After the success of the Dollars Trilogy, Sergio Leone had intended to retire from Westerns, believing that he had finished with the genre. However, when he was offered the chance to work with Henry Fonda, one of his favourite actors, he returned for one last time with Once Upon a Time in the West.
In the wake of Jill McBain’s (Claudia Cardinale) family being murdered by a vicious mercenary named Frank (Henry Fonda), a mysterious stranger known only as Harmonica (Charles Bronson) with an unknown vendetta against him returns to the town of Flagstone. Together with Cheyenne (Jason Robards), Harmonica squares off against Frank, and is drawn into a battle for ownership of the railroad which will ultimately bring civilisation and prosperity to the frontier.
The Dollars films play out almost like affectionate parodies of Westerns, but Once Upon a Time could hardly be more different. Where its predecessors where generally fast paced and quite light-hearted, even in the darker moments, Once Upon a Time is slow and deliberate in its pacing, and rather than a parody, it feels like an elegy to the West on account of its sombre mood and an ending which is not only the end of the film, but of the Wild West itself. The opening sequence exemplifies this new, slow pace, with a trio of gunmen waiting for a train, saying nothing for almost 15 minutes before Harmonica arrives and swiftly, brutally guns them down.
Charles Bronson is very good in the No Name role, but all the same, it’s impossible not to notice a big, Clint Eastwood shaped hole in the film, and imagine what Harmonica’s scenes could have been if Eastwood had been available. Fortunately, Henry Fonda, uncharacteristically playing the villain, manages to make up for this shortfall. It’s still shocking to see a man who made his name playing heroes as such a vile villain here, especially since the first thing Frank does in the film, before we even see his face, is shoot a child. Fonda had planned to play the role wearing brown contact lenses, but Leone told him not to because his piercing blue eyes better reflected Frank’s icy, evil character. It’s a terrific performance, and Fonda somehow manages to be even more loathsome than Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, which is no small feat.
It’s a beautiful film to look at, with some scenes even filmed in Monument Valley, where John Ford filmed so many classics of the genre. Spain doubles brilliantly for the Old West, and the large (for the time) budget allows for a huge cast of extras and a lot of variety in the locations. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western without an outstanding Ennio Morricone score, which elevates the final duel between Frank and Harmonica into the level of the truly magnificent, even mythic.
For that is what this film is, as the title implies: a myth, a story mourning the death of the Old West, grander, more bleak and more ambitious than even The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Is it better? It’s very hard to say, since they’re such different films. It doesn’t have the humour or the charm of the Dollars Trilogy, but makes up for it with sheer mythic resonance. A perfect film for Leone to ride into the sunset with.