inkanus(a member of Epinions)
Home Turf: Chicago, IL
Personal Info: Graduate student in molecular genetics at UIC.
An epic of a grand scale (Dec 22 '00)
Pros: This movie has it all!
Cons: As in all Leone movies, dubbing of Italian actors sometimes
There is no doubt in my mind that two western movies crowned this
genre: "Wild Bunch" by Sam Peckinpah and "Once
upon a time in the West" by Sergio Leone. Both of these movies
surpass genre limits, deliver a lasting message, and offer a deep
insight into the human heart and soul.
"Once upon a time in the West" comes after Leone's and
Clint Eastwood's trilogy, sums it up, and brings it on another
level. Even though I'm a big fan of Clint Eastwood, I think that
it's good that he abstained from this movie, because his presence
would bring in an unnecessary burden of his previous roles. Charles
Bronson, even though a lower class actor compared to Eastwood,
managed to retain the veil of total mystery, crucial for the success
of the role he had to play.
The movie opens with an unforgettable scene, one of those that
shows us the real meaning of the artistry of film making. In the
role of his lifetime, Jack Elam (the guy with the funny eye),
the best known supporting actor from a plethora of western movies,
resumes the role of God by capturing an annoying fly in the barrel
of his gun, playing with it and making it buzz for him. Then,
in the act of divine grace, this brutal killer releases the fly
with an angelic expression on his face. The opening scene is a
story on its own, and another director would make an entire movie
out of it. With just two short sentences exchanged in more than
ten minutes, this scene uncovers one of the major layers of the
movie -- the decline and self-destruction of the strong individuals
who ruled the "wild" West and the slow, but inevitable
takeover by the civilization of businessman and the little people.
The purpose of my review is not to uncover the major plot, but
it would be rather empty if I don't reflect on some of the characters
and their meaning (at least in my interpretation) aside from the
story. Like, in "The good, the bad, and the ugly", there
are three major male characters in the movie who could be categorized
as such. But the level of categorization is a different one this
time. The man with harmonica (Charles Bronson) looks like an avenging
angel -- a man with no visible human emotions, with no past but
one childhood memory -- who came down to Earth with one task --
to smite the Devil, represented by Frank (Henry Fonda). Bronson
will do whatever it takes to deliver this justice, even if it
includes killing, putting others in danger, and even saving the
life of his arch enemy just for the purpose of killing him later.
Other people don't understand this kind of "justice"
and, therefore, Harmonica is depicted as an antisocial person,
almost unable to strike a meaningful conversation with anyone
but his enemy and his ally Cheyenne (Jason Robards).
On the other side of this trio stands Frank, the "helping
hand" of a railroad tycoon, Morton, the personification of
the "cleaner" -- someone disposable used by businessmen
to do their dirty work. But, Frank dreams of rising above his
role. He wants to become a businessman himself. Alas, he can't
because, in his words, he is "just a man", and, according
to Harmonica, "it's an ancient race".
The most earthly character is Cheyenne, and thus he is the one
to pick up all the sympathies of the audience. In essence, he
is driven by certain moral values, except when, in his own words,
"there are thousands of small, golden, shiny reasons"
to set them aside. Robards gave the performance of his life in
this movie, and it's beyond my comprehension why he wasn't even
nominated for an Oscar for it. His every gesture, facial expression,
and sentence strike the spectator directly in the heart. The essence
of his dualistic nature radiates from him, but it is maybe best
depicted in a scene where he says with an innocent smile: "I
would never kill a child. To kill a child is like to kill a priest.".
Then, with a grin, he adds: "Catholic, I mean...".
The other characters perfectly fit the story and the global scope
of the movie, and everyone is exceptional. Every scene is a little
masterpiece, every sentence is carefully weighed and said with
a deeper purpose and meaning. To underscore everything, Ennio
Morricone made one of the best musical scores in the history of
I highly recommend this movie to anyone, even those among you
who hate western genre in general. Some artists, like Leone, just
surpass any genre and deliver great works of art no matter what
they touch with their magic wand.