Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)

Filed under: — paco on October 23rd, 2003 03:10:26 am

west_dvdposter.jpgAfter more than three decades when this movie appeared first on the silver screen, is has finally been released on DVD. It is the perfect format for this classic movie with its long playtime, grand scope and fantastic soundtrack. The DVD has some nice added features in the form of documentaries, featurettes, interviews and photo galleries. However, the most important is that the movie is shown in its full length, digitally remastered and with superior sound quality. This is a masterpiece that deserves nothing more than the best.

west_harm_frank.jpgUnquestionably the best western ever and arguably one of the best movies of all time, this is truly one of my favourite films. I remember being impressed since seeing it for the first time and many times thereafter. The particular beauty of this movie is that its antagonists and protagonists share a common point on which they generally judge this movie: The long, silent scenes with their extreme close-ups. I am an ardent protagonist in this. I really do love the brilliant long scenes where apparently nothing happens. For instance, we see a guy struggling with a pesky fly on his face and water dripping on another guy’s a hat. People who say this is boring, haven’t understood that the real power in cinema lies in telling a story with as little words as necessary. What these languid scenes do is give a tangible depiction of the atmosphere and thus suck the viewer completely into the movie. You can feel the sun’s heat, taste the dust and anticipate the inevitable climax.

west_frank.jpgThis movie has another unique quality: it has established the perfect marriage between image and music. Never were a movie and its score in such harmonious sync and did the music play such an integral part in the movie. Ennio Morricone, who’d worked with director Sergio Leone several times before, composed the perfect soundtrack with a separate theme for each main character. He’d finished the score before Leone started shooting -which is in itself quite unusual- therefore allowing Leone to play the music during the shooting of the scenes. Leone also used what he called ‘environmental music’, which meant that he used spontaneous sounds to accompany the silent images. A striking example is the ongoing squeak of the rusty windmill in the splendid opening sequence.

west_harm.jpgThe plot of this film easily resembles that of a revenge movie, with the silent avenger Harmonica looking for the murderer of his brother. However, the film contains several subtle layers in which various themes are explored. Contrary to his early western movies, Leone greatly dismisses the usage of archetypal characters to portray the story’s ethics. The only archetypal character in this movie would be Frank, the ruthless killer, brilliantly played by Henry Fonda. He seems the most shallow character and stands for evil in its purest form. The motives of the mysterious Harmonica stay clouded until he finally confronts his Nemesis; the late Charles Bronson (R.I.P.) set the benchmark on how to play the cool avenger.

west_chey.jpgThe charismatic rogue Cheyenne, fantastically played by Jason Robards, seems to be the last of a dying race of gentleman-outlaws and is responsible for tying everyone’s destiny together. Then there is Morton, played by Gabriele Ferzetti, who embodies the ever-increasing corruption and lust for money that got hold of the Wild West. His persona heralds the end of the old West; the West that was conquered by brave men with nothing more than determination, a strong horse and a quick gun. And last, but certainly not least, there is the smouldering character of Jill, played by the unearthly beautiful Claudia Cardinale. What a fantastic woman! Few women looked so good in a movie. She plays an interesting role, since Leone previously used to depict women as either a pure Madonna or an anonymous whore. Here he incorporated his first independent role of a real woman who tries to get by in a hostile and male-dominated world. Incidentally, Jill embodies both the Madonna as the whore persona, but she ultimately shows how a woman with a basically good nature tries to survive.

west_jill.jpgWith this movie, Leone wanted to carry his western-period to the grave, by making the mother-of-all westerns. He depicts a West that now has almost been completely conquered and where the hard-working pioneers are being replaced by greedy, power-mongering businessmen. This is shown by the relentless advance of the railroad, which was to connect the Wild West to the civilised world. Leone had another symbolic gesture in mind for his last western: for the opening scene (where three hitmen are supposed to kill Harmonica, but get shot themselves) he wanted to cast Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee van Cleef, the cast of his previous western movie The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. By shooting them in the first act, he wanted to symbolically bury his western-period. Unfortunately, Eastwood declined and the scene had to be shot with different actors.

