Once Upon a Time in the West
Once Upon a Time in the West
(C'era una volta il West)
Theatrical film poster by Frank McCarthy.
Directed by Sergio Leone Produced by Fulvio Mosella
Screenplay by Sergio Donati
Story by Dario Argento
Starring Henry Fonda
Music by Ennio Morricone Cinematography Tonino Delli Colli Editing by Nino Baragli Distributed by Paramount Pictures Release date(s) December 21, 1968 Running time 145 minutes (Theatrical)
166 minutes (Restored)
171 minutes (Extended)
Country Italy Language Italian
Budget $5 million Box office $5,321,508
Once Upon a Time in the West (Italian: C'era una volta il West) is a 1968 Italian epic spaghetti western film directed by Sergio Leone for Paramount Pictures. It stars Henry Fonda cast against type as the villain, Charles Bronson as his nemesis, Jason Robards as a bandit, and Claudia Cardinale as a newly widowed homesteader with a past as a prostitute. The screenplay was written by Leone and Sergio Donati, from a story devised by Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Dario Argento. The widescreen cinematography was by Tonino Delli Colli, and Ennio Morricone provided the film score.
In Europe, the film was a substantial box office success, playing for multiple years in some cities. However, it was greeted with a mostly negative critical response upon its 1969 theatrical release in the United States and was a financial flop. The film is now generally acknowledged as a masterpiece and one of the best western films ever made.
- 1 Plot
- 2 Cast
- 3 Production
- 4 Reception
- 5 Releases
- 6 Film references
- 7 Notes
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
- 10 External links
The film portrays two conflicts that take place around Flagstone, a fictional town in the American Old West: a land battle related to construction of a railroad, and a mission of vengeance against a cold-blooded killer. The main storyline revolves around a struggle for Sweetwater, a piece of land near Flagstone containing the region's only water source. The land was bought by Brett McBain (Frank Wolff), who foresaw that the railroad would have to pass through that area to provide water for the steam locomotives. When railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) learns of this, he sends his hired gun Frank (Fonda) to simply intimidate McBain to move off the land, but Frank instead kills McBain and his three children, planting evidence on the scene to frame the bandit Cheyenne (Robards) and his gang. By the time McBain's new bride, Jill (Cardinale), arrives from New Orleans, the family is dead and she is the owner of the land.
Meanwhile, a mysterious harmonica-playing gunman (Bronson), whom Cheyenne later dubs "Harmonica", pursues Frank. In the film's opening scene, Harmonica kills three men sent by Frank to kill him, and, in a roadhouse on the way to Sweetwater, he informs Cheyenne that the three gunfighters he killed appeared to be posing as Cheyenne's men. Sometime later, Harmonica kills two men sent by Frank to kill Jill.
Back at Sweetwater, construction materials are delivered to build a railroad station and a small town. Harmonica explains to Cheyenne that Jill will lose Sweetwater unless the station is built by the time the track's construction crews reach that point, and Cheyenne puts his men to work building it.
Meanwhile, Frank turns against Morton, who wanted to make a deal with Jill. Frank's betrayal is made easy by the fact that Morton is crippled. After having his way with her, Frank forces Jill to sell the property in an auction. He tries to buy the farm cheaply by intimidating the other bidders, but Harmonica arrives, holding Cheyenne at gunpoint, and makes a much higher bid based on his reward money for delivering Cheyenne to the authorities. After rebuffing another intimidation attempt by Frank, Harmonica sells the farm back to Jill. At this point, some of Frank's men try to kill Frank, having been paid by Morton to turn against him, but Harmonica helps Frank kill them in order to save that privilege for himself.
After Morton and the rest of Frank's men are killed in a battle with Cheyenne's gang, Frank goes to Sweetwater to confront Harmonica. On two occasions, Frank has asked Harmonica who he is, but both times Harmonica refused to answer him. Instead, he mysteriously quoted names of men Frank has murdered. The two men position themselves for a duel, at which point Harmonica's motive for revenge is revealed in a flashback: When Harmonica was a boy, Frank killed his older brother by tying a noose to the top of an arch, placing it around the brother's neck, and forcing Harmonica to support his brother on his shoulders with a harmonica in his mouth. Harmonica draws first and shoots Frank, and when Frank again asks who he is, he puts the harmonica in Frank's mouth. Frank nods weakly in recognition and dies.
