Using a poll by readers, filmmakers, and movie critics, Empire, the world’s leading film magazine, recently published their 500 Greatest Films of All Time. While many of the results were predictable, it is interesting to note that 1969’s Once Upon a Time in the West came in at #14, the highest ranked western on list. On a side note, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and Quentin Tarantino all say it’s their favorite movie.
Director Sergio Leone had created the genre of Spaghetti Westerns with his Dollars Trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) and intended to retire from making westerns, believing he had said all he wanted to say. But before the studios would let him shoot conventional movies, they insisted he make one more. Leone thought it over and decided. He knew the popularity of westerns was dying and wanted this reflected in his new movie.
The arrival of the railroad marked the death of the mythic Old West. Trains brought the modern world and all it’s civilization and culture. The wild environment of rugged heroes was being replaced by the importance of the ordinary man. Understand that, and you will understand Once Upon a Time in the West as a nostalgic examination and exploration of the past.
Leone spent most of 1967 watching and making notes of all those classic Hollywood Westerns such as High Noon, The Searchers, 3:10 to Yuma, The Comancheros, Shane, Warlock, The Magnificent Seven, Winchester ’73, and My Darling Clementine. He watched them all and then constructed a story made up almost entirely of “references” to those great movies. This is a love song. It is a valentine.
He was laying to rest the legends of the Hollywood Western, hence the film’s title.
Once Upon a Time in the West.
There are some beautiful shots in this film. Staggeringly beautiful. But a shot in a film is not only composed of the camerawork. It is composed of the story behind the shot. It’s the decisions that led to the shot. The art direction. The location. The actors on screen.
And the music.
Long considered the greatest western ever filmed, Once Upon a Time in the West is truly a mythic film. It is an operatic film. In fact, while not usually noticed, it is essentially a musical.
In an unusual, but inspired move, Leone had composer Ennio Morricone write the musical score before filming began, and then had the music played on the set, which not only allowed Leone to synchronize camera movements and modulate editing rhythms with the tempo of the music, but also inspired the actors to shape their performances around the rhythms of the score. The result is an unrivalled marriage of music and image.
Take a look at this example, of the introduction of Claudia Cardinale to the story and it’s track and crane shot that accompanies Jill’s arrival in Flagstone. As the first few notes of Jill’s America begin, the camera tracks with Jill as she walks to the Flagstone train station, and then, as the music continues to build, the camera slowly cranes skyward, higher and higher until it passes over the station’s rooftop, finally revealing Jill on the other side walking in the bustling, half-built Western town just as Morricone’s soaring music reaches its rhapsodic crescendo. To call the shot awe-inspiring would be an understatement, but it is just one of countless such breathtaking moments in this masterpiece.
There are moments in Once Upon a Time in the West that are so perfect it’s mind-numbing. Horse trots are in perfect time with the music being played, the drop of a jacket hitting perfectly with the downbeat of the score.
Doesn’t happen often anymore in movies, and that’s a shame.
Show. Don’t Tell.
This is a three-hour film.
The script contains a grand total of 15 pages of dialogue.
I’ll leave it at that. Like I said, Once Upon a Time in the West is basically a musical.
Watch this gunfight between Bronson and Henry Fonda near the end of the movie. Just superb. At over 8 minutes long, Leone uses only 9 words of dialogue to outline an intense storyline. Charles Bronson says absolutely nothing. They walk. They wait. They circle each other. They stare at each other. They squint. They spit. They wince. And then when they finally seem prepared to shoot, Leone throws us into a flashback that explains everything. Then straight into the gunfight from total silence.
If you haven’t seen Once Upon a Time in the West, I hope this blog gives you a kick in the butt to do so. If you have, but don’t like it, oh well, it’s your opinion. Some might complain that it’s too long, but that misses the point. The film uses its length and depth to slow us down, to edge us out of the velocity of our daily lives, to enter a zone of reverie and meditation. When a sequence continues for what seems like an unreasonable length, we have a choice. We can be bored, or we can use it to reflect on what we’ve watched until now. It is a film that rewards patience. It’s about the journey, not the destination.
That’s the thing I appreciate most about the movie, is that it takes its time. It’s not afraid to be operatic. It’s not afraid to be what it is. It is an unabashed creative statement of a master filmmaker’s abilities, passions, and vision that is more and more rewarding with every viewing. It is the film I turn to when I need a creative jolt.
The nomadic wanderer, the lonesome cowboy or gunfighter, is the descendent of the old knights of Arthurian romances. He is our Ronin. He wanders the empty plains on horseback, fighting evil, rescuing damsels in distress, bound to nothing but his own innate code of honor. He is our enduring myth. And the American Western is our cultural legacy to the rest of the world.