‘Once Upon a Time in the West’: Hidden truths in a declining culture as time does fly

Little things matter to me quite a lot.  I notice everything and of my many careers over a lifetime, one of them will be a cultural expert where psychology, art, religion, economics and all other forms of unnamed human ambition find their way into every created thing on earth.  I grew up for as long as I can remember wanting to be a film director—but not being a very collaborative person—relegated that desire for more inward pursuits.  Because of all that I can say with great provocation that the world is in a severe cultural decline.  America obviously leads the world in culture—even though many academics might dispute it.  The evidence is in our movie houses and our music with great audacious display.  So rather than slide my predilections into the direction of the current pendulum swinging culture of global unification I am focusing much more these days on American westerns as a foundation philosophy that stands in contrast to the world currently presented to us.

I was born in 1968 and a few months after my birth one of the greatest films ever made was released—it was a Sergio Leone western called Once Upon a Time in the West.  Leone was an Italian director interpreting American westerns for a country trying to fight its way back from cultural decay after World War II.  CLICK HERE TO REVIEW. Leone at the time was best known for his “Dollars” trilogy which made Clint Eastwood into a star.  Those films are and have always been fantastic.  But for the director Leone they gained him the opportunity to make the western of his dreams off the success of the previous Eastwood films.  Paramount Pictures tossed the world to him along with a host of first class stars and Sergio Leone along with his musical collaborator Ennio Morricone spun a masterpiece called Once Upon a Time in the West.

Some of my very first television memories were these spaghetti westerns by Sergio Leone replaying on Channel 19 in Cincinnati.  My grandfather loved westerns and whenever I was at his farm-house he had them on, so my mother also watched them all the time as well because it reminded her of her dad.  Of them the Sergio Leone westerns reflected my own observations about people even when I was very young—and I soaked them up.  Before I was ever in the kindergarten I was a fan of Once Upon a Time in the West.  I often confused all Leone’s westerns together until I was just shy of ten and it was then when I began to appreciate Once Upon a Time in the West as something of its own.  The Leone films had hard-wired themselves into my consciousness.  My very first time in front of a television camera was when I was sixteen during “tough guy” week on Channel 19.  “Tough guy week” was a ratings grab at Channel 19 so they ran Steve McQueen movies along with a lot of Clint Eastwood to bump up their winter numbers.  At a young age I had evolved into having a “reputation” and I was sitting at the dinner table of a prominent Sharonville judge, his wife and the biggest criminal of Northern Cincinnati at the time.  The event was a Chinese New Year advertisement for a restaurant that I worked at.  One of the owner’s sons was a guy who liked to dip his feet into that type of world where justice sits at dinner tables with known criminals and he used me even at that young age as one of his “heavies.”  I enjoyed the experience because I was essentially living the life of the protagonists in Sergio Leone’s westerns and I discovered by living those characters in real life that one of my favorite film directors was in fact a genius.  As I sat at that table during that day long commercial recording talking to the judge and the crime lord obviously working together with me in the middle and being told by that same judge that when I got into trouble—he’d take care of it–I knew for me there was no going back.  At too young of an age I knew way too much about the way the world worked.  I was then and still am about 60 years ahead of myself and it does really go back to Leone’s westerns and my young introduction to them.  When the commercial aired on television my family was one of the first people back then to have a VCR so I was able to tape it.  My television appearance aired with the judge and the criminal seated on either side of me during a showing of For a Few Dollars More.  During that same Channel 19 “tough guy” week Once Upon a Time in the West was shown again and I was able to see it as a 16-year-old actually doing in real life much of what the Charles Bronson character was doing in that film and I watched it with new understanding for the first time.  It was as real and honest of any motion picture I had ever seen—it was to my eyes much better than The Godfather which was still making cultural waves in that year of 1985.  A month later I was involved in a fight with a bunch of people which led to a tragic situation and if I had not been sitting at that table with that judge on that particular day for that commercial, I’d probably have a much different life than I do now and my freedoms would likely be greatly restricted.

