Bookmark and Share

A Movie Masterpiece:
Once Upon a Time in the West

By Mike Pizzolato

Mike Pizzolato
Associate Editor


By the late 1960s, director Sergio Leone is ready to retire from making westerns and rest on his laurels.

Those laurels include For a Few Dollars More, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, and A Fistful of Dollars, which have established television's Clint Eastwood as a bankable movie star in the so-called Man with No Name trilogy.

While the Dollars Trilogy creates a breakthrough role for Eastwood, it is also a breakthrough for the western itself, which has been slipping from its golden age and slowly devolving into hackneyed, simplistic traditions.

In the trilogy, Leone is turning a genre inside out. With the stolid yet empowered acting of Clint Eastwood, the director has whetted the public appetite by giving birth on film to the modern anti-hero, a leading man of suspect motives and self-interested goals, a bad boy that the public now finds more interesting and entertaining than the upright, justice-delivering, good guys of the past.

"Probably the greatest writer of westerns was Homer," Leone tells Marlaine Glicksman in a 1987 interview two years before his death. "His characters were never all good or all bad. They're half and half these characters, as all human beings are."

And now with Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone is deciding to come back for one more western, to give audiences their fill with a story that transcends the western.


"I had never thought of making a western, even as I was making it," Leone says. "I think my films are westerns only in their exterior aspects. Within them are some of my truths."

When 1967 rolls in, the film is undergoing a lengthy development phase. Eastwood turns Leone down when he offers him the part of Harmonica, which eventually goes to Charles Bronson.

But after Henry Fonda-Leone's favorite actor who usually plays heroes instead of villains-signs on as Frank the villain, Leone is all in.

Later in 1975, the blue-eyed Fonda would recount the moment with British Journalist Michael Parkinson when the camera swings around to reveal Fonda's face in the opening scene, relating how Leone had rejected the goateed look with dark-eyed contacts that Fonda came on set with. "Sergio had cast me because he could imagine the audience at this moment saying, 'Jesus Christ, it's Henry Fonda!'"


Leone recruits two former movie critics turned directors, Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, along with his old friend Sergio Donati to help with the story and screenplay.

The movie finally sees the light of the silver screen as Christmas 1968 approaches.

After the studio cuts 21 minutes from the film that disrupt key plot elements, Once Upon a Time in the West flops in America, barely making money. But to the discerning eyes of western fans, filmmakers and producers, the western will never be the same.

To them, Leone has created a masterpiece for the ages, taking the ghosts of westerns past, weaving them into the present and forever changing the future of the western.

The minimalist script speaks with the language of somber scenery, eerie silences and natural sounds. The smallest act is as haunting as the music of film composer Ennio Morricone. Unlike the Dollars Trilogy, the pace is slowed to a crawl in some scenes, marking an evolved style for Leone.

Leone embeds the movie with mysterious references from past westerns, fleeting moments reverberating through the film like a distant echo. They help stamp Leone's final western not only as an homage to a genre's past greatness but also as a masterwork.


The classic westerns referenced are many and varied, for example: High Noon's tense wait by three men at a train station, the similar clothing from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the duel in The Last Sunset, the sounds of nature in The Searchers as well as the massacre of a family, the father and son hunting scene in Shane along with the funeral scene, all of which recur in Leone's film and register with knowledgeable westerns fans. Charles Bronson whittles a stick of wood in this movie as he did in The Magnificent Seven. Add to that, Glenn Ford, who like Fonda typically played good guys, was a villain in 3:10 to Yuma as Fonda is in this one.

The veteran cast of Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards and Charles Bronson deliver extraordinary performances.
    Cardinale, as powerful as she is beautiful, is the widow of a murdered landowner who comes into fictional Flagstone and makes her claim on nearby Sweetwater where the impending railroad must pass in order to have water as steam for its engines. Leone's last western is the first to show women central to the story and on equal footing with men.

"When I used Claudia," Leone tells Glickman, "she represented the birth of American matriarchy because women had enormous weight in America. They still have. Therefore, when they are put into a film, they have to be put in for a distinct purpose and have a reason to exist, not some superficial or gratuitous presence. If you take her out, there's no more film. She's the central motor of the entire happening."

Bronson, a harmonica-playing avenger, is as mysterious as Eastwood ever was in the trilogy. Fonda surprises as a vicious child killer, murderer and even Cardinale's rapist. Harmonica out duels Fonda, yet not before dramatically revealing a past where the villain had years ago caused the death of Harmonica's brother in which the music of his harmonica played a key role.

Robards is the leader of a gang of bandits who are framed for killing the landowner but whose men nonetheless help Cardinale build the Sweetwater railroad station. Robards even makes us empathize and feel sad for his noble bandit character when he eventually dies of wounds from the final shootout, his body majestically carried off on horseback by Bronson who has just extracted revenge on Fonda.

Today, Once Upon a Time in the West has a following the world over and a life of its own in the DVD market which affords the movie a reach back into the past by the generation that first saw it theatres. That generation can now re-watch it and bring it into the present and future to a new generation much like Leone's story itself reached back into the past of classic westerns when it was first released.

Sergio Leone's masterpiece lives on, rightfully taking its place not only among the greatest westerns but also among the greatest movies.

And that remains forever something in which every Western fan can take pride.


  1. The 100 Greatest Entertainers: 1950-2000, edited by Cynthia Grisolia. © 2000 Time, Inc. Home Entertainment .
  2. Fifty Grand Movies of the 1960s and 1970s, by David Zinman. © 1986 Crown Publishers, New York.
  3. Interview with Sergio Leone
  4. Once Upon a Time in the West
  5. Dollars Trilogy
  6. Sergio Leone

Mike Pizzolato is the Associate Editor, Art Director and Facebook Coordinator of The Western Online.


Back to   Top of Page   |   Fiction  |  Artwork  |  Historical Articles   |   Book Reviews   |   Site Information   |   Submission Guidelines