Once Upon a Time in the West

Once Upon a Time in the WestLongtime reader and insightful commenter JMF had mentioned a few times that he really liked the Sergio Leone film Once Upon a Time in the West. I hadn’t thought that much of it, but I’d only seen it once about 20 years ago. So I decided to revisit it. And it was a revelation.

One thing I wouldn’t have noticed 20 years ago is just how beautiful this film is. In fact, I’ve been trying to think of a film that is clearly better and nothing comes to mind. Every shot is beautiful. There is absolutely nothing in the film that does not show great care in terms of art direction, lighting, and camera. Even the rear projection is beautiful.

But the biggest revelation is how political the film is. This shouldn’t be surprising. Leone was generally pretty political, and in ways that I very much agree with. I especially like his comment on power and revolution in Duck You Sucker! (A Fistful of Dynamite). But in Once Upon a Time in the West, he has created an allegory. It tells a story of human initiative and how it is destroyed by the status quo of corporate hegemony. What’s more, we see how these power elites not only use organized crime but are in fact the same thing. There is a great scene where Frank (Henry Fonda) sits behind the desk of Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), the railroad tycoon. Morton asks, “How does it feel sitting behind that desk, Frank?” And Frank responds, “It’s almost like holding a gun, only much more powerful.” Indeed.

There is too much mother/whore nonsense going on in the film about the heroine Jill. But I must admit, Claudia Cardinale is a wonderful actress and one of the prettiest women who ever lived. Her character is very interesting, though. She has done and will do anything she needs to in order to survive. At one point early in the film, she explains herself, “If you want to, you can lay me over the table and amuse yourself. And even call in your men. Well, no woman ever died from that.[1] When you’re finished, all I’ll need will be a tub of boiling water, and I’ll be exactly what I was before—with just another filthy memory.” Unlike Frank and Morton, she has a soul; so she cleans up fine.

One thing that I used to dislike in Leone films that I now see as an advantage is his lack of transitions. In Once Upon a Time in the West, important plot points are simply not shown. Normally they are explained later. For instance, Morton and his men are found all shot up. Who did it? We don’t find out until the very end of the film, although it’s pretty clear. Drama requires that the alpha hero kill the alpha villain and the beta hero kill the beta villain. (And the gamma villain is often referred to as the “dog villain” because drama shortcut for such characters is to have them kick a dog.)

I’m going to re-watch a bunch of Leone films and compare them. But I think JMF is right: Once Upon a Time in the West is probably Sergio Leone’s best film.

[1] For the record, yes, I know: lots of women have died from that.

3 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time in the West

  1. Glad you enjoyed that one. I don’t categorize things like films I enjoy as "best" because different people have different aesthetics. The opening scene in "West," with the recurrent squeak of the ancient windmill, as gunmen tense up for a showdown, entertains the hell out of me. But someone who doesn’t enjoy movies playing with the formalities of a genre — who just wants a good story — might be bored by it. And I think that’s a perfectly legitimate point of view.

    "West" IS gorgeous. We take that for granted, now, but at the time maybe only David Lean put as much effort into getting photography of landscapes just right. Even now, with better equipment and small armies of second-unit cinematographers, perfect shots of scenery don’t often play a dramatic role in the story’s conception. They’re pretty to look at.

    Leone had a love for what he saw in American westerns — the mythology of open territory (not really open, of course, ask a native) presenting the kind of chance Europe didn’t have, the chance to start again. Would civilization make the same mistake twice, empowering the guilty and greedy, or would it renew itself?

    Of course that’s not a realistic view of America’s westward expansion. But neither were the old Westerns. John Ford’s were better-shot and better-acted than most (Orson Wells said he watched "Stagecoach" a zillion times when he was preparing to direct "Kane"), yet like most Westerns his movies presented the central conflict as a hagiographic American fable. No matter the obstacle (Injuns, stark desert-y territory), we’ll solve it, because our men are gusty and our women supportive etc., etc.

    Leone and Peckinpah both added a different wrinkle to the genre – not how the West was won, but how it was lost. To them, the Western wasn’t about settlers versus savages/starkness but the individual versus corrupt, conventional, Eastern (European) values.

    Peckinpah’s characters were more morally complex – no Henry Fonda in a black hat for him – but his vision of the West was simpler than Leone’s. Peckinpah, in every situation, worships the gunfighter, the outlaw. He can’t imagine any kind of western settlement that doesn’t bring with it the worst of civilization (particularly fundamentalist religion; Peckinpah’s repeated mockery of religious blather is just about the only thing making his movies worth watching today, it’s a pure unadulterated hatred, vividly expressed.)