I felt it was important for my wife to be to watch Once Upon a Time in the West to understand more about me, so I tried to show it to her early in our relationship.  At the time she was a country club girl so she wasn’t ready for movies like that—where the opening was so strange and dramatic.  She made fun of it heavily after the first seven minutes and I never tried again to show it to her until January of 2016.  I had meant to show the movie to my children at some point so given all my history with it I felt that they should see the movie.  I bought the cut of the film that had been restored to 165 minutes as opposed to the version I had seen as a kid, the 145 minute version which was a bit more confusing, and relished being able to finally show it to my wife and at least some of my kids.  It was a great experience.  The music from Ennio Morricone was so good in that movie that I have used it often to raise my mind above times of incredible stress.  Even though my wife didn’t like Once Upon a Time in the West at first I still loved it and thought of it often to carry me through tough times.  I was 25-years old and in deep trouble.  I had more legal problems and had law suits directed at me from several directions and I had to tap into that raw, primal civility that I had refined when I was 16, where I could walk into any situation and just take care of things no matter how bad the guys on the other side of the table were—or who hid in the shadows where you parked your car.  I had for the first time a CD collection of Ennio Morricone’s music which featured a scene on the front from Once Upon a Time in the West.  By the 1990s the film was considered an obscure classic and nobody remembered it much except for filmmakers and people who were particularly fascinated with cultural phenomenon.  In the hardest days of my life I listened to the music from Once Upon a Time in the West to serve as my moral compass—and it has always worked for me. I sat in my office back then with the world coming down around me and would listen to those Morricone soundtracks and think of “The Man with the Harmonica”—that haunting melody which spoke of revenge, perseverance, and the growth of a human into an Übermensch (German for “Overman, Overhuman, Above-Human, Superman, Superhuman, Ultraman, Ultrahuman, Beyond-Man”; German pronunciation: [ˈˀyːbɐmɛnʃ]) As readers here know I think a lot of the concept which is from the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. In his 1883 book Thus Spoke Zarathustra (GermanAlso Sprach Zarathustra), Nietzsche has his character Zarathustra posit the Übermensch as a goal for humanity to set for itself. It is a work of philosophical allegory, with a structural similarity to the Gathas of Zoroaster/Zarathustra.  I learned later that my love of Sergio Leone had more to do with the concept of the Übermensch than of the westerns themselves—but I can say that there is an honesty in Once Upon a Time in the West that is not present in any other form of art and it should be experienced—especially these days.

Once Upon a Time in the West (ItalianC’era una volta il West) is a 1968 epic Spaghetti Western Technicolor film in Techniscope directed by Sergio Leone. It stars Henry Fonda cast against type as the villain, Charles Bronson as his nemesisClaudia Cardinale as a newly widowed homesteader, and Jason Robards as a bandit. The screenplay was written by Sergio Donati and Leone, from a story by Dario ArgentoBernardo Bertolucci and Leone. The widescreen cinematography was by Tonino Delli Colli, and the acclaimed film score was by Ennio Morricone.

After directing The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Leone decided to retire from Westerns and desired to produce his film based on The Hoods, which eventually becameOnce Upon a Time in America. However, Leone accepted an offer from Paramount Pictures to provide access to Henry Fonda and to use a budget to produce another Western film. He recruited Bertolucci and Argento to devise the plot of the film in 1966, researching other Western films in the process. After Clint Eastwood turned down an offer to play the movie’s protagonist, Bronson was offered the role. During production, Leone recruited Donati to rewrite the script due to concerns over time limitations.

The original version by the director was 166 minutes (2 hours and 46 minutes) when it was first released on December 21, 1968. This was the version that was to be shown in European cinemas and was a box office success. For the US release on May 28, 1969, Once Upon a Time in the West was edited down to 145 minutes (2 hours and 25 minutes) by Paramount and was a financial flop. The film is considered by some to be the first installment in Leone’s Once Upon a Time Trilogy, followed by Duck, You Sucker!, called Once Upon a Time… the Revolution in parts of Europe, and Once Upon a Time in America, though the films do not share any characters in common.

The film is now generally acknowledged as a masterpiece and one of the greatest films ever made.[3][4] In 2009, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.[5]

The film portrays two conflicts that take place around Flagstone, a fictional town in the American Old West: a land battle related to construction of a railroad, and a mission of vengeance against a cold-blooded killer. A struggle exists for Sweetwater, a piece of land near Flagstone containing the region’s only water source. The land was bought by Brett McBain (Frank Wolff), who foresaw that the railroad would have to pass through that area to provide water for the steam locomotives. When crippled railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) learns of this, he sends his hired gun Frank (Henry Fonda) to intimidate McBain to move off the land, but Frank instead kills McBain and his three children, planting evidence to frame the bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards). It appears the land has no owner; however, a former prostitute (Claudia Cardinale) arrives from New Orleans, revealing she is Jill McBain, Brett’s new wife and the owner of the land.

