If you’ve ever traveled to, or even lived in, the western region of the United States, you probably realized just how vast it is. The wide-open spaces, the seemingly infinite horizon, and the various mountains and rock formations make it seem… well, big. And though it should seem simple, directors, cinematographers, and photographers have all struggled to capture that vastness. In Once Upon A Time in the West (1968), however, director Sergio Leone masterfully captures the scope of the setting in a way that makes it stand out today, more than 50 years later.
The way that every scene and especially every shot is presented is nothing short of brilliance. On a large scale, the landscapes in the west mentioned prior are presented just as wide and powerful as they are in real life, and even if you are watching the film in bed, quarantined, you will find yourself sinking into the dry heat of the American West, even if it is for just a moment. On a much smaller scale, the classic western standoff scene reaches the peak of its potential. Multiple times during the movie, when the silent tension approaches its crescendo, the camera focuses closely onto a character’s face, and specifically their eyes. There is never any dialogue, and the eyes never blink. The only things to focus on are the intensity of their gaze and the musical score that supports the scene. Not only is the raw emotion and tension projected outwards, but once again, the film makes you feel as if you occupy the same physical space as these oft-silent characters.
Unlike some films, the movie would fall completely flat if the actors portraying the leads were only moderately skilled at their craft, and indeed the cast of Once Upon A Time in the West does not disappoint. Charles Bronson plays the role of a man simply known as Harmonica, with a single mission. He speaks little, and announces his presence with a harmonica chord. If someone else played Harmonica, he might have seemed silly or out of place, but thanks to Bronson, he is a mysterious personification of vengeance. Lesser-known actor Jason Robards brings the gruff rogue Cheyenne to life. Claudia Cardinale plays the role of Jill McBain, the hero of the tale, and her anguish from her past feels just as real as her determination to finish what her late husband began.
Though the entire cast shines, no single actor compares to the legendary Henry Fonda, whose character is named Frank. Known for playing heroes such as Juror 8 in 12 Angry Men (1957), Fonda defies expectation in this film. In the first scene Frank appears, he commits a terrible crime. As you might expect, it is not the last time in the film that he behaves as a true villain, and he commands the screen every time he appears. Though Frank is originally working for a robber-baron railroad tycoon, it is clear that he is the main villain of the story, and without him, the film would not be one of the greatest westerns ever created.
The acting and setting—both visual elements of the film—are well done. However, the soundscape of Once Upon a Time in the West is nothing short of magical. The soundtrack was created by one of the greatest film composers of all time, Ennio Morricone. From Jill McBain’s thoughtful and resounding theme, to Harmonica’s mysteriously foreboding and often diegetic accompaniment (characterized by a harmonica, as you may have guessed), to the stunning ferocity of Frank’s electric guitar riff, the instrumentals alone are extraordinary. The main theme’s vocals, however, push the soundtrack over the top, and are just as grand as the visuals they accompany.
This epic of a film is not without noteworthy faults, however. The largest and most unfortunate is its portrayal of the movie’s protagonist, Jill McBain. For much of the film, she is an incredibly strong female lead who does not back down from danger. Especially in the western genre at the time, female protagonists were few and far between, and Jill McBain’s presence and role as a powerful woman could be considered progressive—especially considering her role as a sex worker. The power of her narrative is weakened, however, by the blatant misogyny she falls victim to multiple times. Though surely realistic for the time period, the scenes of sexual harassment and violation can be uncomfortable to watch, as it is difficult to imagine that realism was the main purpose of such scenes.
Once Upon A Time in the West is nearly three hours, so to explain all the major events that play out during its run time would be nearly impossible. Even if they could be described, the magic of the medium cannot be conveyed through words alone. Despite this, the themes of the movie are very simple and are revealed by the original Italian title, for which the rawest translation would be: Once Upon a Time, There was the West. At its simplest form, the movie ends the fantasy of the Wild West. There is little romanticism to spare in the film, and the gunfights are grittier than those of older classics like High Noon (1952). The stories of the classic western figures like the gunfighter, the rich man, and the bandit are concluded upon the film’s ending, resulting in either death or relegation to insignificance. The only thing that remains is the impending doom of the Old West at the hands of civilization. In his final significant movie in a genre that often idealizes that period of history, Sergio Leone kills the western.
One of the greatest westerns ever made, Once Upon A Time in the West is a tour-de-force of moviemaking. Its impact on cinema cannot be understated and directly influenced the likes of Quentin Tarantino. The visual and audio presentation blend to create a sensory bliss, and the movie lives up to the magical expectations that such a fairytale reminiscent title would suggest. The strong acting and imaginative characters put the finishing touches on an epic narrative matched only in proportion by the grand landscape of the American West.