50 years, 50 films: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
As our cinematic trawl through the last half-century continues, we happen upon an enormous, post-modern western
“Mmm, turbulent” That’s what Homer Simpson said about the 1960s. And the year the turbulence came to a head was, of course, 1968. The Tet Offensive was kicking off in Vietnam. You had your Prague Spring. In the rarified world of film, the Cannes Film Festival was cancelled in response to disturbances in Paris. Maybe we should have picked Lindsay Anderson’s If… to represent the year. Night of the Living Dead was, famously, a sort of reaction to all that chaos. But, of course, film moves slowly (or it did then). And the great films of the year seemed to exist outside politics: The Producers, Rosemary’s Baby, Planet of the Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
You might argue that our choice, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, is the least political of the bunch. Well, the film’s starry trio of writers — Leone, Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci – would be having none of that. They saw their tale of railroad barons, oppressed farmers and plucky renegades as a Marxist piece. The great Kim Newman has argued that “Once Upon a Time in the West is the first Leone film to place violence in a truly political conflict”. There is certainly something in that. Rapacious industry has rarely, in the western, been quite so industriously rapacious.
Another Leone enthusiast, the erudite Christopher Frayling, has made the case for the film as the first post-modern Western. You can see what he was getting at. Bertolucci has described how he and his two fellow writers spent hours chattering about how the cowboys would hold their guns and what method they would use when rapidly discharging them. The plot — a plucky woman holds out against the advancing railroad — is freely adapted from Nicholas Ray’s weird 1954 masterpiece Johnny Guitar. It is, in that sense, a western about westerns.
Yet it has a quality that is all Leone’s own. It’s that epic, sub-operatic sweep that — played out to Ennio Morricone’s lush chords — so often threatens to topple into the ridiculous, but never quite manages it. Everybody is playing an archetype: Henry Fonda’s black-hat, Charles Bronson’s avenging loner. Claudia Cardinale’s tart with a heart. But they are all filtered through that extravagant Leone amplification device. The best manifestation of the great sweeping machine in motion comes when Cardinale arrives in town and the camera pulls back to reveal a community building itself from the dust. I have, in this place, described it as my favourite shot in all film. And I see no need to revise that opinion now.
Sadly, something does need to be said about Leone’s attitude to women. There’s no way around this. He was, in this area, a roaring disgrace. West is far from being the worst offender in this area. Both For a Few Dollars More and Once Upon a Time in America feature scenes in which woman seem to rather enjoy being sexually assaulted. (In case you’re confused, I am thinking of Tuesday Weld, not Elizabeth McGovern, in the second of those films.) But the final scene of Once Upon a Time in the West, in which, for all her bravery, Cardinale accepts that her main role in the developing west is to have her bottom pinched, still fairly chills the blood.
We should also point out that a virtual remake of the film (and thus of Johnny Guitar) is currently in cinemas. Much better reviewed in Britain and Ireland than it was in the US, The Lone Ranger is really not all that terrible. You are still, however, best advised to remain indoors and enjoy the excellent DVD issue of Once Upon a Time in the West. It is the very model of a flawed masterpiece.