Fifty Shades of Cinema: 1968 – C’era Una Volta Il West (Once Upon A Time in the West)

Fifty Shades of Cinema continues with Jonathon Dabell taking a look at classic western Once Upon A Time in the West, starring Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson.

The Contenders
Fifty Shades Of Cinema reaches 1968, a vintage year of movie classics and a tough one to call when narrowing things down to one favourite above all others. Contenders include Mel Brooks’s terrific comedy The Producers; two Steve McQueen classics in the shape of cop thriller Bullitt and heist drama The Thomas Crown Affair; experimental anti-establishment drama If…; and tense horror flick Rosemary’s Baby. Another horror entry worthy of consideration would be George A. Romero’s ground-breaking zombie classic Night Of The Living Dead. Two of the last great musicals appeared in ’68, one being the wonderful Funny Girl with Barbara Streisand and Omar Sharif, the other Carol Reed’s brilliant Oliver! based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Charlton Heston starred in the legendary sci-fi epic Planet Of The Apes, while a smaller and more human aspect of sci-fi was explored in the touching Charly featuring a knockout Oscar-winning performance from Cliff Robertson. The greatest sci-fi of the year, however, would have to be Stanley Kubrick’s mind-mashing head-trip 2001: A Space Odyssey. Franco Zeffirelli’s lavish staging of Romeo And Juliet also commands attention, while historical epic The Lion In Winter remains one of the finest examples of its genre ever made. The award for Film Of The Year, however, falls once again on a Sergio Leone western, this time the absolutely amazing C’era Una Volta Il West (or, to give it it’s English name, Once Upon A Time In The West).   

C’era Una Volta Il West (Once Upon A Time In The West)

C’era Una Volta Il West is a real contender for the title of greatest western of them all. A masterpiece on every level, it is easily the best film ever made by director Sergio Leone – that’s some going for a man whose other works include the likes of The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and Once Upon A Time In America.

What makes the film even more impressive is the way that it moves at its own uniquely languid pace, with the camera pausing on sweaty faces and vast empty landscapes for seemingly indefinite periods of time. These frequent lingering pauses – almost certain to provoke tedium in any other film – here take on an absorbing significance and fascination. Although the initial reaction is that much time seems to be wasted during C’era Una Volta Il West, on reflection one realises that every frame is beautifully composed and makes its own contribution to the overall atmosphere of this most atmospheric of films. It is a film that continues to make an impression on the viewer long after the final credits roll.

In the Old West, a mysterious Harmonica-playing gunslinger (Charles Bronson) arrives at a remote railway station anticipating a meeting with someone named Frank. Instead he is greeted by three hired killers, who try to gun him down but are actually killed themselves in the exchange.

Later a family of homesteaders are murdered in cold blood by a gang of gunmen, led by the afore-mentioned Frank (Henry Fonda). The father of the murdered family had just been about to head to the nearest train station to pick up a woman he married during a recent trip to New Orleans, the beautiful Jill (Claudia Cardinale). When he fails to collect her, Jill ventures to the homestead to find out what has become of him.

During her journey from the town to the house, she has a strange encounter with an outlaw on the run, Cheyenne (Jason Robards), as well as the enigmatic Harmonica. Upon discovering her new family massacred, she inherits their remote home and later realises that her deceased husband intended to transform the house into a railway station when the ever-expanding train tracks reached their piece of land. Frank is instructed by railway mogul Morton (Gabrielle Ferzetti) to get Jill – now the legitimate owner of land he wants – out of the picture by whatever means necessary. Meanwhile, Harmonica keeps flitting in and out of Jill and Frank’s life, an almost supernatural figure whose motives remain unclear until all is revealed at the film’s haunting climax.

C’era Una Volta Il West is visually perfect throughout, with every camera angle and widescreen shot worked out literally to the millimetre. Ennio Morricone provides an incredible music score – mine and many people’s choice for greatest movie music of all-time – in which each of the five main characters is given their own leitmotif, replayed every time they’re on-screen. In the final showdown between Harmonica and Frank, both characters’ leitmotifs are cleverly overlapped to generate extraordinary drama and tension.

The performances are excellent, most notably Fonda (cast against type as a despicable murderer, and mightily effective in the role), Robards (wonderfully charismatic as a charming rogue), and Bronson (whose nonchalance and woodenness as an actor are used to the film’s advantage to make him supremely enigmatic).

A film of endless pleasures that stands up to renewed viewings time and again, C’era Una Volta Il West is a triumph – a film that simply must be seen by anyone who loves movies. It is not just the best film of 1968… it has a valid claim as the best film of the entire decade and arguably one of the five best films of all-time. A five-star rating barely does it justice.

FMV Rating *****

2 Responses to “Fifty Shades of Cinema: 1968 – C’era Una Volta Il West (Once Upon A Time in the West)”
  1. Mark Butler says:

    A genuinely incredible film this. I absolutely adore the Dollars movies, but for me this is Leone’s best.

    Morricone’s music is just beautiful too.

  2. Leon Nicholson says:

    Brilliant review for an amazing film. My favourite western of all time. Unsurpassed!

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