With Frank dead, Harmonica and Cheyenne say goodbye to Jill, who is supervising construction of the train station as the track-laying crews reach Sweetwater. Cheyenne collapses almost immediately, revealing that he was shot by Morton while he and his men were fighting Frank's gang. The work train arrives, and the film ends as Jill carries water to the rail workers and Harmonica rides off with Cheyenne's body towards the horizon.
- Henry Fonda as Frank
- Charles Bronson as Harmonica
- Claudia Cardinale as Jill McBain
- Jason Robards as Cheyenne
- Gabriele Ferzetti as Morton
- Paolo Stoppa as Sam
- Woody Strode as Stony
- Jack Elam as Snaky
- Keenan Wynn as Sheriff
- Frank Wolff as Brett McBain
- Lionel Stander as Barman
- Al Mulock as Knuckles
After making his American Civil War epic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Leone had intended to retire from making Westerns, believing he had said all he wanted to say. He had come across the novel The Hoods by the pseudonymous "Harry Grey", an autobiographical book based on the author's own experiences as a Jewish hood during Prohibition, and planned to adapt it into a film (this would eventually, seventeen years later, become his final film, Once Upon a Time in America). Leone though was offered only Westerns by the Hollywood studios. United Artists (who had produced the Dollars Trilogy) offered him the opportunity to make a film starring Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas and Rock Hudson, but Leone refused. However, when Paramount offered Leone a generous budget along with access to Henry Fonda — his favorite actor, with whom he had wanted to work for virtually all of his career — Leone accepted the offer.
Leone commissioned Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento – both of whom were film critics before becoming directors – to help him develop the film in late 1966. The men spent much of the following year watching and discussing numerous classic Westerns such as High Noon, The Iron Horse, The Comancheros, and The Searchers at Leone's house, and constructed a story made up almost entirely of "references" to American Westerns.
Ever since The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which originally ran for three hours, Leone's films were usually cut (often quite dramatically) for box office release. Leone was very conscious of the length of Once Upon a Time in the West during filming and later commissioned Sergio Donati, who had worked on several of Leone's other films, to help him refine the screenplay, largely to curb the length of the film towards the end of production. Many of the film's most memorable lines of dialogue came from Donati, or from the film's English dialogue director, expatriate American actor Mickey Knox.
For Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone changed his approach over his earlier westerns. Whereas the "Dollars" films were quirky and up-tempo, a celebratory yet tongue-in-cheek parody of the icons of the wild west, this film is much slower in pace and sombre in theme. Leone's distinctive style, which is very different from, but very much influenced by, Akira Kurosawa's Sanshiro Sugata (1943), is still present but has been modified for the beginning of Leone's second trilogy, the so-called "Once Upon a Time" trilogy. The characters in this film are also beginning to change markedly over their predecessors in the "Dollars" westerns. They are not quite as defined and, unusually for Leone characters up to this point, they begin to change (or at least attempt to) over the course of the story. This signals the start of the second phase of Leone's style, which would be further developed in A Fistful of Dynamite and Once Upon a Time in America.
The film features long, slow scenes in which there is very little dialogue and little happens, broken by brief and sudden violence. Leone was far more interested in the rituals preceding violence than in the violence itself. The tone of the film is consistent with the arid semi-desert in which the story unfolds, and imbues it with a feeling of realism that contrasts with the elaborately choreographed gunplay.
The brick arch where Bronson's character flashbacks to his youth and the original lynching incident was built near a small airport fifteen miles north of Monument Valley in Utah, two miles from Highway 163 which links Gouldings Lodge and Mexican Hat. The famous opening sequence with the three gunman meeting the train was the last sequence filmed in Spain. Shooting at Cattle Corner Station, as the location was called in the story, was scheduled for four days and was filmed along the railway line near Estación de Calahorra, outside Guadix, Spain. Actor Al Mulock, who plays Knuckles in the opening sequence, committed suicide in Guadix just before this sequence was finished filming.
