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 became Once 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 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 railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) learns of this, he sends his hired gun Frank (Henry Fonda) to simply 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 is crippled and 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, in order to save that privilege for himself.
Morton and the rest of Frank's men are 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 adult brother, whose neck is tied in a noose. 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 boy's labored breathing in and out of a harmonica would become the character's theme throughout the film. The older brother kicks him away and is hanged on the village bell.
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 during the fight with Frank's gang by tycoon Morton. The work train arrives, Jill carrying water to the rail workers, while Harmonica rides away with Cheyenne's body.
After making his American Civil War epic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Leone had intended to retire from making Westerns, believing he had said all he wanted to say. He had come across the novel The Hoods by the pseudonymous "Harry Grey", an autobiographical book based on the author's own experiences as a Jewish hood during Prohibition, and planned to adapt it into a film (this would eventually, seventeen years later, become his final film, Once Upon a Time in America). Leone though was offered only Westerns by the Hollywood studios. United Artists (who had produced the Dollars Trilogy) offered him the opportunity to make a film starring Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas and Rock Hudson, but Leone refused. However, when Paramount offered Leone a generous budget along with access to Henry Fonda — his favorite actor, and one whom he had wanted to work with for virtually all of hisCAREER — Leone accepted the offer.
Leone commissioned Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento—both of whom were film critics before becoming directors—to help him develop the film in late 1966. The men spent much of the following year watching and discussing numerous classic Westerns such as High Noon, The Iron Horse, The Comancheros, and The Searchers at Leone's house, and constructed a story made up almost entirely of "references" to American Westerns.
Ever since The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which originally ran for three hours, Leone's films were usually cut (often quite dramatically) for box office release. Leone was very conscious of the length of Once Upon a Time in the West during filming and later commissioned Sergio Donati, who had worked on several of Leone's other films, to help him refine the screenplay, largely to curb the length of the film towards the end of production. Many of the film's most memorable lines of dialogue came from Donati, or from the film's English dialogue adapter, expatriate American actor Mickey Knox.
For Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone changed his approach over his earlier westerns. Whereas the "Dollars" films were quirky and up-tempo, a celebratory yet tongue-in-cheek parody of the icons of the wild west, this film is much slower in pace and sombre in theme. Leone's distinctive style, which is very different from, but very much influenced by, Akira Kurosawa's Sanshiro Sugata (1943), is still present but has been modified for the beginning of Leone's second trilogy, the so-called Once Upon a Time Trilogy. The characters in this film are also beginning to change markedly over their predecessors in the Dollars Trilogy. They are not quite as defined and, unusual for Leone characters up to this point, they begin to change (or at least attempt to) over the course of the story. This signals the start of the second phase of Leone's style, which would be further developed in Duck, You Sucker! and Once Upon a Time in America.
The film features long, slow scenes in which there is very little dialogue and little happens, broken by brief and sudden violence. Leone was far more interested in the rituals preceding violence than in the violence itself. The tone of the film is consistent with the arid semi-desert in which the story unfolds, and imbues it with a feeling of realism that contrasts with the elaborately choreographed gunplay.
The brick arch where Bronson's character flashbacks to his youth and the original lynching incident was built near a small airport fifteen miles north ofMonument Valley, in Utah and two miles from Highway 163 (which links Gouldings Lodge and Mexican Hat). The famous opening sequence with the three gunmen meeting the train was the last sequence filmed in Spain. Shooting at Cattle Corner Station, as the location was called in the story, was scheduled for four days and was filmed along the railway line near Estación de Calahorra, outside Guadix, Spain.
This article needs additional citations for verification. Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. (October 2014)
FONDAdid not accept Leone's first offer to play Frank, so Leone flew to New York to convince him, telling him: "Picture this: the camera shows a gunman from the waist down pulling his gun and shooting a running child. The camera tilts up to the gunman's face and...it's HenryFONDA." After meeting with Leone,FONDA called his friend Eli Wallach, who had co-starred in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Wallach advised Fonda to do the film, telling him "You will have the time of your life."
When he accepted the role, Fonda came to the set with brown contacts and facial hair. Fonda felt having dark eyes and facial hair would blend well with his character's evil and also help the audience to accept this "new" Fonda as the bad guy, but Leone immediately told him to remove the contacts and facial hair. Leone felt that Fonda's blue eyes best reflected the cold, icy nature of the killer. It was one of the first times in a western film where the villain would be played by the lead actor.
Enrico Maria Salerno and Robert Hossein were both offered the role of Morton before Gabriele Ferzetti was cast; Hossein had accepted but had to drop out for a theatre commitment. Ferzetti, who considers it one of his best roles, referred to his casting as "Fate, Destiny" in an interview for the DVD release.
Actor Al Mulock (featured as Knuckles in the opening train sequence as well as in Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) committed suicide during shooting of the film by leaping from his Guadix hotel room in full costume. Frank Wolff, the actor who plays McBain, also committed suicide in a Rome hotel in 1971.
Following the film's completion, Once Upon a Time in the West was dubbed into several languages, including Italian, French, German, Spanish and English. For the English dub, the voices of much of the American cast, including Fonda, Bronson, Jason Robards, Jack Elam, Wynn, Wolff and Lionel Stander, were used. However, the rest of the cast had to be dubbed by other actors, including Ferzetti, who was dubbed by actor Bernard Grant (who is believed to have voiced Gian Maria Volonté and Aldo Giuffrè in the Dollars Trilogy), and Claudia Cardinale, who was voiced by Grant's wife, Joyce Gordon.