For 35 years, this movie has captivated many audiences and has won a lot of admirers. As far as cinematography goes it has set the standard on techniques like extreme close-ups, dramatic full-screen pan-shots and long, painting-like scenes. The fantastic soundtrack is still the world’s best-selling movie score ever and now -with the movie being done justice on the DVD-format- let’s hope it will do the same for the movie.

I (obviously) rate this ***** out of 5.

author picture paco (89 posts)
Certified movie phreak and conspiracy theorist.


  • Great review. I am not that much of a Western fan but I have to allow myself to see this movie…

    Also considering the fact Jack Elam (who stars in OUATITW) passed away some days ago…

    Comment by arjan — Thu October 23, 2003 @ 14:36
  • I’ll have to see this again. I remember scenes and images from when I last saw it years ago, but little about the story. This DVD seems the perfect opportunity. I have to say my favourite western is “Unforgiven”, but like I said, I have to re-view this one…

    Comment by weefselkweekje — Thu October 23, 2003 @ 17:07
  • But he did get Lee van Cleef, who’s even better in this one than in ‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly’.

    Comment by reisneus — Sat October 25, 2003 @ 12:13
  • Erhmm, Lee van Cleef? In this movie? I’m afraid you’re mistaken, my friend. I don’t think you’ll find Van Cleef in this one. The actor that plays Harmonica’s brother does have some resemblance to Eli Wallach, but he’s not him either.

    Comment by paco — Sun October 26, 2003 @ 1:19
  • Low on coffee, I mistook Fonda for Cleef. No wonder it’s a good performance 😉

    Comment by reisneus — Sun October 26, 2003 @ 18:53
  • Whoohaa, mistaking anyone for Van Cleef is a real achievement. LvC has on of the most recognizable faces ever 🙂

    Comment by weefselkweekje — Mon October 27, 2003 @ 8:32
  • Ugh! Unforgiven is one of the few films I (almost) walked out of. A recent one was The Matrix Reloaded.

    Comment by suzero — Wed October 29, 2003 @ 9:17
  • Well chosen words by all above! HTWWW was indeed an incredible movie. Saw it again just the other day, and not only is Frank STILL the personification of evil, one wonders if anyone but Fonda could have pulled it off so well. The film seems as if it could have been shot yesterday, having lost nothing in all these years! “Unforgiven” is also great though, and I’m glad my life does not depend on having to chose which of the two wins the all time “Best Western” movie award!

    Comment by John — Sun July 11, 2004 @ 23:56
  • How The West Was Won (HTWWW) was also an impressive TV-series, which name I think you mistake with this great movie. No shame though, I really liked that series as a kid 🙂

    Centennial was great too!

    Comment by Paco — Mon July 12, 2004 @ 0:50
  • HTWWW was shot in Cinerama, the old 3 strip format projected onto a curved screen. I was lucky enough to see the film in this format in Bradford, England a few years ago and whilst it’s an interesting film and the photography is second to none, the actual story of HTWWW is rather shallow. It pinpoints different episodes in the building of America, but none of them with any real depth. It is an interesting film to see though, especially in Cinerama. I was also lucky enough to see 2001 in Cinerama too, which was it’s original format. and that blew me away.
    Once upon a time in the West, however, is not HTWWW and is so far removed from it they may as well be different genres.
    I love Once Upon A Time In The West, it truly is a magnificent film and the opening scene is simply one of the best openings to a film I’ve ever seen.
    You have about 10 minutes of, well, nothing. People just sitting around, waiting. And then waiting some more, and then waiting again. The train appears in the distance and gets closer, but slowly. The guys all wait for it. The train stops, pulls away and we see Harmonica man and within 30 seconds six or seven people are dead. Wonderful!

    Comment by damian — Mon July 12, 2004 @ 9:50
  • This is the best western ever made.It keeps you on the edge of youre seat all the way.The soundtrack is amazing and you couldnt pick to better actors to play the part of two great characters. Once upon a time in the west, best film ever made.

    Comment by john stafford — Mon February 20, 2006 @ 16:11
  • I think the final scene with Jill and Cheyenne is one of the sexiest scenes in cinema…
    I don’t want to write a spoiler, but he is holding a secret…
    and enjoying a few moments with a beautiful woman he loves..
    a final few moments…beautiful!!

    Comment by Sue Somerville — Tue April 28, 2009 @ 20:57

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