Fonda did not accept Leone's first offer to play Frank, so Leone flew to New York to convince him, telling him: "Picture this: the camera shows a gunman from the waist down pulling his gun and shooting a running child. The camera tilts up to the gunman's face and...it's Henry Fonda." After meeting with Leone, Fonda called his friend Eli Wallach, who advised him to do the film, as "You will have the time of your life."
When he accepted the role, Fonda came to the set with brown contacts and facial hair. Fonda felt having dark eyes and facial hair would blend well with his character's evil and also help the audience to accept this "new" Fonda as the bad guy, but Leone immediately told him to remove the contacts and facial hair. Leone felt that Fonda's blue eyes best reflected the cold, icy nature of the killer. It was one of the first times in a western film where the villain would be played by the lead actor.
Leone originally offered the role of Harmonica to Clint Eastwood; when he turned it down, Leone hired Charles Bronson who had originally been offered and turned down the part of the Man with No Name in A Fistful of Dollars. James Coburn was also approached for Harmonica but demanded too much money.
Enrico Maria Salerno and Robert Hossein were both offered the role of Morton before Gabriele Ferzetti was cast; Hossein had accepted but had to drop out for a theatre commitment. Ferzetti, who considers it one of his best roles, referred to his casting as "Fate, Destiny" in an interview for the DVD release.
Actor Al Mulock (featured in the opening train sequence as well as in Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) committed suicide during shooting of the film by leaping from his hotel room in full costume. Frank Wolff, the actor who plays McBain, also committed suicide in a Rome hotel in 1971.
The music was written by composer Ennio Morricone, Leone's regular collaborator, who wrote the score under Leone's direction before filming began. As in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the haunting music contributes to the film's grandeur and, like the music for The Good the Bad and the Ugly, is considered one of Morricone's greatest compositions.
The film features leitmotifs that relate to each of the main characters (each with their own theme music) as well as to the spirit of the American West. Especially compelling are the wordless vocals by Italian singer Edda Dell'Orso during the theme music for the Claudia Cardinale character. It was Leone's desire to have the music available and played during filming. Leone had Morricone compose the score before shooting started and would play the music in the background for the actors on set.
Though less popular in the US than the earlier "Dollars Trilogy", Once Upon a Time in the West has gained an ardent cult following around the world, particularly among cineastes and filmmakers. In the late 1960s and 1970s, it was re-evaluated by many young filmmakers and critics, many of whom called it a masterpiece. Directors, such as Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, John Carpenter, John Milius, John Boorman, and Baz Luhrmann, have all spoken about the influence that the film had on them. It is now considered one of the greatest films ever made and some critics consider it to be the finest Western and Sergio Leone's finest accomplishment as a director. Once Upon a Time in the West can be found on numerous film polls. The film currently holds a near perfect 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
- Time named Once Upon a Time in the West as one of the 100 greatest films of the 20th century.
- In They Shoot Pictures, Don't They's list of the 1000 Greatest Films, Once Upon a Time in the West is placed at number 62.
- Total Film magazine placed Once Upon a Time in the West in their special edition issue of the 100 Greatest Movies.
- In 2008, Empire held a poll of "The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time", taking votes from 10,000 readers, 150 filmmakers and 50 film critics. "Once Upon a Time in the West" was voted in at number 14, the highest Western on the list.
In the US, the film had a rather poor opening reception, gaining largely negative or indifferent reviews in its complete form (165 minutes). Paramount edited the film to about 145 minutes for the wide release, but the film tanked at the box office. The following scenes were cut for the American release:
- The entire scene at Lionel Stander's trading post. Cheyenne (Robards) was not introduced in the American release until his arrival at the McBain ranch later in the film. Stander remained in the credits, even though he did not appear in this version at all.
