Once Upon a Time in the West (1968): Leone’s Masterpiece?

In “Once Upon a Time in the West,” Sergio Leone’s 1968 lush and impressive Western, a revenge story becomes an meditation on the American Western past—and, more importantly, the Western movie genre.

Made on a grander scale, “Once Upon a Time in the West” followed Leone’s spagehtti Westerns with Clint Eastwood of the mid 1960s: “A Fistful of Dollars,” “The Good the Bad and the Ugly,” “For a Few Dollars More.”

The movie is considered by many critics to be Leone’s undisputed masterpiece, though I prefer the longer, uncut version of “Once Upon a Time in America,” made in 1984, which became his last picture.

“Once Upon a Time in the West” is also known for its casting coup, taking Hollywood icon Henry Fonda, whose screen image has always signalled decency and honesty and good American values (“Young Mr. Lincoln,” “Twelve Angry Men,” “Mister Roberts”), and asking him to play the villain (and what a villain he is).

The plot is rather simple: To get the prime railroad land in Sweetwater, the crippled railroad baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) hires killers, led by the blue-eyed sadist Frank (Henry Fonda), who wipes out property owner Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) and his family.

McBain’s newly arrived bride, the fotmer prostitute Jill (Claudia Cardinale), however, inherits the land instead. Both outlaw Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and the lethally mysterious Harmonica (Charles Bronson) decide to look after Jill and thwart Frank’s plans to seize her land.

As alliances, coalitions and betrayals evolve and change, it gradually becomes clear that Harmonica wants to get Frank for another reason, an event concerning death and his past as a boy.

As in his Eastwood’s “Dollars” trilogy, Leone transforms the standard Western plot through the visual impact of widescreen landscapes and the human figures. At leats half of the film is shot in close-ups and mega close-ups.

The opening (credit) sequence is nothing short of sizzling, exemplifying Leone’s slow, deliberate pacing and meticulous mise-en-scene.  We observe the bizarre conduct of the killers (Jack Elam and Woody Strode), as they await the arrival of a train, bringing “Harmonica” (Bronson), a stranger who has asked to meet Frank.  We listen as the water drips on Strode’s bald head and Elam tries to shoo a fly inside his gun, while a third member cracks his knuckles.

There is a sense of anticipation and suspense from first to last scene, even though not much happens—it’s all in the mood and tone and visuals.

Ennio Morricone’s mesmerizing music deserves an essay and praise in its own right.  Based on the script, the distinguished composer has written a distinct theme for each of the four main characters, such as tuneless harmonica for Bronson, electric guitar for Fonda, banjo for Robards, and lush, romantic music for Cardinale).  Reportedly, Leone was so impressed that he asked his cast to adapt their specific acting, emotional conduct, and body rhythms to the score.

Leone’s film is not only the climax of a glorious career, but also a summation of a long tradition of the Western genre as we knew it.   In many ways, it is a suitable eulogy for the classic Western hero in John Ford’s movies.

Sensuous in its visuals and operatic in emotions, “Once Upon a Time in the West” is one of Leone’s masterworks, and one of the best Westerns ever made.

It’s also one of the most influential pictures of the 1960s, inspiring young American directors, most notably Quentin Tarantino.


Frank (Henry Fonda)

Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale)

Cheyenne (Jason Robards Jr.)

The Man “Harmonica” (Charles Bronson)

Brett McBain (Frank Wolff)

Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti)

Sheriff (Keenan Wynn)

Sam (Paolo Stoppa)

Wobbles (Marco Zuanelli)

Barman (Lionel Standard)


Rating: PG

Running Time: 165 Minutes.

Directed By: Sergio Leone

Screenplay by Sergio Leone and Sergio Donati, based on the story by Leone, Dario Argento, and Bernardo Bertolucci.

Camera: Tonino Delli Colli.

Released: December 21, 1968

On DVD: Nov 18, 2003