I'll never forget the first time I saw Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. I was only around 11 or 12 years old, and my father, being the huge fan of westerns he is, seemingly jumped for joy when our new subscription to cable television finally seemed to deliver on its promise of something to please everyone. Up until then, to him, the cable box had primarily served as but an unwelcome wart on the top of our faux wood grain console television set. This day, however, the box would finally prove it's worth.
I remember being struck by the stillness of it all; the way the credits rolled with no music, no bluster, just very slow and deliberate cuts to a trio of duster-clad cowboys sitting in a desolate train station. I remembered one particular cowboy using his hat to catch drippings of water from the ceiling, and then drinking from it, smiling, and placing his hat back upon his dome. Then there was the fly; buzzing around the face of this particular group's leader. The touch of comedic/macho flair as he caught it in the barrel of his gun, pressed his finger to the muzzle, held it up to his ear, and listened as it buzzed around within. Back then, I'd never managed to sit through an entire western without nodding off, but this one was different. As a train barreled toward the station, the cuts to each cowboy became quicker, more urgent, as a sense of urgency came over them as well.
The train comes to a halt, their eyes dance to each car's exit, but no one steps off. As the train rolls away they head back toward the station; a haunting sound breaks the silence.
The cowboys spin around, see the lone figure standing on the other side of the tracks, a harmonica in one hand, the other, heel of the palm down on a Colt. 45.
What followed was one of the most magnificently filmed and just downright cool examples of the western genre I have ever seen. To this day, I can only think of a handful of scenes that rival that one, and they're all from this very same film. Sergio Leone, an Italian who'd spent the majority of his life filming in his native country and Europe, had created the penultimate tale of wild America. While many regard films such as John Ford's Stagecoach as the best of the west, for me, the "spaghetti western" and that sub-genre's esoteric nature made the west wild. Perhaps it was the outsider's perspective that made Leone and his contemporary's work so unique and exciting, or, perhaps it was just their personal styles, but, whatever it was, one cannot deny that the Italian take on 19th century American culture was the shot in the arm that the dying western genre needed in the late 1960's.
Once Upon a Time in the West tells the tale of a gang of cowboys, led by Frank (Fonda), who are contracted by a railroad company to slaughter a landowner and his family so that the company may run their track through his vast property. Dressed in dusters to fool others into thinking that this was the work of Cheyenne (Robarb) and his men, Frank's gang fade into the woodwork as the locals seek out Cheyenne to punish him on behalf of the landowner's widow (Cardinale), who has just arrived from New Orleans to greet her new husband. Meanwhile, Harmonica (Bronson) is looking to settle a score with Frank, but happens across the lovely young widow, and helps to bring Cheyenne to justice to gain her favor.
One of the most lavishly shot films I've ever witnesses, Once Upon a Time... captures both the grandeur of the American west (much of the exteriors were actually shot in Utah and Arizona) and the fierce nature of it. The violence is filmed in a way that is both brutal and beautiful, and the film, as a whole, just screams cool. The script, co-written by Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Dario Argento, amongst others, is sparse, but brilliant where it counts, especially during the interplay between Harmonica and Cheyenne at a watering hole just after Cheyenne's first escape from the law. Robard eats up his role as the Mexican/American outlaw, and is just brilliant, while Bronson's patented cool is on full display here. However, the best performance of the bunch belongs to Henry Fonda, whose friendly face and welcoming blue eyes mask a truly evil killing machine in Frank. In a scene in which Frank is confronted with a decision of what to do with young boy who has just witnessed his men's massacre of his family, Frank looks at the boy, smiles reassuringly, and then the screen goes black as we hear his choice. It's a disturbing and chilling moment.
Finally released on Region One DVD, Paramount has pulled out all the stops on this one, releasing it in a fantastic two-disc set. Disc one features the film in an absolutely flawless widescreen anamorphic transfer, as well as a very interesting commentary track featuring John Carpenter, John Milius, Alex Cox, film historian (& Leone biographer) Sir Chirstopher Frayling, Dr. Sheldon Hall, as well as a few audio snippets from members of the cast and crew (some of which are no longer with us). It's more of an interview segment played over film rather than a proper commentary, but it's on-topic, and very informative, especially, for horror fans, John Carpenter, who credits this film for basically creating the look of his entire oeuvre'.
Disc two features three new making of documentary/featurettes, as well as location and production galleries, cast and crew bios, and more.
This is a great set for a great film, and one would expect no less. Paramount knew they were handling a property that many hold near and dear, and treated it with the respect and care it deserves. Even if you've never seen a western in your life, or despise them with every thread of your being, you owe it to yourself to see Once Upon a Time in the West. It's not only the finest western ever made; it may well be one of the best films of all time.