C'Era una Volta Il West

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(Once Upon a Time in the West)

USA/Italy, 1969

Director: Sergio Leone

Production: Paramount Pictures/Rafran/San Marco; color (Techniscope), 35mm; running time: 168 minutes, some American prints are 144 minutes and various other prints of different timings are available. Released 28 May 1969, New York. Filmed on location in Almeria, Spain, at Calahorra's Station, Calahorra, Logrono, Spain, and in Arizona and Utah, USA.

Producers: Bino Cicogna (executive), Fulvio Morsella; screenplay: Sergio Leone, Sergio Donati, Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertollucci, Mickey Knox (dialogue); photography: Tonino Delli Colli; editor: Nino Baragli; production design: Carlo Simi; music: original score composed by Ennio Morricone.

Cast: Claudia Cardinale (Jill McBain); Henry Fonda (Frank); Jason Robards (Cheyenne); Charles Bronson (The Man, aka Harmonica); Gabrielle Ferzetti (Morton); Paolo Stoppa (Sam); Woody Strode (Stony); Jack Elam (Knuckles); Keenan Wynn (Sherriff); Frank Wolff (Brett McBain); Lionel Stander (Barman).



Cawelti, John G., The Six-Gun Mystique, Bowling Green, Ohio, 1971.

Staig, Laurence, and Tony Williams, Italian Western—The Opera ofViolence, London, 1975.

Frayling, Christopher, Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeansfrom Karl May to Sergio Leone, London, 1981.

Cèbe, Gilles, Sergio Leone, Paris, 1984.

De Fornari, Oreste, Tutti i Film di Sergio Leone, Milan, 1984.

Tuska, John, The American West in Film, Westport, Connecticut, 1985.

Cumbow, Robert C., Once Upon a Time: The Films of Sergio Leone, Metuchen, New Jersey, 1987.

Buscombe, Ed, editor, BFI Companion to the Western, London, 1988.

Cressard, Gilles, Sergio Leone, Paris, 1989.

Mininni, Francesco, Sergio Leone, Paris, 1989.

Belton, John, Widescreen Cinema, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1992.

De Cornare, Oreste, Sergio Leone: The Great American Dream ofLegendary America, Rome, 1997

Frayling, Christopher, Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death, New York, 2000.


Austen, David, review in Films and Filming (London), October 1969.

Gillett, John, review in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), September 1969.

Gili, Gean, "Sergio Leone," in Cinema 69 (Paris), November 1969.

Bazin, Andre, "The Evolution of the Western," in What is Cinema?, translated by Hugh Grey, Berkeley, California, 1971.

* * *

Widely considered to be director Sergio Leone's masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West is his fourth Western and marks the beginning of his career in Hollywood. The preceding "Dollars" trilogy had been an unexpected success at the box office and with the critics. In attracting Leone, Paramount clearly hoped to cash in on the successful formula, using Charles Bronson in the role played by Clint Eastwood in the earlier films, and Henry Fonda as the ruthless hired gun, Frank. Fonda in particular was an inspired choice by the director, who had wanted to work with the actor for some time. Before teaming up with Leone, Fonda was best known for playing wholesome leading men, yet as Frank, we see him shoot a child in cold blood because the boy has learnt his name. Fonda had to be persuaded to go against type, but the cold-hearted killer is one of his most impressive performances. Yet despite the quality of its leading cast, Once Upon a Time in the West was not a success in the United States.

Once Upon a Time in the West is a long, difficult movie, the most elaborate and grotesque of Leone's "horse operas." The fact that the opening credits take over nine minutes will give an idea of its slow pace. Obscurity alone is not to blame for the failure of the film in the United States, however. In an attempt to squeeze in as many theatre performances as possible, Paramount slashed over twenty minutes from prints released in America, and one British critic claims to have seen a print shortened by as much as thirty minutes in London. Such thoughtless cutting inevitably removed important scenes, changed character motivations, and created lapses in continuity. Critics had difficulty understanding the film, and reviews were poor. Yet where the full-length film was shown, it was a huge success, breaking box office records in France. A new full-length print became available in 1984, and readers should take care to avoid any version much shorter than 165 minutes. The shorter prints have curiosity value only, although they do provide a lesson in what can happen when financial objectives are allowed to intrude too far into the way a film is presented.

The film is generally praised for the performances of its leading actors, and for Leone's masterful control over pace, action, and narrative tension. As with opera, music is linked to images in a direct way. Each of the four main characters has his or her own theme, from the menacing harmonica riff of Bronson's "man with no name," to the romantic strings that accompany Cardinale's Jill McBain. Unusually, Ennio Morricone composed the musical score before shooting began, using the script to work out his ideas. In a reversal of the normal process, Leone fitted the action around the existing music, often playing it on set to help the actors understand particular scenes.

The basic plot of the film is standard Western fare. A wealthy railroad owner and his hired gunmen seek to evict a young woman from her land, hoping to use it as a stopping point for trains on their way to California. It is Leone's treatment of this plot, which has echoes of Johnny Guitar and Shane (both 1953), that has made it so influential. As with the "Dollars" trilogy, Once Upon a Time in the West is a brutal film, in which killing is a means to an end, and revenge is the central motivating force. Yet the society it portrays is changing. Jill McBain, a former prostitute trying to better herself, represents the need to abandon old ways of doing things and embrace the new. In this respect the film is resonant of its own time: in the late 1960s, student protests and civil unrest in Europe and the United States challenged the beliefs of an older establishment.

Once Upon a Time in the West is also a landmark in the history of the Western. Unlike Shane, whose selfless heroism saves the homesteaders from a greedy rancher, in Leone's film the man with no name (nicknamed "Harmonica") is driven by a desire to torture and kill his brother's murderer. Only incidentally does he protect Jill McBain and defend her land. At a deeper level, while classic Western heroes protect a society based on honesty and hard work, Once Upon a Time in the West reveals that such societies have their beginnings in jealousy, revenge, and murder. This is the new West, and gunfighters like Harmonica and Frank have had their day, but the optimistic town that grows up around Jill McBain's railroad station at the film's end is built on their brutality. Once Upon a Time in the West replaces the established Western mythology of honest struggle, endeavour, and sacrifice with a venal, perhaps more realistic, vision of how the West was won.

—Chris Routledge