Meanwhile, a mysterious harmonica-playing gunman (Charles Bronson), whom Cheyenne later dubs “Harmonica”, pursues Frank. In the film’s opening scene, Harmonica kills three men sent by Frank to kill him. In a roadhouse on the way to Sweetwater, he informs Cheyenne that the three gunfighters appeared to be posing as Cheyenne’s men.

Back at Sweetwater, construction materials are delivered to build a railroad station and a small town. Harmonica explains that Jill will lose Sweetwater unless the station is built by the time the track’s construction crews reach that point, so Cheyenne puts his men to work building it.

Frank turns against Morton, who wanted to make a deal with Jill; Morton’s disability makes him unable to fight back. After having sex with Jill, Frank forces her to sell the property in an auction. He tries to buy the farm cheaply by intimidating the other bidders, but Harmonica arrives, holding Cheyenne at gunpoint, and makes a much higher bid based on his reward money for delivering Cheyenne to the authorities. Harmonica rebuffs an offer by Frank to buy the farm from him for one dollar more than he paid at the auction. As Cheyenne is placed on a train bound for the Yuma prison, two members of his gang purchase one-way tickets for the train, intending to help him escape.

Frank’s men betray and ambush him, having been paid by Morton to turn against him, but—much to Jill’s outrage—Harmonica helps Frank kill them, intending to kill Frank himself. Frank returns to Morton, only to find that he and the rest of Frank’s men have been killed in a battle with Cheyenne’s gang. Frank then goes to Sweetwater to confront Harmonica. On two occasions, Frank has asked Harmonica who he is, but both times Harmonica refused to answer him. Instead, he mysteriously quoted names of men Frank has murdered. This time, Harmonica says he will reveal who he is “only at the point of dying”. The two men position themselves for a duel, at which point Harmonica’s motive for revenge is revealed in a flashback:

A younger Frank, already a cruel bandit, is forcing a boy to support on his shoulders his older brother, whose neck is in a noose strung from an arch. As the boy struggles to hold his brother’s weight, Frank stuffs a harmonica into the boy’s mouth and tells him to play. The brother curses Frank and kicks his brother away, and dies.

Harmonica draws first and shoots Frank. As he lies dying, Frank again asks who he is, whereupon the harmonica is placed in Frank’s mouth. Frank nods weakly in recognition and dies. Harmonica and Cheyenne say goodbye to Jill, who is supervising construction of the railway station as the track-laying crews reach Sweetwater. Cheyenne collapses, revealing that he had been fatally shot by Morton during the fight with Frank’s gang. The work train arrives, Jill carrying water to the rail workers, while Harmonica rides away with Cheyenne’s body.

Leone’s intent was to take the stock conventions of the American Westerns of John FordHoward Hawks and others, and rework them in an ironic fashion, essentially reversing their intended meaning in their original sources to create a darker connotation.[22] The most obvious example of this is the casting of veteran film good guy Henry Fonda as the villainous Frank, but there are also many other, more subtle reversals throughout the film. According to film critic and historian Christopher Frayling, the film quotes from as many as 30 classic American Westerns.

The major films referenced include:

