Saturday, May 24, 2008
100 Days, 100 Movies: Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)
Director: Sergio Leone
Starring: Claudia Cardinale, Charles Bronson, Jason Robbards, Henry Fonda
This is a film that requires patience because director Sergio Leone is determined to make you wait. It begins with three men riding up to a lonely railroad station in the middle of an arid wasteland. They lock up the station agent and then they wait. A long period of silence follows. The train stops briefly and then begins to move on. The three think that the man they’ve been waiting for hasn’t shown up… and then they hear the harmonica being played on the other side of the track. The train departs and we meet Harmonica (Charles Bronson), one of the many loners and misfits we’ll meet through the course of the movie. He asks if the men brought a horse for him. They laugh and remark that they’re one short. “You brought two too many,” Harmonica corrects. Thus begins one of the best Westerns ever made.
After Harmonica has disposed of the three henchmen, we meet the other three important characters of the film. Cheyenne (Jason Robards), Jill (Claudia Cardinale), and Frank (Henry Fonda). Jill is a newlywed bride who comes to the little town to start her new life only to discover that her husband and his children have been ruthlessly gunned down. Frank and his gang are the culprits, but everyone points to Cheyenne, an infamous outlaw. The townspeople are shocked to learn that Jill is already Mrs. McBain, having married her husband in New Orleans before coming to town. This fact throws a wrench into the plan of which Frank is a part. The railroad is coming through, and the McBain land is prime real estate to be developed. Frank looks for a way to get rid of Jill, and Cheyenne is determined to stop him, not only because he doesn’t like being framed, but also because he quickly develops a soft spot for the widow. Harmonica is after Frank, too, for reasons we don’t understand until the very end of the film.
Watching these four characters and the way that they interact with each other completely makes the film. Harmonica and Cheyenne are prototypical Western anti-heroes – one the strong, silent type (Harmonica), the other charmingly roguish (Cheyenne). Both visit Jill when she’s alone at the McBain house, before Frank and his gang come after her. Both approach her with menace – the threat of rape is always hanging in the air in this film overloaded with aggressive men whose choices seem to come down to shooting something or screwing something – but ultimately mean her no harm. Cheyenne seems to fall in love with her, even as it becomes apparent that she’s fallen for Harmonica. The final scenes between Cheyenne and Jill are beautiful, especially coming out of a film that’s been so markedly violent. These scenes are contrasted with the final showdown between Harmonica and Frank.
Jill is a really interesting and compelling character. In a genre where women are generally absent or relegated to the sidelines, she’s the central figure and a strong one. During her initial meeting with Cheyenne, he alludes to what he might do to her, and she responds: “No woman ever died from that. When you’re finished, all I’ll need is a tub of boiling water, and I’ll be exactly what I was before – with just another filthy memory.” What makes Jill stand out is that this isn’t just talk. She’s a very tough character and her attitude comes in handy later in the film when she and Frank share what is easily one of the most perverse sex scenes ever filmed. Frank, too, is an interesting character; one of the great screen villains played by an icon of American goodness. Frank is totally ruthless, seeming to enjoy gunning down everyone from men to women to children. If a job needs getting done, he’ll do it by putting a bullet in someone. “People scare better when they’re dying,” he explains.
A lot of blood is shed in this film, but it isn’t strictly a shoot ’em up, and it isn’t a revenge film either, even though revenge is the driving force behind Harmonica’s relentless quest. This is a film about the death of one way of life and the birth of another. All through the film, railroad tracks are being laid across the landscape, coming closer and closer to the McBain land, where a station and other buildings are quickly being built and will make Jill wealthy beyond her dreams. Jill and the McBain station and the railroad itself are signs that the West is about to be civilized, and this means that there will no longer be a place for Cheyenne or Harmonica or Frank or others like them. These figures who already exist on the fringes are about to be pushed out – by death or otherwise – and soon will disappear completely because there won’t be any undeveloped land left for them to roam in. This is an elegy to a life that is passing, and we realize at the end that the urgency that has been underlying the film stems from the knowledge of these outlaw men that they have to settle their business now because the train tracks are coming ever closer. The film ends with the tracks being laid across on the McBain property and Jill playing the role of entrepreneur. Two of the three men are dead, and the other has disappeared into what remains of the West – already forgotten in the marching of time.