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ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, 1968
Movie Review

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ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST,     MOVIE POSTERONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, 1968
Movie Reviews

Directed by Sergio Leone
Starring: Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale and Jason Robards.
Review by Jarred Thomas


SYNOPSIS:

The gunslinger named “Harmonica” (Bronson) must team up with an infamous gunman (Robards) to protect a beautiful widow (Cardinale) against a deadly assassin (Fonda) working for the railroad company.

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REVIEW:

Sergio Leone defined the spaghetti western genre. His vision revolutionized the western genre because he created a world where the characters know the rules and act accordingly, in other words, Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) knows Harmonica (Charles Bronson) is a killer and even attempted to rape her in one scene. Yet despite all, she falls in love with him. Why?

Well, she knows he’s a murderer, that’s no different than the next guy, but she’s falls in love with him because there is more to the gunslinger than brooding eyes and a talent for the harmonica. Bronson’s character is not one dimensional; there is depth that Leone gradually explores throughout the film allowing the audience to learn the story behind Harmonica over time, keeping the viewer wondering,” Who is this guy?”

Leone is known for his extreme close-ups and long shots, but he should also be recognized for creating complex characters that are not simply good and evil, but a combination of the two. Henry Fonda usually played the hero in his films, but here he plays against type as the villainous Frank. The opening sequence shows an entire family being slaughtered by Frank’s gang of gunmen with only a little boy remaining.

The killers appear from behind the desert shrubs and stand in front of the timid child. After a moment, one of the gunmen asks, “What are we going to do with this one, Frank?” His reply, “Now that you’ve called me by name?” Then he coldly shoots the boy. For an audience used to Fonda being the hero this must have been a shock. Could you imagine a Harrison Ford character killing a helpless child? Sure, considering movies today, but that doesn’t make it any less effective and for the 60’s it must have been jaw dropping

But that was life in the Old West; cold and heartless. People do what’s best for them to get by, including Jill McBain who in the past was a prostitute now turned homestead wife. Frank is motivated by greed, Harmonica by vengeance against Frank for killing his older brother, and Jill is motivated by self preservation. She even sleeps with Frank, who killed her family, to avoid the same fate. Leone also explores the idea of the hero no longer being as simplistic as before. The hero is not always the silver badge stallion riding cowboy, and to enforce that message, Fonda, the typical hero in films, is the cold blooded killer in this picture.

The myth of the western cowboy is dying in this film, making way for the New West. The construction of the railroads is a clear sign of a new way of life. Frank throughout the picture is trying to turn into a businessman, but this new world has no place for an outlaw turned entrepreneur. By the end of the film, the Old West no longer matters. The New West brings with it business, culture, and people; marking the end of an old era.

The climax and the sequence that follows convey that exact message. Harmonica and Frank face off in a final duel. Every action and decision they made throughout the course of the film led them to that moment, and the buildup leading into that battle makes the outcome even more meaningful and satisfying. Harmonica wants revenge and Frank wants a new life as a business man. Leone is a master at pacing his films, never rushing to get to the action, but rather remaining patience so the characters can tell the story.

Westerns are known for chaotic gun battles, but Once Upon a Time in the West is not riddled with bullets and explosions, but compelling storytelling and poetic dialogue that give life into a dying genre. This is a respectful and realistic homage to the Old West, and one certainly worth watching, specifically for those who admire great films.

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ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST


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