  • High Noon(1952): The opening sequence is similar to the opening of High Noon, in which three bad guys (Lee Van CleefSheb Wooley and Robert J. Wilke) are shown waiting for the arrival of their leader (named Frank, played by Ian MacDonald) on the noon train. In the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West, three bad guys (Jack Elam, who appeared in a small part in High NoonWoody Strode, and Al Mulock) take over and wait at a train station. However, the period of waiting is depicted in a lengthy ten-minute sequence, the train arrives several hours after noon, and its passenger is one of the film’s heroes (Charles Bronson) rather than its villain. The scene is famous for its use of natural sounds: a squeaky windmill, knuckles cracking, and Jack Elam’s character trying to shoo off a fly. According to rumor, Leone offered the parts of the three gunmen to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly stars Clint EastwoodLee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach.[23]
  • 3:10 to Yuma(1957): This cult Western by Delmer Daves may have had considerable influence on the film. The most obvious reference is a brief exchange between Keenan Wynn‘s Sheriff and Cheyenne, in which they discuss sending the latter to Yuma  In addition, as in West the main villain is played by an actor (Glenn Ford) who normally played good guys. The film also features diegetic music (Ford at one point whistles the film’s theme song just as Harmonica provides music in West). And the scene in which Van Heflin‘s character escorts Ford to the railroad station while avoiding an ambush by his gang may have inspired the ambush of Frank by his own men in Leone’s film.
  • The Comancheros(1961): The names “McBain” and “Sweetwater” may come from this film. (Contrary to popular belief, the name of the town “Sweetwater” was not taken from Victor Sjöström‘s silent epic dramaThe Wind. Bernardo Bertolucci has stated that he looked at a map of the southwestern United States, found the name of the town in Arizona, and decided to incorporate it into the film. However, both “Sweetwater” and a character named “McBain” appeared in The Comancheros, which Leone admired.[24])
  • Johnny Guitar(1954): Jill and Vienna have similar backstories (both are former prostitutes who become saloonkeepers), and Harmonica, like Sterling Hayden‘s title character, is a mysterious, gunslinging outsider known by his musical nickname. Some of West’s central plot (Western settlers vs. the railroad company) may be recycled from Nicholas Ray’s film.[24]

  • The Iron Horse(1924): West may contain several subtle references to this film, including a low angle shot of a shrieking train rushing towards the screen in the opening scene, and the shot of the train pulling into the Sweetwater station at the end.[24]
  • Shane(1953): The massacre scene in West features young Timmy McBain out hunting with his father, just as Joey does in this movie. The funeral of the McBains is borrowed almost shot-for-shot from Shane.[24]
  • Vera Cruz(1954): In both films, Charles Bronson’s character plays a harmonica and is known only by a nickname.
  • The Searchers(1956): Leone admitted that the rustling bushes, the silencing of cicada chirps, and the fluttering pheasants that suggest a menace approaching the farmhouse when the McBain family is massacred were all taken from The Searchers. The ending of the film—where Western nomads Harmonica and Cheyenne move on rather than join modern society—also echoes the famous ending of Ford’s film.[24]
  • Warlock(1959): At the end of this film, Henry Fonda’s character wears clothing very similar to his costume throughout West. In addition, Warlock features a discussion about mothers between Fonda and Dorothy Malone that is similar to those between Cheyenne and Jill in West. Finally, Warlock contains a sequence in which Fonda’s character kicks a crippled man off his crutches, as he does to Mr. Morton in West.
  • The Magnificent Seven(1960): In this film, Charles Bronson’s character whittles a piece of wood. In West, he does the same, although in a different context. The Magnificent Seven was based on Seven Samuraiby Akira Kurosawa, whose film Yojimbo (“The Bodyguard”) was the inspiration (and later, litigation) behind Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars.
  • Winchester ’73(1950): It has been claimed that the scenes in West at the trading post are based on those in Winchester ’73, but the resemblance is slight.[24]
  • The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance(1962): The dusters (long coats) worn by Cheyenne and his gang (and by Frank and his men while impersonating them) resemble those worn by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and his henchmen when they are introduced in this film. In addition, the auction scene in West was intended to recall the election scene in Liberty Valance.[24]
  • The Last Sunset(1961): The final duel between Frank and Harmonica is shot almost identically to the duel between Kirk Douglas and Rock Hudson in this film.[24]
  • Duel in the Sun(1946): The character of Morton, the crippled railroad baron in West, was based on the character played by Lionel Barrymore in this film.[24]
  • Sergeant Rutledge(1960): This John Ford Western, featuring Woody Strode as the title character, has a scene in which Constance Towers falls asleep in a chair with a rifle in her lap, just as Jill McBain does in Leone’s film.
  • My Darling Clementine(1946): In the trading post scene, Cheyenne slides Harmonica’s gun down the bar to him, challenging him to shoot – much like Morgan Earp (Ward Bond) sliding his weapon to brother Wyatt (Henry Fonda) in the Ford film when the Earps meet Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) for the first time. Also, a deleted scene in West featured Frank getting a shave with perfume in a barber’s shop, much like Fonda’s Wyatt.

