When I think back on the elements that most of my favorite westerns share, a few things come back time and time again in nearly each of them. First, great cinematography and epic settings. Check. Then you must have a memorable score such as the whistling in the “Dollars” trilogy or the old standard title songs from “My Darling Clementine” and others. This movie has one of the most dramatic and enduring scores of any movie ever. What makes it even more effective that it goes against the grain of your typical booming optimistic Elmer Bernstein like scores that get your chest pumping. Instead this is a more reserved, yet intense score with a haunting quality to it that perfectly underlines the epic setting it is used in. So again, put a check mark next to that as well. Finally, of course you need actors who look at home in the west. This movie is lead in a three pronged assault by Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, and Henry Fonda. Each of those men bring just the right mix of dirty western grit, and movie star good looks/charisma to carry multiple movies on their own. So a triple check mark can be put down in that category.
As time goes on modern audiences are less and less familiar with the actors of yesterday. I was talking to a guy who volunteers with me in a college writing center earlier this year about “Once Upon a Time in the West”, his favorite movie, and one of my favorite westerns. He told me about the time he had to give a presentation on this movie to group of modern day students. He mentioned how, of course, teenagers today have no idea who Henry Fonda was, and the shock of seeing him play a bad guy for the first time, especially a bad guy who opens the movie by murdering a child is met with cold indifference. At the time it was a jolt to both the psyche and the system for American movie goers. I don’t know what modern actor could pull off such a dramatic role reversal today, short of maybe Tom Hanks, and even then I don’t know that it would have quite the same impact that this did.
Once Upon a Time in the West was directed by Sergio Leone, who also made the famous “Dollars” trilogy with Clint Eastwood, and the underrated “Once Upon a Time in America”, a mobster movie with Robert De Niro in one of his greatest, but most complex roles. Of all of Sergio’s westerns, none has, in my opinion, better chemistry between the epic setting, the score, and the acting than this one. Charles Bronson was born to play in movies like this, and to me, his stoic bronze features fit the scenery even better than Clint Eastwood would have (although it still would have been a great movie with Clint for sure).
My favorite actor in the movie though is Jason Robards, who plays Cheyenne, the gang leader caught in the middle of this plot. Robards character is a sly old dog who has seen and done it all in the west, who resents the fact that that the gang lead by Fonda had impersonated his own gang in the raid that resulted in the dead child. Jason Robards has always struck me as a western version of Humphrey Bogart (who looked awfully silly and out of place in the one western movie he did make with James Cagney in the 30s). He’s got the same sneer, the same street smart look about him, and an ability to make you think there’s way more to what you see behind those eyes with just a quick glance or two.
All throughout the movie we are teased of some kind of a tortured history between the Fonda character and the Bronson character, which of course, will have to wait until the final showdown before being fully revealed. Claudia Cardinale plays Jill McBain, the widow of the man who we see get murdered along with the rest of his family, including the aforementioned kid at the beginning of the movie. Jill is the kind of strong spirited and very “buxom” sort of character typical of 1960s movies, but she has a saltiness that I always liked. When threatened with rape she is indignant but steadfast when she tells an outlaw that “You can’t do anything to me that a bar of soap won’t wash away”… (my paraphrase)
Charles Bronson is tremendous and perfectly in his wheelhouse here as a badass, but there are moments here and there, mostly in subtle looks where he reminded me of what potential he had to be a great actor, but how wasted his skills were in a lot of lesser movies throughout the years that forgot he knew how to do more than just scowl and shoot people. This movie knows that, as did the great but overlooked “From Noon Till Three” as well. Everything about this movie is breathtaking in scope and beauty, especially if you’re a sucker for old westerns with grand musical accompaniment. Once Upon a Time in the West is the closest the spaghetti western genre ever came to being considered “high art”. It is a beautiful film, and a damn good movie (two different things mind you) to boot.
Once Upon a Time in the West gets a five out of five: EXCELLENT.