A great movie consists of many qualities, combining strong writing, acting, direction, and production with a legacy of innovation, social influence, and popularity over time. When we revisit a classic, we expect it to sustain its exceptional qualities, but as one grows older, retention alone may not retain our love. Great movies must evolve in the eyes of its fans, adapting to the changes that one undergoes in life. When we revisit them, they should appear both familiar and enticingly fresh.
For these reasons, Once Upon a Time in the West is my all-time favorite film. I first saw it during its 1984 U.S. re-release, when it impressed me as a singularly auteurist take on a revered genre. Catching it again a week later, I witnessed a profound meditation on the perceptual gap between myth and history. Subsequent viewings revealed a meta-commentary on genre, an ode to a lost ethos of heroic masculinity, and a reconciliation of historical philosophy and public memory on a global scale.
Personally, this movie invokes a struggle that I’ve faced as both a big time movie fan and a historian. While I’ve never met a cinephile who hasn’t developed, to some degree, an interest in studying the past, most historians I know feel compelled to critique the cinema’s inaccuracies and myths. As a college undergraduate I learned that History was not simply a description of facts but a narrative. Since I began seeing History as much both an art and a science, I have often stalled at the intersections where the poetics of fiction and past events cross. As early as my second viewing of Once Upon a Time in the West I realized that Leone was also trying to reconcile historical philosophy with myth.
Leone’s early films poked fun of American Exceptionalism, the notion that the legitimacy of the U.S.’s position as a Twentieth Century economic and global power rested on how it tested democratic and free market values during the epoch of its territorial expansion across North America. His previous Dollars trilogy offered a brash, cocky, and cynical take on movies that bestowed a respectful reverence towards the legends of the American West. His heroes, drawn from movies like The Tin Star and The Magnificent Seven, were amoral gunmen whose professional acumen violated notions that the taming of the frontier paved the path for a gentler civilization. Through their irreverence, Leone’s bounty hunter movies retained a complex, masculine-oriented portrait of the American empire, telling two-fisted tales that appealed to a populist male sensibility, reveling in brutality, instead of vanquishing it.
Once Upon a Time in the West integrates that swagger into a more tightly structured, and operatic, story, ending with the elegiac realization that forces of progress, such as the railroad, killed the savage glory of the West. Rather than simply mocking the progressive ideology, it mourns the wildness that modernity extinguished. As with the Dollars series, Leone’s affinity lies with characters motivated by greed and vengeance, not leadership and frontier community as it is being integrated into the nation. The film rebukes the conception of history as a linear progressive force. Indeed, it posits that historiography and mythology share a cycle of eternal recurrence, the notion that all historical matter follows a circular pattern of rise and decline. This tension between the progressive teleology of American Exceptionalism and the cyclical, tragic concept of mythology, keeps drawing me back to this movie.
The story follows what John Cawelti refers to as one of six varieties of Western genre types: The Railroad Saga. It chronicles the founding of Sweetwater, a depot under construction along the line of an unnamed Transcontinental railroad. Jill, AKA the Widow McBain (Claudia Cardinale), is an ex-prostitute who inherits a desolate farm after her husband and his children are murdered by Frank (Henry Fonda), a hired gun for the railroad bosses. His employer, Norton (Gabriele Ferzetti), seeks to quickly remove meddlesome speculators like the McBains from his path so that his train can reach the Pacific Ocean before he dies from bone rot. Realizing that there is little future for his “services,” Frank initiates a brutally efficient retirement plan consisting of kidnapping and extorting Jill for her land and intimidating Norton with his goons until he agrees to let Frank keep the deed to the property.
The scheme falters as Jill gains two unlikely allies. The first is a Mestizo bandit leader named Cheyenne (Jason Robards) who, out of a weary sense of chivalry, comes to the widow’s aid because she reminds him of his mother, “The biggest whore in Alameda and the greatest woman who ever lived.” The second is Harmonica (Charles Bronson), another Mestizo, who stalks Frank on some mysterious, personal quest. Frank’s lack of acumen in confronting these two adversaries, plus the unexpectedly wily Norton, forces him to realize his limitations as a member of “an ancient race” and to finally accept Harmonica’s invitation to a climactic gunfight in which the pursuer’s agenda can only be revealed “at the point of death.”