- The scene in which Morton and Frank discuss what to do with Jill at the Navajo Cliffs.
- Morton's death scene was reduced considerably.
- Cheyenne's death scene was completely excised.
Otherwise, one scene was slightly longer in the US version than in the international film release:
Following the opening duel (where all four gunmen fire and fall), Charles Bronson's character stands up again showing that he had only been shot in the arm. This part of the scene had been originally cut by director Sergio Leone for the worldwide theatrical release. It was added again for the U.S. market because the American distributors feared American viewers would not understand the story otherwise, especially since Harmonica's arm wound is originally shown for the first time in the scene at the trading post which was cut for the shorter U.S. version.
The English language version was restored to approximately 165 minutes for a re-release in 1984, and for its video release the following year.
A slightly longer, 168-minute version exists in Italy which features several scenes augmented with additional material, though no complete scenes are present that are missing. The longest known cut is 171 minutes long and is only unofficially available as a bootleg copy on various file sharing platforms.
German language release
The German-language release has been titled Spiel mir das Lied vom Tod ("Play to me the Song of Death"). In the original (English) version, Frank says "Keep your lovin' brother happy" when he shoves the harmonica in young Harmonica's mouth as he stands supporting his brother; this line is overdubbed with Na komm' – spiel mir das Lied vom Tod ("Come – play to me the Song of Death"). While Harmonica silently puts the instrument between Frank's teeth as he is dying after their climactic duel, in the German edition his voice (while Bronson's character is off-screen and the camera is focused on Fonda's face) says Spiel mir das Lied vom Tod, Frank!. This stresses Harmonica's story and his reason for seeking revenge, and strongly emphasizes Harmonica's theme and its sinister origin and meaning to the point of tilting the focus of the entire film to this theme.
Since the original line is the only mention of Harmonica's brother, many German viewers of the film believe that the lynched man is Harmonica's father. There are some other additions to the original text as well, most notably a line Frank says to Morton – "Pacific Ocean, hm?" – as Morton is dying in a mud puddle.
After years of public requests, Paramount released a 2-Disc "Special Collector's Edition" of Once Upon a Time in the West on November 18, 2003, with a running time of 165 minutes (158 minutes in some regions).[nb 1] This release is the color 2.35:1 aspect ratio version in anamorphic wide-screen, closed captioned and Dolby. Commentary is also provided by film experts and historians such as John Carpenter, John Milius, Alex Cox, film historian and Leone biographer Sir Christopher Frayling, Dr. Sheldon Hall, as well as actors Claudia Cardinale and Gabriele Ferzetti, and director Bernardo Bertolucci, a co-writer of the film.
The second disc has special features, including three recent documentaries on several aspects of the film:
- An Opera of Violence
- The Wages of Sin
- Something to Do with Death
There is a Railroads: Revolutionizing the West featurette, location and production galleries, cast profiles, as well as the original trailer.
Leone's intent was to take the stock conventions of the American Westerns of John Ford, Howard Hawks and others, and rework them in an ironic fashion, essentially reversing their intended meaning in their original sources to create a darker connotation. The most obvious example of this is the casting of veteran film good guy Henry Fonda as the villainous Frank, but there are also many other, more subtle reversals throughout the film. According to film critic and historian Christopher Frayling, the film quotes from as many as 30 classic American Westerns.
The major films referenced include:
- High Noon. The opening sequence is similar to the opening High Noon, in which three bad guys (Lee Van Cleef, Sheb Wooley and Robert J. Wilke) wait at a station for the arrival of their gang leader (also named Frank, played by Ian MacDonald) on the noon train. In the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West, three bad guys (Jack Elam, who appeared in a small part in High Noon, Woody Strode, and Al Mulock) wait at a station. However, the period of waiting is depicted in a lengthy eight-minute sequence, the train arrives several hours after noon, and its passenger is the film's hero (Charles Bronson) rather than its villain. The scene is famous for its use of natural sounds: a squeaky windmill, knuckles cracking, and Jack Elam's character trying to shoo off a fly. According to rumor, Leone offered the parts of the three bad guys to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly stars Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach.
