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Once Upon a Time in the West

Once Upon a Time in the West




Rated PG-13 - for western violence and brief sensuality.
Director: Sergio Leone
Starring: Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards, Gabriele Ferzetti
Running Time: 2 hours, 46 minutes
Theatrical Release Date: April 22, 1962
4K UHD Release Date: May 14, 2024 (Amazon.com)


READER RATING:   


Plot Summary

A mysterious stranger with a harmonica joins forces with a notorious desperado to protect a beautiful widow from a ruthless assassin working for the railroad. (from IMDb)


Film Review

Paramount continues to peruse their back catalog for titles to enter into their "Paramount Presents" collectors' line. The latest to join the ranks is the 1968 classic western, Once Upon a Time in the West. This "spaghetti Western" (usually a low budget film produced and/or directed by an Italian) is heralded as one of the best in its subgenre -- if not the best Western of all time. Obviously, this is a pretty subjective statement, one that, after one viewing myself, would never agree with (although, to be fair, I'm not the biggest fan of Westerns, but I've seen a fair share in my life so far). In some ways, I can see why Once Upon a Time in the West is loved so much, but I have to admit it still kind of surprises me.


It takes a while - if not an entire viewing - to really know what to make of Once Upon a Time in the West. The opening sequence is an arduously long scene that introduces three outlaws who take over a train station. While the idea of such an encounter might sound intriguing, Sergio Leone's approach, in my opinion, is not. While the film's actor credits slowly appear and disappear on the screen during this sequence, we see one outlaw roughly shove a station worker aside as he and his fellow bandits proceed to sit and wait for the train to arrive. We then see one man quietly sit there and try to endure water slowly dripping on his head, while another twitches his face muscles in an effort to shoo away a pesky fly. I was pretty worried right out of the gate. While it didn't totally devolve into pure camp, it was still starting to feel pretty silly. Finally, when the train arrives, we discover that not only are these three guys waiting to confront someone getting off the train, but these guys are entirely unimportant to the rest of the movie. This is when we meet the movie's ambiguous hero (played by Charles Bronson) - who is simply nicknamed Harmonica, because he's often seen playing it in a quiet and mysterious way. Harmonica quickly retires these three goons and it's then that we realize the film's central villain, Frank, played by Henry Fonda, had dispatched them to do away with Harmonica. The pacing of Once Upon a Time in the West moves at the speed of snail. This isn't always a bad thing -- and the film's fanbase would argue that it serves the movie more than hurts it -- but I kept recalling the directing tactics of someone like M. Night Shyamalan who usually likes to let the camera linger longer than most would, and has his actors move and react in a strangely slow manner. Again, I'm definitely okay with scenes having room to breathe and characters getting a chance to really develop, but there's something about the way this movie was handled that just feels off to me. Maybe I just like my heroes to be clearer and more defined? It's tough to know right away if Bronson's character is one we're supposed to be rooting for, or creeped out by. I get that the Old West was a time of moral ambiguity, but a good chunk of the movie has the viewer wondering just what the intentions of some of these "good guys" are. Now, the payoff at the end of the film is actually quite good, helping Once Upon a Time in the West stick the wobbly landing, but it also kind of begs the viewer to watch the movie again so they can see how things actually fall into place, and where each character fits into the narrative, now that they know the outcome.


From Harmonica taking out Frank's henchman, we're whisked away to a ranch in the middle of nowhere where a single father is planning to take his three children to the train station to meet their new mother. It feels like a completely random sequence, but when the man and his whole family are shockingly shot dead in cold blood, we not only find that this is how Fonda's Frank gets his big introduction, but that this is indeed the start of the film's plot. The kids' mother-to-be, that the man was going to meet at the train station, is a beautiful woman named Jill, played by Claudia Cardinale, who is relocating from New Orleans to be with him. But he never meets her at the station, and she arrives at his home only to find a crowd had gathered with the dead bodies layed out on tables. Soon after this, we learn that Frank -- and a "railroad baron" accomplice named Morton -- are after something that this man had owned. The plot is relatively basic, and with a slightly brisker pace, it could have easily been told in 2 hours or under (instead of pushing 3 hours). Sergio Leone takes full advantage of his locations in Once Upon a Time in the West to make this an artful and visually engaging movie. It's for this reason that many praise this film. But as a whole package, I have a hard time getting past certain things. For me, another strike against the film for me is just how much visible overdubbing there is. Many characters - even central ones - are clearly overdubbed... and poorly, I might add. It's distracting and I found it detracting from many scenes. One could argue that I'm more accustomed to modern day filmmaking, but as a fan of many older films and movies with slower paces, Once Upon a Time in the West was probably just not really my cup of tea.

Being a movie from 1968, Once Upon a Time in the West, while saying "Unrated" on the box, has also apparently been given a PG-13 rating. It's certainly fitting. There is quite a bit of violence in the movie, and while most of it isn't very bloody, there are several instances that are. The worst may be a very quick view of a man getting shot in the eye through a window. It's startling in the moment as we briefly see blood there before the camera cuts away. Later, a character happens on the aftermath of a shootout outside a train and we see the ground littered with dead bodies, a few of which have a heavy amount of blood on their faces. The scene where the family is killed is certainly surprising - if not entirely disturbing - and when Frank is confronted with the decision to shoot a little boy or not, the scene ends with him firing his gun off screen. We don't see the boy dead until the funeral sequence. Another scene shows Harmonica interrogating a man by throwing him around a room and then choking him by putting his scarf into a laundry roller device (but he doesn't kill him). There's also a strange scene where he confronts Jill and rips pieces of her outer clothing off violently before asking her to fetch him some water (I found this to be rather bizarre behavior for Harmonica, character-wise, but it turns out that he was using her as bait to draw out some goons watching them in the distance). A few other deaths-by-shooting show bloody bullet holes in their clothing, but it isn't especially gruesome.

