Starring: Claudia Cardinale, Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda
Director: Sergio Leone
Running Time: 166 mins
Once Upon A Time In The West is an Italian film about a mysterious harmonica-playing man and a local cowboy who join together to protect a recently widowed woman from a brutal assassin with his eyes set on her land.
Spectacular in every sense of the word, Once Upon A Time In The West isn’t just the best Western ever made, but a true cinematic masterpiece. Staggering in its scope and yet deeply intimate in its storytelling, this legendary Spaghetti Western brings together incredible performances, gorgeous visuals, gripping tension and an astonishing score to deliver one of the ultimate big screen experiences.
Director Sergio Leone is by far the most acclaimed filmmaker of Spaghetti Westerns, although is perhaps best known for The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, starring Clint Eastwood. Much like that film, Once Upon A Time In The West is an intoxicating tale from the Wild West, but it has something more that makes it a truly incredible watch.
What really makes this film so spectacular is the way it combines the thrilling, epic scope of the best Western films with enthralling and astonishing intimate storytelling. Despite its large ensemble cast portraying a range of different personalities, Once Upon A Time In The West uses every moment of its near-three hour runtime to develop those characters in as much detail as possible.
All of the performances here are exceptional, particularly Charles Bronson as ‘Harmonica’ and Henry Fonda as the villainous Frank. There are times in the early stages where the film is having to introduce so many characters with differing motivations and connections that it can feel overwhelming, but the depth with which it focuses on each and every one of them makes all of their stories just as captivating as one another.
As the story unfolds, you form an unshakeable emotional bond with a number of the characters, something even more impressive given that this film doesn’t deal with the concept of good vs. evil in as simple a way as you might expect. Sure, you’ll be supporting ‘the good guys’ by the end, but even the heroes of the day aren’t entirely simple characters.
The fact that the film is able to create such riveting, intimate drama around its many characters means that you’ll be hard pressed to look away from the screen for even a second. Every moment counts in each of their stories, and the film’s patient but rich storytelling style makes it a mesmerising watch.
But beyond the dramatic depth, what’s most exhilarating about Once Upon A Time In The West is its relentless tension. As I just mentioned, it’s not a film that moves at a rapid pace, but every scene will have you hanging off the edge of your seat, as the characters engage in a series of cagey and enormously suspenseful standoffs again and again and again.
That might sounds like something that would become repetitive, but with each different encounter, the increased stakes and your own increased attachment to the characters only makes the tension go higher and higher.
The intensity of the film’s suspense is only furthered by what has to be one of the most incredible film scores of all time. Ennio Morricone is rightly known for his work on The Good, The Bad And The Ugly – which is perhaps the more iconic score – but the music in Once Upon A Time In The West is simply astonishing.
Atmospheric and charismatic it certainly is, but Morricone’s score brings such emotional power to the film’s most dramatic scenes, and uses music to signal characters and recurring themes. As a result, every time that we hear either the quiet, almost eerie sounds of a harmonica playing or the booming, almost rock and roll-like sounds of the film’s main theme, it takes the experience of watching it onto a whole other level.
This really is a staggeringly cinematic experience, not in the least as a result of astonishing direction from Sergio Leone, striking cinematography from Tonino Delli Colli and some of the best production design you’ll ever see on the big screen.
Films like The Searchers and Lawrence Of Arabia are rightly acclaimed for their scope and scale, but Once Upon A Time On The West uses its immensity to further the power of its story, taking the Western tale of a lifetime and really giving it the scale it deserves.
I could go on and on and on about what makes Once Upon A Time In The West such a spectacular piece of cinema. In short, it’s an incredible film that delivers all of the classic tropes of the Western genre to the highest order. Exhilarating, gripping, powerful, tense and so, so spectacular, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West is cinema at its most mesmerising. And that’s why I’m giving the film an 8.7 overall.