    In Leone’s movies (especially “West”) the lone gunfighter or the outlaw is still an iconic figure, doomed to extinction by settlement (thereby retaining his sentimental value for us moviegoers.) Still, Leone imagines some possible virtue in new beginnings. In a West settled but devoid of the Mortons (it still takes the outlaws/gunfighters to defeat them; the idea of a labor movement is absent – not as photogenic, and Leone was all about the photogenic.)

    Perhaps the thing that makes QT’s repeated attempts to channel Leone/Peckinpah most futile is that QT has none of their odd passions. All those moviemakers relish tweaking a genre they sentimentally adore in order to express a simplistic yet passionately-felt emotion. For Leone/Peckinpah, it’s what “the West” symbolized for them. QT’s passion is to tweak/love the genre, it has no connection to actual people. He pulled it off best with “Kill Bill,” where he tried to show viewers that chopsocky movies meant as much to him as those Western epics meant to Peckinpah/Leone, and he convinced me his admiration for chopsocky was sincere. Fitting Nazi resistance and American slavery into the same formula has had seriously diminishing returns.

    To watch these old Westerns takes a great deal of tolerance. The symbolism means almost nothing to modern viewers (the best of it’s been copied so often, the worst of it was always dull at best and deeply offensive quite frequently.) If you have any curiosity about others, I’d suggest “Ride The High Country” (which I enjoy more than “The Wild Bunch”) and John Ford’s strange, near-the-end-of-his-career epic “The Searchers.” That one’s borderline too cheesy for words (the broad humor is even more annoying than the mother/whore fixation in “West”) yet it has the weirdest John Wayne role, ever. Jean-Luc Godard (a major QT influence) said he hated everything Wayne stood for (who wouldn’t?) but wept at the climax.

    Rant over – glad you enjoyed "West", and looking forward to other Leone reviews if you do them. You pick out interesting things to focus on, as always . . .

  2. @JMF – You are right that Leone and Peckinpah have odd obsessions and that is a lot of what makes them great. And you are right about the opening of [i]West[/i]. Actually: the whole movie. The further Leone got in his career, the more time he took. [i]West[/i] could easily be an hour and a half long. It just wouldn’t be a Leone film.

    I rather like westerns because of their iconic nature: good versus bad and all that. But mainstream westerns tend to piss me off. The only western with Wayne I recall really liking is [i]Stagecoach[/i] and even there I don’t like him in it. I’m not that big a Ford fan. I like moralizing, just not childish moralizing. I still enjoy watching [i]The Ox-Bow Incident[/i].

    One other thing: I like seeing Fonda as a villain. James Stewart and he really annoy me sometimes. Of course, there are lots of Fonda movies I really like. I think Stewart tends to make any film he’s in worse.

  3. One thing about Fonda — consider his daughter. He couldn’t have been all that dumb, or Jane wouldn’t have gone to Hanoi. Which she did right around the time Henry gave his best-ever performance as the villain in "West." He doesn’t just play the black hat, he revels in it. He oozes ooky. It’s not Bogart in "Sierra Madre" level of star-turned-baddie acting, or some of the stuff Clooney has done lately, but it’s pretty impressive all the same. I like to think that at some level Fonda dug undermining every cliche Westerns stood for while inhabiting them at the same time, just like Leone was.

    "The Searchers" is, as I said, really awful, but beautifully shot and the Wayne role is something else. He plays (is? It’s not a Fonda-like turn, it’s Ford using a dumb actor as a puppet) a man obsessed by racism, to a degree that the thought of an abducted white chick getting nasty with an Indian drives him into a murderous rage. It’s a very John Ford, God-and-subservient-wimminfolk effort, yet the brutal character of Wayne’s madman transcends the cheese. It was a huge influence on Coppola, Scorsese and DePalma (also, unfortunately, Lucas.) It hints at something else John Ford could have become but never did.

    Also along the lines of "coulda, shoulda, woulda" is James Stewart in Anthony Mann’s "Winchester ’73", an episodic Western where irrational pursuit of a gun leads to several stories of people acting like assholes, "Twilight Zone"-style. Stewart is the barely moral core and he’s much more interesting as Bad Stewart than he ever was as America’s conscience. (Just like Henry Fonda: and Tom Hanks, take note, you could be a terrific bad guy.)

    As I wrote, though, tolerating these old westerns is a bit of a chore. I’d recommend only "Ride The High Country" to anyone who likes the formalist stories and good guy/bad guy drama (and who’s already seen all the Leones.) "The Searchers" and "Winchester ’73" are for serious film-history nerds, no-one else. "Bad Day At Black Rock," not strictly a Western but with the same kind of scenery and moral starkness, holds up really well (it’s about anti-Japanese racism during WWII, and has the best redneck-lunch-counter beatdown scene, ever.)

    End of ramble . . .

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