The year is 1968. BBC broadcasted the news for the first time on color television. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. “60 Minutes” premiered on CBS-TV. And “Once Upon a Time in the West” hit the big screen. A film by the iconic Italian western director, Sergio Leone, “Once Upon a Time in the West” brings back the classic western feel of the 40s and 50s but in the form of a spaghetti western. It is also the first of his movies to be shot and filmed in the United States (Arizona and Utah). The film is complete with breathtaking landscapes, tense moments, and plenty of action. “Once Upon a Time in the West” stars Henry Fonda, as the ruthless assassin Frank. Along with Charles Bronson, who plays Sergio Leone’s famous “Man with no Name” character (referred to as Harmonica in this picture), Claudia Cardinale as Jill McBain, the widowed damsel in distress, and Jason Robards as Cheyenne, the town outlaw looking to make a quick buck.
The opening scene starts off at a rundown train station, where three men are patiently waiting. Waiting for what you may ask? They are waiting for their target, as assigned by Frank (Fonda) an assassin employed by a corrupt railroad entrepreneur. Through the passing trains and the settling dust they see their man, Harmonica (Bronson) waiting on the other side of the tracks. This scene is almost always considered one of the greatest western gunfights in the history of Hollywood. Although this scene is a little long and drawn out (Harmonica doesn’t arrive at the station for at least fifteen minutes), I believe that it sets the stage for the rest of this movie.
The next scenes of the movie establish the relative storyline, that is Frank is seen murdering Jill Mcbain’s (Cardinale) soon to be husband and family; and Mrs. McBain arriving in the town ready to take on her new life as wife and mother to his family. Finally arriving to the McBain property, Mrs. McBain is distraught at the sight she sees. Her new family murdered in cold blood. She vows to see the death of the man who did this to her family.
Cheyenne (Robards), the town outlaw who escapes imprisonment time after time, seeks to help the widowed Mrs. McBain for reasons unknown, along with the help of Harmonica. Overtime we learn of the motives of Frank as well as the corrupt railroad entrepreneur and why in the world they want the McBain family dead and their land seized. After time Harmonica and Frank meet and face off on the McBain property. I don’t want to give away the ending but this is also considered a great western shootout, much like the ones Sergio Leone directed in his other spaghetti westerns.
Although I believe the film to be a little lengthy and sometimes too drawn out, for example the opening scene as well as the shootout between Frank and Harmonica lasts close to 15 minutes with no action, it is still a great film nonetheless. It did receive harsh criticism at the time of its release claiming it to be Leone’s most absurd film and “quite bad.” This was simply because westerns were essentially dying out and becoming less popular. Today, though, it is viewed as one of the most exciting and epic western films of all time. As IMDb states in the summary of the film:
Epic story of a mysterious stranger with a harmonica who joins forces with a notorious desperado to protect a beautiful widow from a ruthless assassin working for the railroad.
While “Once Upon a Time in the West” is usually only considered a great film by fans of westerns, much like myself, I believe that it should be considered a great film by all fans of all genres. “Once Upon a Time in the West” conveys a compelling story that is sure to hook anyone who watches it. It is definitely one of my favorite westerns of all time.