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The Good, the Bad, and the Morally Complex: Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West



If you know films, you know the work of director Sergio Leone, who is credited with re-inventing the western film genre with his “Spaghetti Westerns,” a sub-genre of Westerns directed by Italians and usually featuring a more graphically violent and morally complex vision of the American Old West. Old West (“Frontier”) stories typically “[exaggerate] the romance, anarchy, and chaotic violence of the [latter half of the 19th century in the American West] for greater dramatic effect.” Without ever having visited the United States or even being able to speak English, Leone, who often co-wrote his films, created western heroes, villains, and films that would change the genre forever. Beginning with his classic A Fistful of Dollars, the first of the Dollars (or Man with No Name) Trilogy starring Clint Eastwood, Leone paid tribute to Hollywood’s westerns while, at the same time, significantly humanizing them.

In Leone westerns, the heroes do not wear white hats, nor the villains, black, as was the Hollywood tradition. Leone’s characters do not wear designer outfits, and, whether heroic or villainous, his characters look dirty, sweat profusely, and rarely shave. Leone’s characters are more well-rounded human beings, with both “good” and “evil” traits, making them more complex and interesting. In fact, it is often difficult to determine which characters are the heroes and which the villains in Leone’s films since all characters are “morally ambiguous… appearing generously compassionate, or nakedly and brutally self-serving, as the situation [demands].” Further, the relationships of all Leone’s characters “[revolve] around power” — not around familial or romantic love — and “retributions [are] emotion-driven rather than conscience-driven.”

In Leone’s Dollars Trilogy — A Fistful of Dollars, A Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly — the protagonist, played in each by Clint Eastwood, doesn’t change, although his violent acts often alter the natures of those around him, making them either more dangerous and desperate, or more reflective and compassionate. In Leone’s second major trilogy of thematically connected films, sometimes called the Once Upon a Time Trilogy — Once Up a Time in the West, Duck, You Sucker (originally titled, Once Upon a Time… the Revolution), a western set in Mexico during its revolution, and Once Upon a Time in America, a crime drama about organized crime in New York — the same actor does not play the major protagonist in every film and the setting is not always the American Old West. Instead of the films’ being somewhat quirky and upbeat, the films in this second trilogy are slower paced and thematically darker.

In this second trilogy, Leone concentrates more on the “rituals preceding violence” than on the violence itself, which may have been why some critics and viewers called “slow” scenes in which not much happens. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) marked a new phase in the style of Leone’s films as well as a new phase in his character development. The protagonists in these films, who are even less clearly defined along the traditional lines of good/evil or hero/villain, actually do change during the course of each individual film’s story, which is “unusual” for Leone characters. Because of its protagonists’ attempts to become different though not necessarily better people, Once Up a Time in the West is one of Leone’s best films and one of the greatest westerns. Its characters are so morally complex that critics and viewers often list it as one of the “greatest films of all time,” not just one of the greatest westerns.

The story of Once Up a Time in the West may seem predictable, with its Old West tropes of wealthy, land-grabbing villain going after the defenseless, newly widowed homesteader, but it is the shootists on opposite sides of this battle that are the film’s triumph. These shootists (sometimes called “gunslingers” or “gunfighters”) are so fascinating and disturbing that they justifiably become the story’s focal point. Instead of viewers’ caring about who wins the land-battle, they become more interested in the shootists and how their characters change.

opening gunfight in Once Upon a Time in the West ©

The film opens with a stunning scene: three men (Jack Elam, Woody Strode, and Al Mulock) terrorize people at a train station and then wait to ambush a traveller. Their target (Charles Bronson), who has no name throughout the film but who is called “Harmonica” because he often plays one.

Charles Bronson as Harmonica, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

Harmonica has arrived to keep an appointment with someone named “Frank” who is not at the train station. The resulting shoot-out between Harmonica and the three shootists is the first indication that this film is different from Leone’s previous westerns. Harmonica is wounded during the shoot-out: he is not invincible.

Henry Fonda as Frank, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

Meanwhile, at an isolated homestead, a widower and his family are massacred. In one of the most startling Reveals in film history, viewers are introduced to Frank (Henry Fonda), a shootist and one of the most heinous villains ever. Frank has been ordered to scare Landowner McBain and his children into leaving so his boss can acquire the land. Instead, Frank kills them all.

Claudia Cardinale as Jill, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

That is, Frank kills all the family except Jill (Claudia Cardinale), who has just arrived via train from New Orleans and who has become the landowner by default due to her recent secret marriage with the now-deceased McBain.

Jason Robards as Cheyenne, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

Meanwhile, at a roadhouse where Jill is awaiting transportation to her new home, Harmonica, who is pursuing Frank without knowing what he looks like, informs an escaped prisoner Cheyenne (Jason Robards) about the ambush at the railroad-station. The killers dressed like members of Cheyenne’s gang. Because Cheyenne himself has been accused of the McBain massacre, where the killers also wore the his gang’s characteristic dusters, Cheyenne must find out what happened.

