Categories
Legacy Review

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Scene 1: Three scoundrels wait at a train station at the end of the world. Everything is silent except the creaking of doors and buzzing of flies. No music. The train shows up, and suddenly we hear harmonica music. But it’s no Morricone cue… it’s Charles Bronson, harmonica on his lips. When the scoundrels ambush him, he slays all three. Meet: the angel of vengeance.

Scene 2: A decent family with a widowed father prepares for the arrival of his new bride. Bugs and critters buzz everywhere, until they suddenly go quiet. And who appears? A gang of outlaws led by Henry Fonda, his inviting blue eyes now steely and evil. They gun down the whole family, including the children. Meet: the devil.

Scene 3: The beautiful Claudia Cardinale arrives on a train, searches the horizon for her new family (whom we know to be dead). She walks through the station and into a classic Old West town, which unfolds before us in one of cinema’s greatest long takes. Meet: the stakes, a woman’s heart and the soul of the frontier.

At this point, we’re 35 minutes into a nearly-3-hour movie. Three unimpeachably perfect scenes.

The rest of the movie doesn’t always live up to that opening. There’s a plot about land deeds and secret marriages and bribery. It runs long, but it all piles on the film’s theme about modern industry and classic ruggedness battling for the Wild West’s future.

The film never drops below near-brilliant, and occasionally eclipses that threshold: there’s astonishing set piece on a train, and countless beautiful shots of arid landscapes shot in Spain and Monument Valley.

Fonda in particular delivers a tour de force as an against-type villain, all seductive power and menacing charisma.

Once Upon a Time in the West is a towering accomplishment, enduring and triumphant, and a flat-out masterpiece.

Is It Good?

Masterpiece: Tour De Good (8/8)

Note: This review was originally published elsewhere. Please excuse brevity or inconsistencies in style. If you have questions or feedback, please leave a comment or contact me.


Follow Dan on Letterboxd and join the Discord for updates and discussion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.