The characters’ names conjure a succinct sense of mythic grandeur achieved. As words alone, Frank and Jill consist of hard vowels and terse consonants, suggesting a blunt presence, and a lack of ostentation and underlying psychological tension. Cheyenne and Harmonica aren’t even real names, but connotative associations of an older, rustic world. This is a landscape defined by a laconic form of masculine language that vanquishes superfluous adjectives and adverbs and shears the characters of backstory and political grievance. They do not suffer under the Kurtzian delusion that the virtues of civilization of the Frontier will coincide with the promise of material progress. With the limited exception of Cheyenne, they are motivated only by greed and vengeance, thus vices divorced from the rationales of modern psychology.
Leone stages his pageant in a manner divorced from the naturalism preferred in modern cinema. He conveys a sense of self-conscious theatricality through a unique use of widescreen images. Using Techniscope, which halved the traditional width of the 35mm film frame to accentuate the deeper focus of wide angle lenses, Leone blocks multiple fields of action across multiple planes in relation to the position of the camera with pristine clarity. Moreover, he cuts from extremely wide master shots to extreme close-ups, which emphasizes the stillness of the actors’ eyes. While we have seen this type of rural spectacle before, we are made aware that the Western is a performative aesthetic as opposed to a literal historical recreation.
The movie enhances the Western’s inherently theatrical essence by the prolonged duration of most of its key scenes. The famous credit sequence, an almost wordless buildup to a gunfight at a train station, runs for 11 minutes. A stopover at a trading post, in which Jill, Harmonica, and Cheyenne are introduced to each other, runs 15. The final scene, combining, in uninterrupted continuity, the arrival of the train to Jill’s station, the showdown between Harmonica and Frank, and the departure of several of the surviving characters for adventures further down the proverbial pike, runs over 25. Leone elevates the material to a heightened sense of mythological grandeur.
Leone couples his trademark visual panache to a measured choreography of the actors’ movements, conveying a notion that the West is a different universe following an alternative flow of time relative to the pace of the present. The time it takes to light a mere match can unfold across an eternity. The literal translation of the title from the Italian, C’era una Volta il West reads, “Once Upon a Time There Was the West,” indicating a separateness between temporal and spatial dimensions. The normal pace of the Western, sped up to keep the audience entertained, feels slowed down as to call attention to the fact that each motion, each gesture, has not only an origin in a previous iteration of a cinematic myth, but expresses the rhythm of a place outside of the contours of modern temporal perception, as if gravity applies an extra weight upon the landscape. Its glacial placing and methodical blocking of gestures and actions extends the elaborate choreography of the Dollars Trilogy’s gunfights into a form of Hollywood Western Kabuki.
Most of the action unfolds in three main locations: the McBain Ranch (later to be renamed Sweetwater); Flagstone, a bustling town east of the McBains’; and Norton’s private railroad car, which moves across already-laid track between, one supposes, the two depots. Traditionally, when filmmakers shift from one setting to another, they include short, perfunctory buffers of second unit footage showing the characters moving across an intermediate space. In the case of Westerns, this is often a vast plane of land. This provides the viewer with a sense of the distance between the places where scenes are set. Once Upon a Time in the West executes this conventional expository bit once, when Jill takes an idyllic buckboard ride through Monument Valley between Flagstone and Sweetwater. After that, all spatial markers between the locations are eliminated. By removing expository scenes of people traveling between distances, a sense of displacement that poetically expresses the occlusion of one era by another.
These ellipses rupture not only our orientation in space, but in time as well. Characters show up unannounced everywhere, having travelled great distances from the last scene without an explanation as to the means of their arrival. A critical battle between Cheyenne’s and Norton’s killers occurs offscreen while the movie concentrates on a failed assassination attempt against Frank, and is only revealed in terms of its aftermath. Ultimately, the railroad and its workers arrive at Sweetwater in what seems to be a dramatically compressed time period after Cheyenne and Harmonica foil Frank’s plot. The railroad’s progress eviscerates the time it takes to traverse the locations where dramatic actions occur. This delineates a collision of eras; the mythical, inhabited by ruthless professional gunmen, and the modern, which imposes its will on the frontier in sudden blasts of steam and smoke.