Claudia Cardinale as Jill, and Henry Fonda as Frank, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

The film’s violence increases as the lives and interests of Widow Jill, Shootist Frank, No-Name Harmonica, and Prisoner Cheyenne now all converge on the McBain homestead. Cruelty, betrayal, (implied) sexual violence, and murder become so commonplace that the violence itself becomes less interesting than the natures of the protagonists themselves. For the film’s characters and its viewers, the initial McBain massacre — as well as the reason behind it — becomes merely a metaphorical footnote in the “real story” of Once Upon a Time in the West: how these characters themselves will change because of their interactions with each other.

Fonda was originally hesitant about taking the role of the murderous Frank — of the the wittiest and most caustic villains ever created — and did not accept Leone’s initial offer. After talking to his best friend Eli Wallach, who had worked with Leone in his classic The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and who told Fonda he’d have the time of his life working with Leone on a film, Fonda accepted the part.

Henry Fonda as his blue eyes as Frank, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

He showed up for filming with facial hair and brown contacts, believing that his fans would more easily accept him as the bad guy if he looked different than he did in his other films. Leone insisted that Fonda shave and that, furthermore, his piercing blue eyes were necessary to symbolize the “cold, icy nature of the killer.” Fonda, cast against type, became one of the first lead actors to play a villain in a western.

Hugely popular in Europe on its release, though performing poorly in US markets — perhaps due to editorial cuts which were later restored to American versions in directors’ cuts — Once Upon a Time in the West is now considered to be a masterpiece and one the “greatest films ever made,” often ranked in the Top 100 lists of Best Westerns, Best Action, or Best Films.

Available for rent ($2.99-3.99 SD/HD) or purchase from Amazon (free with 7-day Starz trial), iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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I Ain’t Never Been No Hero: More Great Westerns


No Spoilers

I love Westerns, though most of the Westerns I favor fall into what are considered the sub-genres, with some of them not even taking place in the American West, for example, but containing iconic character motifs and themes present in Western films. My Top Ten Western films have characters, storylines, and themes make them powerful films that I watch over and over. They don’t always end happily, but they end honestly, with the finale of the movie developing out of the characters’ natures, their conflicts, and the decisions they’ve made previously — either in the film itself or in their lives before the events in the story take place. Here are more of my favorite Westerns, films I can always watch one more time.

 The Long Riders

Starring sets of real-life brother actors as historical brother outlaws, The Long Riders explores America’s violent post-Civil War past in a unique way. The most factual of any film about the James-Younger Gang, it covers the activity of Frank and Jesse James (Stacey and James Keach); Ed and Clell Miller (Dennis and Randy Quaid); Cole, Jim, and Bob Younger (David, Keith, and Robert Carradine); and Bob and Charley Ford (Nicholas and Christopher Guest).

Jesse is the titular head of the Gang, but after he disapproves of Ed’s behavior during one of that raids/robberies, rifts begin to form among the Gang members. Pursued by posses and the Pinkertons, the Gang is nevertheless protected by family and neighbors, who consider them local heroes rather than criminals. When hiding out, the brothers court women, and are courted by them in turn, which causes added stress in the Gang. As the Gang’s crimes escalate, so does the Pinkertons’ determination to capture them. After innocent people begin to get hurt and killed, the Gang loses its local support and goes further afield to rob stages, trains, and banks, increasing the Gang’s notoriety and fame, but also increasing its risk.

Even if you know the story of the James-Younger Gang, this film is engaging and worth watching. The cinematography is very effective and powerful, especially as the Gang escalates its violence. The Long Riders is available for rent $3.99 from Amazon (free with a 7-day Starz trial) or free from Starz with a subscription.

The Professionals

Four American “specialists,” i.e., mercenaries (Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode), are hired for an extremely dangerous but potentially lucrative, once-in-a-lifetime mission: deliver a $100K-in-gold ransom and rescue the beautiful young wife (Claudia Cardinale) of an older, wealthy rancher (Ralph Bellamy). Because two of the professional soldiers fought in Pancho Villa’s Army during the Mexican Revolution, they’re willing yet wary, if only because they know the ostensible kidnapper Razza (Jack Palance) intimately, and “kidnapping doesn’t seem like his thing.”

Fighting the desert, weather, rogue bandits, self-doubt, and each other, the Professionals use their individual skills — with dynamite, knives, bow-and-arrow, guns — as they head for Razza’s presumed hide-out. When they come upon Razza derailing a train and executing soldiers, they realize their mission may be more dangerous than they’d originally than anticipated because “something’s dicey about this set-up.”

Lancaster as the woman-loving wit is especially entertaining. With surprising (and satisfying) plot-twists, The Professionals is an often-neglected gem of a Western. Available from Amazon available for rent $3.99 (free with a 7-day Starz trial) or free from Starz with a subscription.