- 3:10 to Yuma. This cult Western by Delmer Daves may have had considerable influence on the film. The most obvious reference is a brief exchange between Keenan Wynn's Sheriff and Cheyenne, in which they discuss sending the latter to Yuma prison. In addition, as in West the main villain is played by an actor (Glenn Ford) who normally played good guys. The film also features diegetic music (Ford at one point whistles the film's theme song just as Harmonica provides music in West). And the scene in which Van Heflin's character escorts Ford to the railroad station while avoiding an ambush by his gang may have inspired the ambush of Frank by his own men in Leone's film.
- The Comancheros. The name McBain and the name of the town Sweetwater come from this film.
- Johnny Guitar. The character of Jill McBain is supposedly based on Joan Crawford's character Vienna, and Harmonica may be influenced by Sterling Hayden's title character. Some of the basic plot (settlers vs. the railroad) may be recycled from this film.
- The Iron Horse. West may contain several subtle references to this film, including a low angle shot of a shrieking train rushing towards the screen in the opening scene, and the shot of the train pulling into the Sweetwater station at the end of the film.
- Shane. The massacre scene in West features young Timmy McBain hunting with his father, just as Joey hunts with his father in Shane. The funeral of the McBains is borrowed almost shot-for-shot from Shane.
- The Searchers. Leone admitted that during the massacre of the McBain family, the rustling bushes, the stopping of the cicada chirps, and the fluttering pheasants to suggest a menace approaching the farmhouse, were all taken from The Searchers. The ending of the film — where Western nomads Harmonica and Cheyenne are forced to move on rather than join modern society — also echoes the famous ending of Ford's film.
- Warlock. At the end of this film, Henry Fonda's character wears clothing very similar to his costume throughout West. In addition, Warlock features a discussion about mothers between Fonda and Dorothy Malone that is similar to those between Cheyenne and Jill in West. Finally, Warlock contains a sequence in which Fonda's character kicks a crippled man off his crutches, as he does to Mr. Morton in West.
- The Magnificent Seven. In this film, Charles Bronson's character whittles a piece of wood. In West, he does the same, although in a different context. The Magnificent Seven was based on the Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa whose Yojimbo (The Bodyguard) was the inspiration (and later, litigation) behind a Leone's A Fistful of Dollars.
- Winchester '73. It has been claimed that the scenes in West at the trading post are based on those in Winchester '73, but the resemblance is slight.
- The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The dusters (long coats) worn by Frank and his men in the opening massacre resemble those worn by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and his henchmen when they are introduced in this film. In addition, the auction scene in West was intended to recall the election scene in Liberty Valance.
- The Last Sunset. The final duel between Frank and Harmonica is shot almost identically to the duel between Kirk Douglas and Rock Hudson in this film.
- Duel in the Sun. The character of Morton, the crippled railroad baron in West, was based on the character played by Lionel Barrymore in this film.
- Sergeant Rutledge (with Woody Strode as the title character). In this John Ford Western, there is a scene in which Constance Towers' character falls asleep in a chair with a rifle in her lap, looking out for hostile Apache, just as Jill McBain does in Leone's film.
- My Darling Clementine. In the trading post scene, Cheyenne slides Harmonica's gun down the bar to him, challenging him to shoot – much like Morgan Earp (Ward Bond) sliding his weapon to brother Wyatt (Henry Fonda) in the Ford film when the Earps meet Doc Holiday (Victor Mature) for the first time. Also, a deleted scene in West featured Frank getting a shave with perfume in a barber's shop, much like Fonda's Wyatt.
Contrary to popular belief, the name of the town "Sweetwater" was not taken from The Wind, Victor Sjöström's silent epic. Bernardo Bertolucci has stated that he looked at a map of the southwestern United States, found the name of the town in Arizona, and decided to incorporate it into the film. However, a "Sweetwater" — along with a character named McBain — also appeared in a John Wayne Western, The Comancheros, which Leone admired.
