When I was a lad the cinema experience was always good value as we were shown a B film as well as the main feature, all for a few pennies. Invariably if the main feature was not a Western then the B movie would be. Westerns then had a pretty simple “good over evil” theme with the brave sheriff taking on the cowardly outlaws or the dashing cavalry officer subduing the misunderstood Indians.
One thing for sure was that everyone except the town drunk seemed well dressed in clean clothes, including the mandatory waistcoat, neck handkerchief and pink long johns.
How the men always managed to maintain a just shaved look after days in the saddle with the female love interest looking like she had just been to a Parisian salon were unexplained mysteries. It was just good clean fun I guess, not to be taken seriously. Then there was the usual indistinguishable soundtrack which was mainly brass band music played at the speed of the horses. Unmemorable is how one could describe it.
Along came the sixties and things began to change as the perception of heroes and villains became more complex and less predictable, resulting in more interesting and believable characters. Clothes were often shabby, men grew stubble and women got by without hairspray. I guess the favourite Western for most movie buffs (of a mature age) came from this period with many selecting Sergio Leone’s 1966 film, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. While this is a great must see classic movie, for me his 1968 release of Once Upon a Time in the West is the best Western ever.
To begin with it has a stellar cast including Henry Fonda who is up there with the best American actors of all time. He plays Frank a ruthless killer with ambition and his menacing ice-cold steel blue eyes are often shown in close up. Jason Robards who has played every role from President Lincoln to Al Capone is Cheyenne the leader of a gang of outlaws but who has a soft centre. Charles Brosnan a man a few words but many expressions is perfectly cast as Harmonica a musical fast gun aiming to take Frank down for killing his brother. Claudia Cardinale an Italian beauty queen better known for her fine acting plays Jill McBain a one-time hooker who marries a widower for a new start only to discover him and his offspring murdered at their farm.
It also boasts a strong supporting cast including Gabriele Ferzetti (Draco from Bond) as Morton a crippled railway baron of questionable morals who is building a railway through to the Pacific. He lives in a specially adapted railway carriage. To ensure there are no unnecessary delays he has hired Frank and his subordinate assassins to eradicate any obstacles along the way.
There are also a couple of cameo roles for Jake Elam (the unmistakable cowboy) and Woody Strode who play Snaky and Stony, members of Frank’s outfit. They don’t survive the opening credits that take place at a railway station. No musical soundtrack accompanies the credit sequence; instead the director relies on background sounds as three of Frank’s men wait the train that brings Harmonica to town. One of these sounds is a fly that tries to take up residence on Snaky’s stubble face while Snaky tries to dissuade it without using his hands. One of the many great scenes from this movie and it hasn’t yet really started.
When the train arrives bringing Harmonica to town, seeing only three horses he asks if they had brought a horse for him and Snaky jokingly replies “it looks like we’re one horse shy”. With a shake of the head Harmonica responds with “no, you brought two too many” and shoots them all dead. One of the many great lines from this movie and it hasn’t yet really started.
The main crux of the story revolves around Jill McBain who, following the demise of the family she married into, becomes the sole owner of Sweetwater, the land coveted by Morton as it has the only water for miles around and steam trains need water. Frank tries to have her killed but is thwarted by Cheyenne and by Harmonica who manages to shoot two of Frank’s henchmen off their horses with his six-gun from a range of 100 yards, a feat worthy of gold at any Olympic Games, but a normal performance in spaghetti westerns.
To avoid default of the land Jill McBain must have a train station built at Sweetwater before the track laying crew arrive a seemingly impossible task but Cheyenne who has developed a soft spot for her sets his gang to complete the task.
Morton fearful of Frank’s ambitions wins over some of his men by dealing them money instead of cards when joining in a game of poker. Frank survives the subsequent ambush but only with help from Harmonica who wants to keep the job of killing Frank to himself. The remainder of Frank’s men and Cheyenne’s gang conveniently kill each other during a shoot out at Morton’s train. Frank arrives on the body-strewn scene intending to shoot Morton but cruelly leaves the helpless rail baron to die alone unable to reach water.
With the battle for Sweetwater lost, Frank is determined to discover the true identity of Harmonica but on confronting him Frank is told that all will be revealed only at the point of dying. As they walk to their firing positions we see a flashback of Harmonica as a boy holding up his older brother who has a noose around his neck. A youthful Frank thrusts a harmonica into the younger brother’s mouth. The older brother is hanged when he pushes the young boy away. Just as the flashback ends they draw guns and Frank loses. He falls to his knees and as he’s dying Harmonica thrust a harmonica into his opponent’s mouth. The penny drops and so does Frank.
The ending is somewhat of a mystery. Cheyenne (now without a gang) and Harmonica both leave our heroine to the job of building Sweetwater into a town and ride off together. They don’t get very far before Cheyenne falls off his horse mortally wounded, evidently by Morton during the shoot out at the train. After Cheyenne dies Harmonica is seen riding into the sunset with the corpse in tow. Where is he taking the body, does anybody know?
For sound, the movie is often remembered for the repetitive harmonica tune played by Bronson’s character of the same name. For me however it is Ennio Morricone’s brilliantly haunting music score, which seemed to include an angelic choir that will always remain unforgettable. It added immensely to the viewing experience.
After watching it a number of times I find the intensity of the movie never seems to diminish. It is full of great scenes and ingenious dialogue. At over two and a half hours long it’s a truly epic movie.
The best of the West.