The music was written by composer Ennio Morricone, Leone's regular collaborator, who wrote the score under Leone's direction before filming began. As inThe Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the haunting music contributes to the film's grandeur and, like the music for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, is considered one of Morricone's greatest compositions.
The film features leitmotifs that relate to each of the main characters (each with their own theme music) as well as to the spirit of the American West.Especially compelling are the wordless vocals by Italian singer Edda Dell'Orso during the theme music for the Claudia Cardinale character. It was Leone's desire to have the music available and played during filming. Leone had Morricone compose the score before shooting started and would play the music in the background for the actors on set.
Except for about a minute of the "Judgment" motif, before Harmonica kills the three outlaws, no soundtrack music is played until at the end of the second scene, when Henry Fonda makes his first entry. This may perhaps not seem particularly strange, even though Morricone's music is usually considered to be a vital part of Sergio Leone's western films. During the beginning of the film, Leone instead uses a number of natural sounds, for instance a turning wheel in the wind, sound of a train, grasshoppers, shotguns while hunting, wings of pigeons, etc., in addition to the harmonica played by Bronson's character, since that sound is "explained" by the fact that the sound of the harmonica is diegetic rather than a true soundtrack.
Though less popular in the US than the earlier Dollars Trilogy, Once Upon a Time in the West has gained an ardent cult following around the world, particularly among cineastes and filmmakers. In the late 1960s and 1970s, it was re-evaluated by young filmmakers and critics, many of whom called it a masterpiece. Directors including Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, John Carpenter, and John Boorman have spoken about the influence that the film had on them. It is now considered one of the greatest films ever made and some critics consider it to be the finest Western and Sergio Leone's finest accomplishment as a director. Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes retrospectively collected reviews from 52 critics and gave the film a score of 98%. Once Upon a Time in the West can be found on numerous film polls and 'best of' lists.
Time named Once Upon a Time in the West as one of the 100 greatest films of the 20th century.
In They Shoot Pictures, Don't They's list of the 1000 Greatest Films, Once Upon a Time in the West is placed at number 62.
Total Film magazine placed Once Upon a Time in the West in their special edition issue of the 100 Greatest Movies.
In 2008, Empire held a poll of "The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time", taking votes from 10,000 readers, 150 filmmakers and 50 film critics. "Once Upon a Time in the West" was voted in at number 14, the highest Western on the list.
In 2014, Time Out polled several film critics, directors, actors and stunt actors to list their top action films. Once Upon A Time In The West placed 30th on their list..
In the US, Paramount edited the film to about 145 minutes for the wide release, but the film underperformed at the box office, earning $2.1M in rentals in North America.
The following scenes were cut for the American release:
The entire scene at Lionel Stander's trading post. Cheyenne (Robards) was not introduced in the American release until his arrival at the McBain ranch later in the film. Stander remained in the credits, even though he did not appear in this version at all.
The scene in which Morton and Frank discuss what to do with Jill at the Navajo Cliffs.
Morton's death scene was reduced considerably.
Cheyenne's death scene was completely excised.
Otherwise, one scene was slightly longer in the US version than in the international film release: Following the opening duel (where all four gunmen fire and fall), Charles Bronson's character stands up again showing that he had only been shot in the arm. This part of the scene had been originally cut by director Sergio Leone for the worldwide theatrical release. It was added again for the U.S. market because the American distributors feared American viewers would not understand the story otherwise, especially since Harmonica's arm wound is originally shown for the first time in the scene at theTRADING post which was cut for the shorter U.S. version.
The English-language version wasRESTORED to approximately 165 minutes for a re-release in 1984, and for its video release the following year.
In Italy exists a 175-minute director's cut which features several scenes augmented with additional material, and has a yellow color filter. This director's cut has been released in home video until the early 2000s, and still airs on TV, but more recent home video releases have used the international cut.
After years of public requests, Paramount released a 2-Disc "Special Collector's Edition" of Once Upon a Time in the West on November 18, 2003, with a running time of 165 minutes (158 minutes in some regions).[nb 1] This release is the color 2.35:1 aspect ratio version in anamorphic wide-screen, closed captioned and Dolby. Commentary is also provided by film experts and historians including John Carpenter, John Milius, Alex Cox, film historian and Leone biographer Sir Christopher Frayling, Dr. Sheldon Hall, as well as actors Claudia Cardinale and Gabriele Ferzetti, and director Bernardo Bertolucci, a co-writer of the film.
The second disc has special features, including three recent documentaries on several aspects of the film:
Leone's intent was to takeTHE STOCK conventions of the American Westerns of John Ford, Howard Hawks and others, and rework them in an ironic fashion, essentially reversing their intended meaning in their original sources to create a darker connotation. The most obvious example of this is the casting of veteran film good guy HenryFONDA 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 Cleef, Sheb 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 Noon, Woody 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 Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach.
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 prison. 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 drama The 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Warlock (1959): At the end of this film, HenryFONDA'S character wears clothing very similar to his costume throughout West. In addition, Warlockfeatures a discussion about mothers betweenFONDA and Dorothy Malone that is similar to those between Cheyenne and Jill in West. Finally, Warlockcontains a sequence in whichFONDA'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 Samurai by 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 theTRADING post are based on those in Winchester '73, but the resemblance is slight.
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.
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 West; Baz 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.