Once Upon a Time in the West, itself, is referenced in The Quick and the Dead, with Gene Hackman's character, John Herod, facing Ellen, a.k.a. "Lady" (Sharon Stone) in the final gunfight. Her identity is a mystery until the end, when the audience sees Ellen's flashback to Herod lynching her father, a sheriff, and giving her a chance to save her father by shooting the rope and severing it, but it goes wrong. As with Frank, Herod yells, "Who are you?" and the only response he receives is an artifact from the earlier lynching, in this case the sheriff's badge that Ellen has kept all these years. The Quick and the Dead has another connection to Once Upon a Time in the West: It was the final film for Woody Strode, who died before it could be released.
Many other films have paid tribute to Leone's film. Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds opens with a lengthy sequence entitled Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France (though in specifics the scene bears more resemblance to Lee Van Cleef's entrance in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), and his Kill Bill films feature snatches of Morricone's soundtrack. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End features a parody of the "Man With a Harmonica" theme on the soundtrack, as the film's protagonists parlay on a sandbar before the final battle. Baz Luhrman's Australia features several nods to Leone's film, including a homestead with a squeaky windmill, an almost-identical funeral scene, and the antagonistic relationship of the film's villains.
- ^ The 7-minute regional variation in DVD running time is due to speed differences between the NTSC and PAL video formats. It does not indicate a difference in content.
- ^ "http://www.dvdtimes.co.uk/content.php?contentid=11651". Dvdtimes.co.uk. http://www.dvdtimes.co.uk/content.php?contentid=11651. Retrieved 2011-06-12.
- ^ Cale, Matt (2006-03-09). "http://www.ruthlessreviews.com/1752/once-upon-a-time-in-the-west/". Ruthlessreviews.com. http://www.ruthlessreviews.com/1752/once-upon-a-time-in-the-west/. Retrieved 2011-06-12.
- ^ "25 new titles added to National Film Registry". Yahoo News (Yahoo). 2009-12-30. http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20091230/ap_en_mo/us_classic_films_glance;_ylt=Am9aCMfxzzsN4EY9F802IESs0NUE;_ylu=X3oDMTNzcHU5NnU4BGFzc2V0A2FwLzIwMDkxMjMwL3VzX2NsYXNzaWNfZmlsbXNfZ2xhbmNlBGNjb2RlA21vc3Rwb3B1bGFyBGNwb3MDMTAEcG9zAzcEcHQDaG9tZV9jb2tlBHNlYwN5bl9oZWFkbGluZV9saXN0BHNsawMyNW5ld3RpdGxlc2E-. Retrieved 2009-12-30. [dead link]
- ^ "http://www.fistful-of-leone.com/articles/knox.html". Fistful-of-leone.com. http://www.fistful-of-leone.com/articles/knox.html. Retrieved 2011-06-12.
- ^ "Location Filming for Once Upon A Time in the West". Fistfuloflocations.com. http://fistfuloflocations.com/otw_compix.html. Retrieved 2011-06-12.
- ^ a b Kehr, Dave (2011). "Once Upon a Time in the West". When movies mattered : reviews from a transformative decade. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226429410.
- ^ "Once Upon a Time in the West (C'era una volta il West)". Rotten Tomatoes. http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/once_upon_a_time_in_the_west/. Retrieved 2011-06-12.
- ^ http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/once_upon_a_time_in_the_west/
- ^ 'An Opera of Violence', documentary on the DVD Once Upon a Time in the West: Special Collector's Edition
- ^ "http://www.fistful-of-leone.com/articles/didyouknow.html". Fistful-of-leone.com. http://www.fistful-of-leone.com/articles/didyouknow.html. Retrieved 2011-06-12.
- ^ a b c d e f g h i Frayling[Full citation needed]
- Fawell, John (2005). The art of Sergio Leone's Once upon a time in the West: a critical appreciation. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland. ISBN 0-7864-2092-8.
- Once Upon a Time in the West at the Internet Movie Database
- Once Upon a Time in the West at the Spaghetti Western Database
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