Review: C’era Una Volta Il West (Once Upon A Time In The West, 1968)


We return to the Western with an epic from Sergio Leone!

Screenplay By: Sergio Donati & Sergio Leone
Directed By: Sergio Leone

I don’t think there’s any way possible I can end up not liking a movie with this line,

“How can I trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? The man can’t even trust his own pants.”

It’s just not possible, no matter how you slice, it, I will love a movie that contains that line. You add Sergio Leone, Ennio Morricone, Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards and Claudia Cardinale to the mix and we have an instant classic on our hands and a movie that gives Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo. a run for its money as the best spaghetti Western, neigh Western, of all time.

I have in the past spoken about the excellence of Ennio Morricone’s scores, but I dare say that he has done no finer work than in C’era Una Volta Il West. Morricone has produced some fine music in other films, but I don’t believe he has ever produced music that goes hand in hand with the film in perfect synchronicity like in C’era Una Volta Il West. The score evokes intrigue, pauses to let characters talk, brings out power, despair, death and a plethora of other emotions. More than any other score Morricone has performed, C’era Una Volta Il West brings out an intense energy in the viewer. There are moments in the film, such as the final showdown between Frank and Harmonica, where the characters don’t need to do a single thing. That music kicks in and I am gone, instantly jazzed up and blown away by the music alone.

I don’t believe Sergio Leone ever gets enough credit as a great director, at least among the supposed critics and film historians. There are some who do give him the credit he deserves, but more often than not I hear his work lauded as cool and nothing more. C’era Una Volta Il West is Leone at his best as a director, a major reason for that being the theme of introduction that he brings to the film. There is never a major moment in C’era Una Volta Il West where the camera is stagnant or static. Whether it is a reveal, a look at a great landscape, a shootout or an important word from a character the camera is always in motion. The camera is moving left to right, right to left, up to down and down to up, when that big moment comes the camera is in motion, allowing the viewer to slowly take in the significance of what they are seeing. It’s a very small thing, it took me a second viewing to pick up on it, but is is truly the work of a great director. Take Jill’s trek to the rail office for instance. The camera pans with her, following her every movement, bringing every discovery she makes to our eyes at the same time until finally the camera moves upward to reveal the bustling Western town hidden behind the rail office. The employment of this theme helps C’era Una Volta Il West display its grandeur and emphasizes the skill Leone possesses as a director.

C’era Una Volta Il West moves at its own pace, and that pace is languid. However, it isn’t dull, the languid pace allows you to take everything in, to fully understand what is happening on screen and what it might lead to later or what Leone might be trying to say at any given moment. The opening scene is true magic in this regard. At a very slow pace three gunmen are revealed, they are shown to be bad asses, men to watch out for. We see little quirks they have that may matter, or maybe they don’t? Leone builds these gunmen up in our minds and just as quickly they are shot down by Harmonica. In one fell swoop Leone has established the visual look of the film, the tone, the pace and that Harmonica represents a bad ass level beyond bad ass, if that is even possible.

In the Leone films I have seen, he tends to operate with small themes, but in C’era Una Volta Il West he has gone after a large theme in the railroad and the death of the Old West. The railroad represents the corrupt nature of the times, but it also represents the changing of the guard. The further out the railroad stretches the less Frank’s and Harmonica’s you will find. The railroad brings modernization, and gunmen are anything but modern. The conflict between Frank and Harmonica sums up this theme. Harmonica is solid in his place as a member of the dying times, while Frank is trying to grab a hold of the new ways, to become a modern businessman. Harmonica finally lures Frank into a gunfight by appealing to the Old West that resides in Frank, he makes Frank throw away his aspirations for modernness and face the fact that he is a child of the Old West as well. As is to be expected a conflict between two members of the Old West can only end in a gunfight, no modernization can handle the resolution the two men seek.

I’ve gone this far and I haven’t touched on the acting, for shame on my part, but that should tell you how great of a film C’era Una Volta Il West is. Henry Fonda is amazing, in Frank he creates a character that is the polar opposite of how we view Henry Fonda. He creates one of the most dastardly villains ever put to screen and he does so simply, without going over the top. Charles Bronson does much the same with Harmonica, bringing to life a character that is only out for revenge, and someone who is cold, aloof and unnerving in his thirst for revenge. Jason Robards is the funny one of the bunch, he’s just as much of a killer, but he has fun while doing it and gets himself into funnier scenarios. But, when the chips are down he brings harsh reality to Cheyenne. Lastly there is Claudia Cardinale, who isn’t given as much to work with as any of her male counterparts, but does play her role to perfection.

The spaghetti Western has quickly become a favorite genre of mine and C’era Una Volta Il West is at the very least one of the best from that genre. It is epic in all the right places, eminently quotable, with an amazing score, tremendous acting, beautiful visuals, terrific direction, a coolness about it and scenes that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up with anticipation. C’era Una Volta Il West is Sergio Leone at his very best, there’s no reason for you not to see this, and don’t ever trust anyone who wears a belt and suspenders, I know I don’t.





2 responses to “Review: C’era Una Volta Il West (Once Upon A Time In The West, 1968)

  1. I’m toying with the idea of doing a Sergio Leone marathon at Filmspotting. He only made 7 feature length films, so it would be much quicker to tackle than the Disney animation marathon. Leone is one of my all time favourite directors even though I’ve only seen 5 of his 7 films. Maybe in May I could wing all of them, 2 per week on average.

    And yes, C’era Una Volta Il West is a thing of beauty. You can copy/paste your review when I do the marathon.

  2. Bill Thompson

    I am the king o’ copy and pasting!

    The four Leone films I’ve reviewed on my site are the only four Leone films I’ve seen, but I enjoyed them all and you can definitely see an improvement with each film. He’s shot up the ladder of not only my favorite directors but directors I consider the best.

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