Once Upon a Time in the West

Released:  1968

Cast:  Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson, Gabriele Ferzetti

SUMMARY:  At a train station outside the western town of Flagstone, a mysterious man playing a harmonica is met by three gunmen.  The man (Charles Bronson) kills all three of the assassins sent for him, only taking a bullet in the arm himself.  These men were sent by a man named Frank (Henry Fonda), who works for a railroad magnate named Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti).  Morton is busily pushing his railroad west, trying to get to the Pacific Ocean before his poor health does him in.  To ensure that everything goes smoothly, he has hired Frank to take care of any problems that arise.  Frank and a few of his men soon visit the home of Brett McBain, which lies on a piece of land McBain calls Sweetwater.  Frank and the others shoot McBain and all three of his children, then plant evidence that the crime was committed by known outlaw Cheyenne (Jason Robards).  The same day that the McBain family is shot, a woman from New Orleans arrives on the train.  Unbeknownst to the other people in Flagstone, she had married Brett McBain a month earlier, and is now coming to join him.  When nobody shows up at the train station to pick her up, Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) hires a man to take her to Sweetwater.  On the way, they stop at a small inn, where Cheyenne and the mystery man (whom Cheyenne calls “Harmonica”) are also resting.  From Harmonica, Cheyenne learns that the men who tried to shoot him were trying to pose as part of Cheyenne’s gang.  Jill arrives at her new home in the middle of the funeral for the family:  with all of McBain’s children dead, she becomes the sole inheritor of his house, land and other possessions.  The entire situation makes Harmonica suspicious, and he takes to watching the McBain house at night.  Soon, Cheyenne also shows up:  although his initial goal is to find out who is trying to frame him, he soon takes a liking to Jill, and wants to help her out.  When Jill goes into town one day, she learns that McBain had ordered a huge quantity of lumber, and several signs.  With the help of Cheyenne and Harmonica, she is able to discover that McBain had big plans for his land, plans that had been set in motion a long time ago.  When McBain first arrived in the area, he was aware that the railroad business was booming, and that tracks would continue to stretch westward, eventually going past Flagstone.  He found the only piece of land with water in the area, then bought it:  in the years that followed, he saved his money and made plans to build a town on the land, so that when the railroad came through, it would stop in his town.  The railroad would make the town boom, and since McBain owned everything, he would become incredibly wealthy.  McBain managed to keep this a secret from nearly everyone, but had applied for the proper permits that would allow him to build an official station on the land.  However, there was one condition:  if, by the time the railroad reached that area, the Sweetwater station was not built, McBain would forfeit the property.  When Morton found out about this, he was clearly desperate to remove McBain from the land, but he didn’t know that McBain had recently gotten married.  Knowing that the railroad will be at Sweetwater in a matter of days, Harmonica, Cheyenne and his men set to building the station as fast as they can.

After the killing of the entire McBain family, Morton seems to have lost his appetite for the fight, and decides that he will just buy the land from Jill McBain.  Frank opposes the decision, believing that they should continue with their current tactics.  Late one night, he shows up at the McBain house.  He mocks Jill with her past (as a prostitute in New Orleans) and her husband’s ineptitude; desperate to get rid of him, Jill sleeps with him, then agrees to sell the property at auction.  So that Morton can actually “pay” for the land, Frank sends his men to the auction, where they intimidate any person that tries to bid.  It appears as though the land is going to go at an extremely low price until Harmonica shows up.  He bids $5000, and when asked to produce the money, brings in Cheyenne, who has a bounty worth $5000.  Frank immediately tries to buy the property back from Harmonica, but is rebuffed.  Meanwhile, the authorities have taken Cheyenne into custody, but instead of putting him in jail, they decide to send him to the nearby Yuma prison, which is more secure.  Two of Cheyenne’s men purchase tickets on the same train.  On Morton’s personal train, he pays the present members of Frank’s gang to come to his side:  their first job is to kill Frank.  The men ambush Frank right after the auction, but to the surprise of both Frank and Jill, Harmonica shoots several of the intended assassins.  Frank then goes to find Morton, but instead finds the scene of another shootout:  during Cheyenne’s escape, virtually all of the men aboard the train have been killed (including Morton).  Frank then heads back to Sweetwater to see Harmonica, intending to finally learn just what Harmonica’s business with him is.  Though he has refused to reveal his reasons in the past, Harmonica now says that he will tell Frank who he is at the point of death.  The two men head to an empty, open area for a duel:  as they both shoot, Harmonica has a flashback.  As a teenager, he was forced by Frank to stand on the ground while his older brother stood on his shoulders with a noose around his neck.  If Harmonica were to slip or tire, his brother would die.  Harmonica tries desperately to keep his brother upright, but after Frank tauntingly puts a harmonica in the younger brother’s mouth (the same harmonica that later gave him his nickname), the older brother swears at Frank, then kicks Harmonica away.  Back in the present, it is revealed that Harmonica fired first, and has fatally wounded Frank.  Once more, Frank asks for Harmonica’s true identity:  Harmonica replies by placing that same harmonica in Frank’s mouth, at which point Frank makes the connection, then dies.  Harmonica returns to Sweetwater, where work has begun on the town McBain planned out, supervised by Jill.  Both Harmonica and Cheyenne have a desire to stay with Jill, but both leave.  As they ride away, Cheyenne falls off his horse, revealing that he had been shot during the escape from the prison train.  He dies with Harmonica right next to him:  Harmonica then picks up the body, puts it on the man’s horse, and leads it away from Sweetwater.

MY TAKE:  I have previously expressed that I am rather tired of Westerns, as there are a ton of them on this list, and they eventually start to seem the same.  Consequently, I was not terribly excited at the prospect of watching this one.  However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that while it has all the standards of a typical Western, the plot line is actually quite a bit different.  Rather than having a mysterious/questionable man chase an outlaw across the country, this movie gave the bad guys a lot more power:  Morton is a tycoon, who has so much power and money that he has basically hired his own assassin squad.  Obviously, the real villain is Frank, but the fact that he works for such a well-known man makes him more dangerous and intimidating.  In a complete change of pace, the bad guy is played by Henry Fonda, who made a career out of playing upright, honorable characters.  It’s a little creepy to find that the same smile that reassured you of his character’s goodness works equally well as the evil smile of the villain.  He actually makes a very convincing villain, which gives you a clue about his talent level.  The plot is a lot more involved than typical Westerns, as well, because you really don’t realize why the McBain family was killed until about halfway through, so there’s this nagging unanswered question hanging over your head for quite a while.  Though vastly outnumbered, Cheyenne and Harmonica prove that they are not outsmarted, and get the best of Morton, Frank and his men.  Naturally, there’s a couple of shootouts, most notably the one between Frank and Harmonica, which is actually really tense – for what seems like ages, the two men just stare at each other, waiting for the other to draw.  I’m pretty sure that my eyes were doing that tennis-match thing, trying to see who would draw first, and what would then happen (since both were obviously good gunfighters).  I was not overly fond of the Jill character, probably largely because she came off as a tramp.  She really should have just kicked Frank’s ass instead of sleeping with him.  I’m not really sure why the whole former-prostitute thing was even included, unless it was seen as a chance to sex things up.  I think it would have worked just as well if she had just been dirt-poor, and married some guy she barely knew to escape.  Of course, the movie has a bittersweet ending, because people can’t live happily ever after in Westerns.  Although it retains a lot of the usual elements of a Western, the plot was different enough and involved enough to keep me interested.

RATING:   Improved take on the Western formula.


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