The Shootist

Opening with a montage of John Wayne’s film roles as the “history” of gunslinger J. B. Books (Wayne), narrated in Voice-Over by The Boy (Ron Howard) who idolizes him, The Shootist is my favorite role by both of these actors. Diagnosed with advanced cancer, with only about 6 weeks to live, Books settles in for a last stay in the lodging house of Widow Rogers (Lauren Bacall), mother of The Boy. Though Books wants anonymity and privacy, The Boy discovers his identity almost immediately and proudly trumpets that a famous Shootist is staying at his house. Books wants to keep him terminal illness secret, too, but he’s forced to tell people in order to stay quietly in the town till he dies.

When the stories of Books’ impending death begin to spread, other gunslingers who want to improve their own reputations by killing the famed Shootist arrive. Books’ instinct for survival and self-preservation combat with any desire he has to die quietly. Worse, he decides he doesn’t want to be alone, and the Widow Rogers and her son have caught his eye.

The chemistry between Wayne and the impressive line-up of guest stars —  James Stewart, Henry Morgan, Richard Boone, Scatman Crothers, John Carradine, Hugh O’Brien, Sheree North — is surpassed only by the chemistry between Wayne and Bacall, and by that between Wayne and Howard. This is the role that should have won Wayne the Oscar: he’s better by far as the fighting-fading Books than as True Grit‘s cantankerous Cogburn. The Shootist is available from Amazon ($3.99 to rent).

3:10 to Yuma

Based on an Elmore Leonard short story, and a remake of the 1951 film of the same name, 3:10 to Yuma packs powerful Western icons with clever dialogue and strong performances. Civil War hero Dan (Christian Bale, in one of his best roles) is about to lose his ranch because he didn’t have enough money to pay the mortgage and to buy feed for his cattle, purchase water during the drought, and to obtain the drugs for his consumptive youngest son.

When attempting to retrieve some of his cattle scattered by ne’er-do-wells, Dan and his sons run into escaped Bad Guy Ben Wade (Russell Crowe, below R) and his Gang, who have just ambushed the Pinkertons to rescue one of their Gang members. After rescuing the wounded Pinkerton McElroy (Peter Fonda), Dan, who is determined to save his ranch, offers to help escort the proverb-quoting escaped convict Wade to Detention so he can be put on the 3:10 to Yuma Prison.

The treacherous journey turns into a contest of wills between idealistic Dan, whose oldest son idolizes the criminal, and the notorious Bed Wade. As Ben’s Gang attempts to rescue its leader, Dan tries to earn his own son’s respect by completing the job he was hired to do. 3:10 to Yuma is filled with excellent writing, rousing action, and memorable characters. The scenes between Bale and Crowe are exquisite. Available from Amazon ($9.99SD-$12.99HD to purchase, or free with a 7-day Showtime trial), or free with a subscription from Showtime or DirecTV.

(sometimes translated as The Salvation)

Salvation, sometimes translated as The Salvation, is the Danish tribute to Sergio Leone’s classic Spaghetti Westerns, exploring some of the genre’s classic icons: The Man with No Name, The Town Besieged, The Cowardly Townspeople, The Man Seeking Vengeance. Jon (Mads Mikkelsen, below R) has come the the American West, from Denmark, with his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt, below L) after the disastrous War of 1864.

Seven years later, Jon has enough money to bring over his wife and 10-year-old son. Though these two characters are not developed — existing only as a reason for Jon to seek revenge for the heinous crimes against them, the film doesn’t suffer from that weakness. Instead, it plunges into Jon’s story as he and his brother seek revenge against the Bad Guys, led by DeLaRue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).

Terrorizing a town where no one is willing to stand up to the villains but where everyone wants a Saviour, DeLaRue and his Gang rule the populace with the aid of a corrupt Mayor (Jonathan Pryce) and a milque-toast Preacher-Sheriff (Douglas Henshaw). Eventually joined by “The Princess” (Eva Green), who appears to have been the captive “wife” of one of the rapists/murderers and who had her tongue cut out by Indians when she was kidnapped as a young girl, Jon fights for justice.

The addition of the mystery-suspense sub-plot makes this Revenge Tale one of the more interesting Westerns. Everyone in the film is more realistic than iconic, as they are in some of the classic Spaghetti Westerns: it usually takes Jon several shots to put down an assailant. Moody and atmospheric, with artistic cinematography, Salvation is available from Amazon ($4.99 to rent, or free with a 7-day trial from Showtime), is available for purchase for $14.99 from iTunes, or for $12.99 from GooglePlay, and YouTube, and is available free with a subscription from Showtime, IFC, or DirecTV.

If you know of any other classic Westerns that I might enjoy, please feel free to tell me about them in comments.

My original Top 10 Westerns post 
If You’re Going to Shoot,
Shoot: Don’t Talk

is now divided into two posts,
updated with official trailers and film availability:

We All Have It Coming:
Top 5 Westerns


I’m Your Huckleberry:
5 More Top Westerns

(originally films #6-10)

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