such a beautiful frame you couldn’t really find in movies today. One of the best from Sergio Leone besides “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”.

5 out of 5 stars.