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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Great Last Scenes: Once Upon A Time In The West

Year: 1968
Director: Sergio Leone
Great Because...: It so perfectly empitomizes the theme of the Wild West being tamed and civilized and making those tough, nomadic gun for hire types obsolete. It's a theme explored in a lot of Westerns made in the 60s and 70s, when the genre itself was starting to die off, and the way that this particular story handles it is really well done.

So, a little background in case you're unfamiliar with the plot: Following the slaughter of her husband and his children, newly wed Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) comes into possession of a tract of land that has the potential to make her very wealthy if a station can be built there by the time train tracks are laid across it. A ruthless outlaw named Frank (Henry Fonda) has been hired first to kill the McBains and then to intimidate Jill into giving up the land. A wrench is thrown into his plans by the arrivals of Cheyenne (Jason Robbards), who he's framed for the murders, and Harmonica (Charles Bronson), a mysterious drifter who seems to have it out for him.

By the film's end, Jill has maintained ownership of the land and construction has started on the station. Cheyenne's a free man and all that's left is for the final showdown between Frank and Harmonica, wherein we learn what exactly occured between them in the past to inspire Harmonica's relentless pursuit. In most movies, this showdown would be the big thing, the event that caps off the film, but not so with Once Upon A Time In The West. The score is settled (pretty awesomely, I might add) and then the film moves on to its real finale, an elegiac ending which contains the film's true raise d'etre.

Cheyenne and Harmonica say their goodbyes to Jill and ride off together, with Cheyenne dying shortly thereafter. The camera moves from a shot of Harmonica riding off with Cheyenne's body to Jill in the distance, bringing water to the men laying the tracks. If the western as a genre is built on ideas of the endless frontier and men demonstrating their mettle without the restrictions imposed by government and law, then the arrival of the train tracks is the death knell. With the trains will come society, and the ease of access to lands that only the toughest of the tough could brave before. When the civilizing forces move in, it means that there's no longer room for men like Frank, Cheyenne and Harmonica. They will either die or find themselves pushed further out to the receding fringes of what remains of the frontier. Harmonica is alive at the film's end, but he lives as an obsolete man in a swiftly changing world, a world that now belongs to the settlers, to people like Jill.

This is a nostalgic ending that recognizes not only the transition from the Wild West to the tamed/settled west, but also recognizes the cultural shift taking place in terms of cinematic tastes. By the time of Once Upon A Time In The West's release in 1968, the heyday of the western as a genre is past and the genre itself is on the verge of fading away. Westerns continue to be made into the 70s, 80s, 90s and 2000s, but forays into the genre become increasingly fewer and further between and move further and further away from the traditional tropes that marked it. There is a sense in which this film, and others like it, are saying goodbye not just to the way of life they're depicting, but to a way of making films as well. Few films bring that feeling home as succinctly as this one in its beautiful final minutes.

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