The opening stage sets the stage for Sergio Leone’s theatrical, consciously and deliberately constructed, even artificial masterpiece of a Western. It moves like molasses , constantly threatening to standstill yet always moving forward with propulsive energy. And it drags us with it, slowly but surely observing three nameless ghouls waiting, waiting, and waiting. For what? Well we’re waiting for that too, something that will arrive on a cue we don’t yet know will come and which will literally step foot onto Leone’s cinematic canvas. And Leone, ever the professional, seems to have planned his opening stroke for hours. It’s excruciating, a perfect reflection of the suspense of everyday life found in the Old West, the feeling that you were always waiting to kill someone or be killed, or both, but you never knew when or even why.
The tension moves beyond nerve-wrecking into numbing, capturing the simultaneous mundanity and grand orchestration of death on Leone’s stage, a world distant from our own even though it purports to take place in the American West. Leone slowly but surely builds tension in the mundane, capturing the ethos of an empty land subsumed by overpowering fear found in the ability to see for miles, and to find nothing. The three men wait, and wait, and wait. We see them do the kinds of things men waiting around would do, like trying to take a nap, all the scarier when we come to know how chill they remain in the face of their ultimately doomy task at hand. All the while, Leone settles on the little details of life in the West, such as the flies that continually pester around and disturb. Through drawing out shots longer than we expect him to and giving us virtually no sound to latch onto, he suffuses the sequence with an air of uneasy mystery and dread at what is to come – after all, this is Leone, not Antonioni or Fellini, so something is up. He isn’t just going to have us watch men sit around forever for the point of them sitting around forever.
Drowned in silence, eventually, mercilessly, “Harmonica’s Theme” slithers through to interrupt the scene, signaling the arrival of the man they’ ve been waiting for. He steps off the train, and Leone goes to work. As he masterfully inter-cuts between the man we will come to know, even if enigmatically, as Harmonica, and his would-be assailants, he switches perspectives on a dime, and gradually quickens the pace of his edits and lessens the length of his shots. The scene draws to its inevitable spine-tingling climax like a bull that had spent forever gathering energy and had now been un-leashed upon the world.
Now that’s how you tease; after waiting this long we can’t but be invested in Harmonica’s story and interested in seeing it play out. He’s become not a man but a myth, a type, a figure, someone who Leone can construct even when he isn’t on screen and even without dialogue, exactly the type of quiet but larger than life character Leone perfected in his films. We know what length someone is willing to go to kill him, and thus we care. Perhaps the greatest opening to any film ever, this is a director who knows what he wants firing on all cylinders. After watching this scene slowly unfold, you’re left with the impression that any way of introducing a character other than watching three men stand around for fifteen minutes waiting for him/her to arrive would just be underwhelming at this point. And then you start to wonder why those men aren’t there to kill you and get to feeling a little depressed about where your life is going.
A long-winded introduction for a long-winded film, but a film that gives new meaning to the term wind. Leone blows us from left to right and every which way he can muster with his subjective camera, giving us larger-than-life characters, gliding direction, and a magisterial score to get caught up in. But he knows when to hold us still, when to get quiet, and when to use silence and stillness for affect. He takes his time, let’s his characters breath, and allows their situations to mill around and grow to near mythic proportions. His narrative is simple, and it stays simple: an assassin (Henry Fonda, playing against type as a stone-cold baddie) has to kill our friend Harmonica (Charles Bronson, perfectly cast as a man who says little but who’s thousand-mile stare gives us everything we need to know), who himself is pursuing Frank.
We learn more as the narrative progresses, but we don’t really need to. All Leone needs is his simple premise to tell his story, which is all filmmaking prowess above plot. The simplicity is what allows him to massage all the feeling from it and out onto the screen. He doesn’t have to add new narrative elements so he can build and build pure feeling for almost three hours until we’re so exhausted with feeling we need some lemonade. The story is a canvas upon which Leone paints a vision of the West as a place of big, broad emptiness, an emptiness so oppressive in its openness it gives people time to breathe and think, but also time to kill and see who comes to kill them, as well as to reveal the pure emptiness of it all, which only violence can interrupt and break. This above all, the story of the American West, is his story. His characters are archetypes to convey this, products of this land, given life by the impenetrable yet penetrating heat. This is the kind of story the director had kicked up many times before, such as in his Man with no Name Trilogy, but here it’s rendered at its apocalyptic, operatic peak
Once Upon a Time in the West is all in the title. It’s big, brash, operatic, and deals in moral extremes. It paints a vision of a far off land with simple characters driven to do anything for specific reasons, a land of decay but also grandiose humanity. The people are not only types, but archetypes. It’s a simple story, a tall tale, told by a master storyteller.
And that’s exactly what it purports to be, coming at the end of the ’60s with a new stream of revisionist Westerns on the rise. These were films which would challenge the myth of the West and render a new , darker reality for a darker time-period of American film. Once Upon a Time in the West isn’t one of those. There is a revisionist streak to aspects of the film, most notably the casting of Henry Fonda, perhaps the second great Western hero after John Wayne, as a stone-cold villain, a scorpion birthed by the desert and who we could not imagine living anywhere else. But this is a love letter to classic Westerns and their simple visions of justice through and through. It’s just that Leone only knows tough love, and he slathers it on liberally.
Thus the essence of the film: it doesn’t critique the Old West by destroying the myth – it critiques it by rendering the myth as just that, myth, for all to see. If it seems forced, that’s exactly the point – characters don’t deviate from their types, and they don’t say anything more than they need to. They don’t reflect reality, but an idealized version of it filled with the wonder and horror that makes up a good story. Thus, Leone tells the story like one, with everything amped up and taken to its logical extreme. The desert is that much more deserted, the music that much grander and more oppressive, the hero that much more stone-faced and his stare one that could take down a rampaging bull miles away. This is a “story”, the type the films used to give us, the kinds society used to fall in love with, a society once upon a time, but the kinds which were necessarily simple and problematic and which don’t play as well in society today. This is the western read past itself, not as a re-reading and given to reality, but as the open fable it always reflected for a world looking for simpler morals to tuck children into sleep with. It does explore and challenge the notion of the Old West by painting it as fakery, but it also upholds the simple, brutal power of that fakery when pulled off with an eye for fantastical forgery. This is a film at once paying homage to the spirit of the old Western and showing the birthing pains of the new, harsher, scarier variety.
As such, Leone bleeds together the dreams of the old Western and the nightmares of the new, seeing both as something less, and more, than reality. He critiques them, transfixes them, doctors them up, but he mostly just upholds the power of both old and new Westerns together as masterful tall tales worthy of being told time and time again around a fire. And the core Western tale, diluted to its bare minimum and given room to open up and express in Leone’s vision, was never told better than here. Once Upon a Time, like its title suggests, opens and closes the book on this vision of the world and this type of Western; it’s a knowing love letter to a land long gone but which never really existed except in the mind. It’s a story for a genre being put to rest in the late ’60s, a closing statement on a rich period of film history. It’s one last gathering around the campfire before the fire burned out and was relit by another more venomous strain with works like The Wild Bunch one year later, but while the old strain warmed and stayed at a healthy distance, the new one would threaten to burn if anyone got too close. Once Upon a Time is a necessary changing of the guard to this more dangerous form of Western, the kind of ode to Westerns long gone the genre needed to hear one last time to send it on its merry way. Would that we all had an angel like Leone looking out for us on our way to the other side.