I can’t really say I’ve ever been a fan of Westerns, but the few I enjoyed were almost exclusively by Sergio Leone. Once Upon a Time in the West marks my favorite of his films so far. A sprawling and engrossing spaghetti western epic about greed and vengeance in the old west, with great performances, a beautiful soundtrack by Ennio Morricone, and some of the best cinematography I’ve ever seen in a western. I understand now why this is considered not only one of the best westerns, but one of the best movies ever made.
Once Upon a time in the West has a very long, dense plot but I’ll do my best to summarize it. The movie begins by introducing us to a mysterious character called only by Harmonica (because of the instrument he always plays) who arrives at a train station. Three men who work for a man named ‘Frank’ are waiting to kill him, and in an incredibly tense scene, he takes all three of them out. The movie then jumps to the ‘Sweetwater’ homestead, as Brett McBain and his family prepare for the arrival of Brett’s new bride, Jill, coming by train. The McBain homestead is the only land in the area with access to water, and with the railroad coming in, is highly sought after by numerous parties; one of which moves to attack the McBain family at this welcoming party. The entire family is killed before Jill arrives, and as she is now a controlling member of this land, she happens to get swept up in the middle of this move for power.
Frank, the man responsible for the attack, made it look like a local bandit group (led by the criminal ‘Cheyenne’) killed the family, and he isn’t too pleased about it. Frank also happens to be doing this dirty work for a greedy, crippled oil tycoon by the name of Morton. It’s an incredibly expansive plot and tough to easily summarize (also why the movies is almost three hours long) and very little is told through exposition, especially by today’s standards. With all of these moving parts, the third act is incredibly strong, as everything is tied up in both an emotional and incredibly badass way (Harmonica is played by Charles Bronson for god’s sake!)
As Leone’s previous ‘Dollars’ trilogy focused more on the civil war and earlier periods in the old west, Once Upon a Time focuses more on the turn of the industrial age. Greed is a prevalent theme in the movie, as this era saw the origins of big businesses due to the great wealth that came with the railroads. Leone mixes that story with a more traditional ‘revenge’ story all in the same movie. All three antagonists have to work together to take down the greedy tycoon, and as Frank comments, while sitting behind Morton’s large desk, “It’s like holding a gun, but much more powerful.”
Two of the other components of the movie that stuck with me the most are the inventive soundtrack by Ennio Morricone and the cinematography by Tonino Colli. Morricone, who did the score for the ‘Dollars’ trilogy and much, much more made such versatile and unique music for this movie. At times it actually reminded me a lot of John Williams’ score for Star Wars, and this came out almost ten years before! It really shows how much those movies, and many after, were inspired by Morricone’s scores. The cinematography also portrays the wild west better and more vividly in this movie than in any I’ve ever seen. Huge, wide open expanses and tons of memorable shots of more intimate character situations, it’s all beautiful, inspired stuff.
That’s about it for Once Upon a Time in the West. I highly recommend you guys check it out if you get the chance. Even if you don’t particularly enjoy westerns, this one feels especially timeless. Westerns have a way of eluding the influence of the era’s they were made in, and this is a great example of that. Pure, epic storytelling at it’s finest.