I was in college when Once Upon a Time in the West came out. I had already seen the previous Westerns by Sergio Leone, and was especially awed by The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), so I looked forward to this new Leone Western with great anticipation. I was disappointed. On the one hand, I could see that it had a lot of good stuff in it, but there was something lacking. As I found out later, what was lacking was all the footage that had been cut out of the movie for its release in America. It was not until the movie came to television, and I saw much of the additional material (with some stuff edited out for the usual reasons), that I realized what a great movie it was. Even then it was not until somewhat later that I saw the restoration, which included even more material. Unfortunately, those who restored this movie messed up on the music at the end, which is hard to understand, because it would have been simple to do it right (in fact, it was done right in the German version). I guess we Americans just were not destined to see this movie in its perfect form, and certainly not in a movie theater (at least not where I live).
On the whole, the critics did not seem to like the movie when it first came out either. Some of them may have also reacted negatively to the chopped up presentation, but others were offended by other things, such as the slow pace or the amoral characters. Some of the critics objected to the way it copied stuff from other Westerns. What they (and I) did not realize at the time was that these were quotations, not necessarily in the sense of quoting what had been said in other Westerns, but in the extended sense of creating images and plot points similar to those in previous Westerns. Presumably, Leone had intended that people would watch his movie and smile appreciatively at these quotations, and I suppose some people did precisely that. What he probably did not realize was that these quotations were more likely to be appreciated in reverse, as was the case with me. I had seen many of the Westerns that were quoted, but only once, and thus did not catch the references. Once Upon a Time in the West, however, I watched every chance I got, and I quit counting after I had seen it twenty-five times.
Little by little, I watched the classic Westerns again, or for the first time in many cases, and I would experience déjà vu. For example, one night I was watching The Plainsman (1936), somewhat listlessly, when suddenly, toward the end of the movie I had the feeling that what I was watching I had seen before. At first, I did not know why, but I quickly realized that when Gary Cooper dressed up in black and entered the bar, he looked just like Frank (Henry Fonda) entering the bar to buy the land back from Harmonica (Charles Bronson).
From then on I never knew when I would catch another quotation and get another feeling of déjà vu. For example, when I watched High Noon (1952) and saw three men waiting on a train, it brought to mind the opening scene of Once Upon a Time in the West. Both The Searchers (1956) and Shane (1953) had elements that suggest the scene at the McBain’s ranch. The street in 3:10 to Yuma (1957) is just like the street that Frank walks down when his own men are trying to kill him. Henry Fonda’s character in Warlock (1959) kicks away a man’s crutches just as Frank does to Morton. The dusters worn by the outlaws in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962) are like those worn by Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and his men. The arch supporting a bell from which Harmonica’s brother is hanged derives from a much smaller arch with a bell in Duel in the Sun (1946). Those are fairly obvious, but others can easily escape notice, as in the case of the little piece of material missing from the brim of the hat worn by Harmonica (Charles Bronson), just like the hat Bronson wore in The Magnificent Seven (1960). Johnny Guitar (1954) gives us the framework for Once Upon a Time in the West. A prostitute played by Joan Crawford owns land where the railroad is coming through, which corresponds to Jill (Claudia Cardinale). The gang of outlaws headed by the Dancing Kid corresponds to Cheyenne’s gang. After a funeral, a vigilante posse dressed in black is formed to chase the Dancing Kid and his gang, just as a similar posse is formed after the funeral at the McBain’s ranch to chase Cheyenne and his gang. Sterling Hayden plays the title character. Because he has mental problems, in that he is gun crazy, he no longer carries a gun, but only a guitar. Harmonica, as his name suggests, also carries a musical instrument. He too is mentally disturbed, carrying “something around inside of him, something to do with death.” He is obsessed with the murder of his brother to the point of wearing the same type of clothes as he wore that day and still playing the harmonica that was shoved into his mouth. And his gun is mostly hidden, as is the harmonica, until the final day of reckoning.
Of course, one’s ability to appreciate these quotations in reverse presupposes having seen Once Upon a Time in the West many, many times. No problem.
The basic story of this movie is structured around the building of the transcontinental railroad. Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) is a railroad tycoon who began his railroad in the East and hopes to extend it all the way to the Pacific Ocean before he dies. Historically, the transcontinental railroad was built from two starting points, one in the East and one in the West, eventually meeting in the middle; but in this movie, we get the idea that the laying of track is all in one direction, from east to west.
Morton hired Frank when he started, “to remove small obstacles from the path,” as he put it. In other words, if some farmer owned the land that was in the way and he didn’t want to sell, Frank and his gang of killers would eliminate him. In fact, Harmonica is seeking revenge against Frank because Frank killed Harmonica’s brother a long time ago, presumably for just that reason.
And that would make perfectly good sense were it not for a little thing called “eminent domain.” The railroad companies never had to worry about recalcitrant farmers because the government simply bought the land from the farmers whether they liked it or not and then awarded it to the railroad companies. The United States marshals would have taken care of any farmers who refused to sell, so Frank’s services would never have been needed. So, for the sake of this movie, we have to pretend that the government did not use eminent domain to provide the railroad companies with huge grants of land.
But even if we go along with this notion that the railroad companies sometimes had to use force to secure the land they needed, the plot still does not make sense. Early in the movie, Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) and his family are killed by Frank because McBain owned the land the railroad wanted. But it turns out there is Jill (Claudia Cardinale), McBain’s widow, who now owns the land and with whom Frank must contend. In addition, there is a further complication. It seems that McBain signed a contract giving him or his heirs the right to own a station and enough land for a town, provided that the station is built by the time the railroad tracks reach McBain’s property.
Fine. But whose signature would also be on that contract besides McBain’s? Why, Morton’s, of course. Either that, or the signature of one of Morton’s agents. Morton owns the railroad and he would have been the one who signed or at least authorized the contract with McBain for a very simple reason. He wanted the station built by the time the tracks reached McBain’s property so that he would not be delayed in his goal to reach the Pacific Ocean before he dies of tuberculosis of the bones. McBain was not impeding the railroad by refusing to sell. He was facilitating the railroad by preparing to build a station. Had Morton not wanted McBain to build that station, he would never have signed a contract with him in the first place. So, none of this business about Frank’s killing McBain to get him out of the way makes any sense. Fortunately, these historical and logical flaws are not likely to occur to one while watching the movie, nor are they likely to interfere with one’s enjoyment of the movie even if they do.
In the end, Harmonica and Cheyenne (Jason Robards) get the station built for Jill just in time, so she gets to keep the land, and Harmonica kills Frank, finally avenging his brother’s death.