Sergio Leone died in bed at the age of 60. He was with his wife watching an old Hollywood movie on the television. In what may have been a quiet moment in the film, he said to his wife, ‘Sorry, I do not feel well.’ Seconds later, he was dead. Leone had been both lucky and unlucky with death. He had died relatively young but
in circumstances most of us would choose, without pain, doing something we like and in the company of someone we love. But perhaps Leone would have liked just a few seconds more to relish his death. Eighteen years before his death, in 1971, Leone completed ‘Once Upon A Time In West’. The nature and consequence of death had preoccupied him for some time.
The early scenes of the film include views of Monument Valley. Supposedly, Leone and his cameraman liked to take breakfast in a coffee shop near a spot where 4 States intersected. This is coincidental but significant because the film has four ambitions that normally would weaken each other. It has a style that insists that form is important, a relentless message about death and time, it honours previous American directors and argues for an alternative Marxist interpretation of American history. The mystery is how does Leone manage to combine all four ambitions without alienating his audience. Well, in the beginning he did offend. American and British critics described the film as a drawn out disaster. The French who back in the sixties were wearing Marxist T shirts thought differently. The film was a big hit in Paris and played at one cinema to ‘revolutionary students’ for nearly four years.
The critics relented and ordinary cinemagoers were soon persuaded that the film had merit. ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’ may not be the greatest Western as some imagine but nobody can deny it has ambition. We have our grand objectives – style, homage, political protest and content. The film is not only great to look at, a visual gem where the screen looks twice the size of normal widescreens, but it can also be listened to with pleasure. This movie alone justifies linking the TV to an expensive sound system. Morricone delivers a fine soundtrack and the film was actually shot after the score was composed so that cuts would fit the tempo of the music. The homage
begins in the very first scene that recreates ‘High Noon’ as Western Gothic, with silent avengers and creaking weathervanes and continues with nods to John Ford in Monument Valley and classics like ‘Shane’. Indeed, the relationship between Jill McBain and Cheyenne and Harmonica reminds us constantly of Jean Arthur in the George Stevens film, a woman torn between the gunslinger and the homesteader. There is no scene in ‘Shane, though, that matches the sex scene between Jill and Frank. Critics have argued that a strength of ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’ is the independent female character. A not so self-effacing Claudia Cardinale claims that the whole film was created around her and her character, Jill. This is an exaggeration. But Cardinale does have a sex scene with Henry Fonda that reminds us of Strindberg’s ‘Miss Julie’ and the battle for power between men and women. Throughout, the two actors switch position on the bed, sometimes Fonda is on top and others it is Cardinale. Jill McBain stays alive mainly because Frank wants her body but she still has to agree to sell the
ranch cheaply. This deal, though, is soon superseded by Cheyenne and Harmonica. For all the defiance and assertion, the sex between Jill and Frank does not have the consequence, or the suicide, that shocks in ‘Miss Julie’.
But Jill is key to making the political message clear. With the help of Cheyenne and Harmonica, she has built a rough and ready rail station and will be able to survive without becoming rich. She will provide water to passing trains. This is not the shiny capitalist progress imagined by the big businessmen or even her deceased husband. As in ‘Shane’, and unlike in the real West, the little people have won. The film ends with Cardinale providing refreshment to the railroad workers. Amidst shabby surroundings, Jill McBain comforts rather than exploits. Presumably, the Parisian revolutionaries used to cheer at this moment.
Director, John Carpenter, admits he misses the political message. Well, he grew up on Howard Hawks and not neo-realism so he can be forgiven. And the politics are overshadowed by the metaphysical. When Jill arrives at the railway station the time on the platform clock is not the same as the time on her watch. In the gunfight between Frank and the men who have betrayed him, the clock has no fingers and only four numerals. Time is something that we do not understand and are unable to measure. In the gunfight, death may interrupt time but
that does not mean that we understand it. As Harmonica quips after some violence, ‘Time sure does fly’. The film admits that history is important but argues that it only provides details about our existence. The meaning is elsewhere. Jill McBain in the final scene is not embracing destiny but merely surviving. She may have lost the two men whose lives were tainted with death but her own fate is oblivion. Not only is death inevitable and dominates our existence but it is nurtured through the ambition and vengeance of the powerful. Their need for ambition and vengeance creates death and wastes the time of all of us. This is where the political meets the philosophical. Moreton, note the name, is the railroad owner. He is an egotistical man with ‘no time for surprises’. The largest object on his desk is a clock that he ignores. He dies in an anonymous stream tasting the oblivion he thought he could avoid and remembering his ambition to take the railroad to the ocean. We can will dreams and nightmares to come true but fate and death surprise and mock everyone.
The movie has been described as ‘an opera of stares’. The pacing is very slow. We stay curious because characterization and plot is withheld to the last possible moment. Unusually for a Western, it takes a long time to recognise the heroes. The pacing is not merely about style. It forces the viewer to think differently about time. It implies that all the people we see have inexhaustible memories and secrets. Normally, we may only see others fleetingly but everyone that passes us by will disappear into eternity. Even if they cease to be, they will have existed. It may take a moment to live a life but it will take infinity to understand it.
The villain, Frank, played by Henry Fonda is the warning. He is a man who only understands power and he achieves it by killing others. When he sits behind the desk of Moreton he hints at the relationship between ambition and vengeance, ‘Sitting behind a desk is almost like holding a gun but much more powerful.’ Frank is
sadistic and callous but he dies well and because death is so important it may even redeem him. He falls to the bottom of the screen, just like one of the great Western heroes, Joel McCrea, in ‘Guns In The Afternoon’. Frank does not become a whimpering coward but faces it in an equal gunfight with Harmonica, the superior man. As Henry James said, ‘Thus death does make heroes of us all.’ It is one of the few optimistic moments in what is a very bleak film. ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’ is always worth a viewing. Of course, it does take time.
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