Leone uses myth to represent the construction of historical thought. One sees this by imagining how time was affected by the increased rate of travel. Moving across great distances by foot, horse or wagon facilitated the growth of national wealth and identity at a slower pace than when rail came along. The speed by which events pile up in the film replicates the dramatic way in which the West’s open space became volcanically transformed by the velocity of steam and steel. We also see how social relations were altered by this new arrangement. Work is not performed by individuals, but in groups organized by corporate entities. The passage of the West to the modern era indicates a transition from a society of brutish individualism to a society of workers laboring under a capitalist system. On the surface, there seems to be a vaguely Marxist subtext to the drama.
Once Upon a Time in the West is also, by connotation, about America’s transition from a renegade Anglo-American culture to an immigrant one. Leone underscores this notion by having Jill ascend as the triumphant force in the picture’s transformed landscape. She is the character most associated with the water symbolism trickling throughout the film. Early on, she neutralizes a threat of sexual assault by Cheyenne by saying how a bath would wash away the trauma of her victimization and restore her feminine status. After Harmonica foils Frank’s extortion attempt, she literally takes a bath as if to divorce herself from her association with that loathsome character. In the film’s final shot, she delivers water to the workers, embodying a transition from Magdalene to Madonna, a clear expression of the religious change of American “dreamers” from a Protestant to a Catholic tradition of faith.
Both of these observations assume a fairly blunt transition of historical epochs, with the modern occluding the mythic bluntly and forcefully. In doing so, the film evokes the mournful conclusion of Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous essay, “The Frontier and American Civilization,” in which population density prefigures the end to the period of territorial expansion that shaped the American character. As with observers, dating from Alexis de Tocqueville, before him, Turner enumerated distinct social characteristics differentiating North American society from Europe, among them a distaste for centralized government and “high” culture, h a belief in self reliance, violent self-assertion, and limited communitarian support for local necessities. He then argued that these characteristics persevered throughout the Nineteenth Century due to the ever expanding incursion of U.S. settlers onto “virgin” land. With the closing of the Frontier at the epoch’s end, Turner predicted the beginning of a fundamental change in the behavior of his nation’s democratic institutions.
The Turner thesis, as Patricia Nelson Limerick pointed out in her critique of the argument, can also be read in a way that combines the monograph’s Darwinian subtext with a metaphysical twist. The generic term “frontier” (the border between “civilization and savagery”) when used to describe settlement across various geographic territories and economic enterprises, implies the recurrence of sociopolitical institutions. The concept imposes rules for comparing regions rather than focusing on their uniqueness and diversity. Running with this, scholars such as Richard Slotkin argue that the West was a symbolic concept, going back to the literature of the New England forefathers, that provided American History with a narrative foundation celebrating “regeneration through violence.” The manner in which academics once interpreted the past, in cyclical terms describing the rise and fall of civilizations, adds a mythological meme to a scientific discourse.
While it’s hard to determine how deeply Leone ensconced himself in the historiography of the American West, he was undoubtedly influenced by the concept of eternal recurrence. It’s a fundamental concept in early existential philosophy, addressed by Friedrich Nietzsche, among others. As one can argue that Leone’s ethical preferences reflect an existentialist bent, it’s not a huge shock that he would use recurring narrative frameworks, like the Western, to dramatize the romance and limitations of personal actions and decisions. Cyclical models comparing the histories of civilizations were popularized in the early Twentieth Century by Otto Spengler, and the studies of his most famous descendent, Arnold Toynbee, were among the most widely read in the Cold War era. This provided a rationale for Leone to imagine the end of the West, as it approached its absorption into the Industrial Revolution, as the start of a process of decline, in which the individualistically self-actualized figures of “an ancient race” make way for a collectivized mass society. Likewise, Once Upon a Time in America may be read as a further progression of the decadent curve of the circle.
While Once Upon a Time in the West offers intriguing possibilities for scholarly inquiry, it is probably an exaggeration to suggest that Leone was making an intellectualized statement. Various screenwriting collaborators, most notably Sergio Donati, who adapted the story outline for this movie from a treatment by Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Dario Argento, openly scoffed at attempts to paint the director as an intellectual. Although the film exhibits an appearance of absolute formal control, Leone was apparently an instinctual artist, rewriting and improvising the blocking as he went along. Many of the temporal ellipses mentioned above resulted from selective edits and reshoots to simplify the script. The film soaks in influences and places them cogently, but in the long run, it suggests, rather than dictates, a specific meaning or message. This inclusiveness of influence, resulting in an openness for re- interpretation, keeps bringing me back to this movie time and again, and why each re-encounter provides a bit more insight and knowledge that I’ve picked up between each viewing.