Once Upon a Time in the West was itself explicitly referenced in The Quick and the Dead, when John Herod (Gene Hackman), faces Ellen (Sharon Stone), better known as “The Lady,” in a climactic gunfight. Ellen’s identity is a mystery until the end, when the audience sees Ellen’s flashback to Herod lynching her father, a sheriff. The sadistic Herod gives Ellen (then only a little girl) a chance to save her father by shooting through and breaking the rope wrapped around his neck, but Ellen accidentally kills her father by shooting him in the forehead. As with Frank, Herod yells “Who are you?”, and the only response he receives is an artifact from the earlier lynching—in this case, the sheriff’s badge that Ellen has kept all these years. The Quick and the Dead has another connection to Once Upon a Time in the West: It was the final film for Woody Strode, who died before it could be released.

Many other films have paid tribute to Once Upon a Time in the West over the years: Quentin Tarantino‘s Inglourious Basterds opens with a lengthy sequence entitled Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France (a phrase also used as a tagline for the 2009 film) which introduces the film’s primary villain and features the mass shooting of a family at a farmhouse; Tarantino’s Kill Bill films utilize snatches of Morricone’s harmonica and guitar soundtrack; Back to the Future Part III recreates the station rooftop scene from Once Upon a Time in the WestBaz Luhrmann‘s Australia features several nods to Leone’s film, including a homestead with a squeaky windmill, an almost-identical funeral scene, and an antagonistic relationship between the film’s villains; and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End features a parody of the “Man With a Harmonica” theme on the soundtrack, as the film’s protagonists parley on a sandbar before the final battle.


A lot of people I think have the same reaction my wife had to Once Upon a Time in the West the first time they see it.  Let me tell you that 25 years after she laughed at it the first time, she wasn’t laughing any more.  Nobody is laughing any more, I can say that.  She had grown to appreciate what the film had been saying for decades.  She had learned by middle life what I had known as a 16-year-old, and once you know those types of things there is only one place for your mind to go.  You either become an Übermensch of some kind or you go insane.  There are a lot of characters in the world like Henry Fonda’s “Frank.”  And there is only one way to deal with them and Sergio Leone knew how to capture that conflict on-screen like no other person I’ve ever seen in film.  A lot of film makers have tried to capture the magic of Once Upon a Time in the West, but they never get it all.  Now, nearly five decades later the extremely bright international culture that produced that great film is nearly vanished.  It’s not a great film just because it’s a western—but because of the metaphors presented in the seemingly simplistic tapestry of the western—as it was invented in America.

It doesn’t matter that Sergio Leone took an American hero like Henry Fonda and made him into the villain—it’s that Leone knew how to take the strength of his characters whether it be Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood and turn them into Übermenschs to deal with overwhelming evil captured quite accurately.  I always think of that dinner table during that filming of the Chinese New Year commercial and how it reminded me so much of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  But even more than that it reminded me of Frank from Once Upon a Time in the West.  When Jill gets mad at Harmonica for helping keep Frank alive—it is for the reasons provided that many of the mysteries of our lives go unfulfilled.  And yes I’m talking in a bit of a riddle here, but to get the answer watch the movie and remember the line, “time flies.”  Knowing what to do with an enemy after you’ve identified them as such is what I have always found valuable about westerns.  To understand that you have an enemy is to have a set of values that an enemy fights against and in Once Upon a Time in the West that conflict is poetically displayed in ways that no film has ever mastered as well.  Many have tried but nobody has been able to hit it as well as Sergio Leone.  Time does fly, whether it’s a 16 year old discovering the truth of how a childhood movie favorite applies to the real world of politics and intrigue and how rivers are often polluted with the remains of politics washed off the parking lot after a strong rain—with the personal stamp of approval from a kindly old judge—or a wife who had grown over the years to see something totally different from her young 20-year-old eyes were ready to appreciate.  Some movies reflect culture—others like Sergio Leone’s films make it.  And that is why I think so much of him and his films—particularly, Once Upon a Time in the West.  If you haven’t seen it, you should.  Because “time flies” and so do good ideas—you have to hit them when you get the chance for the motivations only you know about—even if the morality for it only exists outside of time and space in a mythical realm where justice truly does rule—not with blinders—but a six-gun and a lot of tenacity.

Rich “Cliffhanger” Hoffman


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