Once Upon a Time in the West (Italian: C'era una volta il West, "Once upon a time (there was) the West") is a 1968 epic Spaghetti Western film directed by Sergio Leone, who co-wrote it with Sergio Donati based on a story by Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Leone. It stars Henry Fonda, cast against type as the villain, Charles Bronson as his nemesis, Jason Robards as a bandit, and Claudia Cardinale as a newly widowed homesteader. 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 aimed to produce his film based on the novel The Hoods, which eventually became Once Upon a Time in America. However, Leone accepted an offer from Paramount Pictures providing Henry Fonda and a budget to produce another Western. 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 when it was first released on 21 December 1968. This version was shown in European cinemas, and was a box-office success. For the US release on 28 May 1969, Once Upon a Time in the West was edited down to 145 minutes by Paramount and was a financial flop. The film is the first installment in Leone's Once Upon a Time trilogy, followed by Duck, You Sucker! and Once Upon a Time in America, though the films do not share any characters in common.
Leone commissioned Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento to help him devise a film treatment 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.
Beginning with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which originally ran for three hours, Leone's films had usually been cut (often quite considerably) for box-office release. Leone was very conscious of the length of Once Upon a Time in the West during filming, and subsequently 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 toward 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 somber 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 was further developed in Duck, You Sucker! and Once Upon a Time in America.
The film features long, slow scenes with very little dialogue and little happening, 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 semidesert in which the story unfolds, and imbues it with a feeling of realism that contrasts with the elaborately choreographed gunplay.
Leone liked to tell the story of a cinema in Paris where the film ran uninterrupted for two years. When he visited this theater, he was surrounded by fans who wanted his autograph, as well as the projectionist, who was less than enthusiastic. Leone claimed the projectionist told him, "I kill you! The same movie over and over again for two years! And it's so SLOW!"
The music was written by composer Ennio Morricone, Leone's regular collaborator, who wrote the score under Leone's direction before filming began. As in The 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 (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 Jill McBain. Leone's desire was to have the music available and played during filming. Leone had Morricone compose the score before shooting started and played 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 the end of the second scene, when Fonda makes his first entry. 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 diegetic sound of the harmonica.
The movie was a massive hit in France, and was easily the most successful film released there in 1969, with 14.8 million admissions, ranking seventh of all time.It sparked a brief fashion trend for duster coats, which took such proportions that Parisian department stores such as Au Printemps had to affix signs on escalators warning patrons to keep their "maxis", as they were called, clear from the edges of moving steps to prevent jamming.
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 the trading post, which was cut for the shorter U.S. version.
After years of public requests, Paramount released a two-disc "Special Collector's Edition" of Once Upon a Time in the West on 18 November 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 widescreen, 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, and actors Claudia Cardinale and Gabriele Ferzetti, and director Bernardo Bertolucci, a co-writer of the film.
In Italy, the film sold 8,870,732 tickets. In the United States, it grossed $5,321,508, from 3.7 million ticket sales. It sold a further 14,873,804 admissions in France and 13,018,414 admissions in Germany, for a total of 40,462,950 tickets sold worldwide.
Once Upon a Time in the West was reviewed in 1969 in the Chicago Sun-Times by Roger Ebert, who gave it two and a half stars out of four. He found the film "good fun" and "a painstaking distillation" of Leone's famous style, with intriguing performances by actors cast against their type and a richness of detail projecting "a sense of life of the West" made possible by Paramount's larger budget for this Leone film. Ebert complained, however, of the film's length and convoluted plot, which he said only becomes clear by the second hour. While viewing Cardinale as a good casting choice, he said she lacked the "blood-and-thunder abandon" of her performance in Cartouche (1962), blaming Leone for directing her "too passively."
In subsequent years, the film developed a greater standing among critics, as well as a cult following. Directors such as Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Quentin Tarantino, and Vince Gilligan have cited the film as an influence on their work. It has also appeared on prominent all-time critics lists, including Time's 100 greatest films of the 20th century and Empire's 500 greatest movies of all time, where it was the list's highest-ranking Western at number 14. Popular culture scholar Christopher Frayling regarded it as "one of the greatest films ever made".
Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes reports a 95% approval rating based on 66 reviews, with an average score of 9.20/10. The critical consensus reads: "A landmark Sergio Leone spaghetti Western masterpiece featuring a classic Morricone score." Metacritic gives the film a weighted average score of 80 out of 100 based on reviews from 9 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
Leone's intent was to take the 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 Henry Fonda as the villainous Frank, but many other, more subtle reversals occur throughout the film. According to film critic and historian Christopher Frayling, the film quotes from as many as 30 classic American Westerns. 2b1af7f3a8