In addtion, there's a surprising amount of cussing in the movie, but most of it is relatively mild. There are 2 "S" words (both from Cheyenne), several of "h*ll" and "d*mn," and 1 "S.O.B." There isn't any blasphemy beyond one use of "My God" as an exclamation. Regarding sexual content, several men make reference to whores, and it's revealed that Jill was a prostitute in New Orleans. There's also a lengthy sequence where we see Frank and Jill in bed and they're kissing sensually as he takes off her outer corset and eventually pulls her dress down (we see her bare back, but nothing else). It's heavily implied they sleep together.


While I think I can confidently say that Once Upon a Time in the West isn't my kind of movie, I definitely liked things about it. To be honest, I don't think I've ever actually seen Charles Bronson in a movie before, but I really liked him as Harmonica in this movie. He played the role of mysterious stranger - and sort-of hero - quite well. I also am more used to seeing Henry Fonda play a good guy, so it was interesting to see him play the villainous Frank. He ends up being adaquately menacing here as well. Finally, Jason Robards's Cheyenne is introduced as a kind of criminal, but as the film progresses, he ends up being one of the best characters - if not the best - in the bunch. He surprisingly comes to the aid of Harmonica and Jill and was a lot of fun to watch. The music is also quite iconic (although the song played on the harmonica never sounds like it's actually coming from that harmonica -- but that's kind of in line with the poor dubbing of the film). The super memorable guitar-driven theme in the film is one you've likely heard emulated elsewhere -- including a scene in 2007's Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.

Once Upon a Time in the West leaves viewers with quite a bit to unpack, as it's not your usual straight-forward story. The characters are rather nuanced, with a lot of subtlty in how the behave and talk. Could it be the greatest Western of all time? I don't see it, but I do see glimmers of greatness scattered about. Perhaps diehard fans of the genre know what it takes to make a great Western epic, but from where I'm sitting, Once Upon a Time in the West may be an artful take on the Old West, but it's no doubt an acquired taste.

So, with this being a 4K release, how does it hold up? Well, the photos attached to this review are probably a good example of its older presentation: a little fuzzy, more muted colors, etc. The 4K picture on the disc, however, is very clear and colorfully vibrant. At times, I don't think it's obvious that you're watching a 4K transfer, but especially when the camera focuses in on faces and such, the clarity is remarkable. If you're just seeing the movie for the first time this way, it probably will seem like just a nice Blu-Ray presentation, but for most movies as old as 55 years - or older - when they're given this kind of attention to remastering, it's night and day in comparison to how it was previously viewed. So, with that said, it's likely that no one has seen this movie ever look as good as it does in this release. And if you're a fan of Once Upon a Time in the West, this set would be a no-brainer.

- John DiBiase (reviewed: 5/11/24)

 

 

4K UHD Special Features


From Paramount Pictures:

A must-own for every cinephile’s collection, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST will be presented in a Limited-Edition two-disc 4K Ultra HD/Blu-ray set that includes both new and legacy bonus content, as well as access to a Digital copy of the film. The film is presented in Dolby Vision™* and HDR-10, along with English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and English Restored Mono Dolby Digital for an exceptional home viewing experience.

Bonus content presented on the Blu-ray Disc is detailed below:

  • Commentary by the Hosts of the Spaghetti Western Podcast –NEW!
  • A Look Back with Leonard Maltin—NEW!
  • Commentary with contributions from directors John Carpenter, John Milius & Alex Cox, film historians Sir Christopher Frayling & Dr. Sheldon Hall, and cast and crew
  • An Opera of Violence
  • The Wages of Sin
  • Something To Do With Death
  • Railroad: Revolutionising the West
  • Locations Then & Now (Gallery)
  • Production Gallery
  • Theatrical Trailer

 

 

Parental Guide: Content Summary


. Sex/Nudity: A bartender makes a remark about cities having loose women; Jill sarcastically tells Cheyenne that he could lay her over the table and amuse himself and maybe have his men come in; Cheyenne mentions his mother was the biggest whore in her town; Harmonica rips part of Jill's shirt off and shoves her down on bags of hay repeatedly in a violent manner; We see Frank in bed with Jill. He passionately kisses her and acts very lustful towards her (but she seems to be enjoying it, too). Frank calls her a tramp and a whore. He undoes her corset and takes down her dress as she flips over. We then see her bare back and him rubbing his hands on her back (it's implied they have sex off screen); Harmonica kicks open a door and we see Jill sitting in a bathtub and just her bare shoulders exposed above the sudsy water; We see Jill's bare back again while she holds a towel on her front after she's gotten out of the bath; Cheyenne tells Jill to let the workers outside pat her on the butt and make believe that it's nothing; Cheyenne lightly slaps Jill on her clothed butt. She then looks at him, he smiles and says "Make believe it's nothing"; Jill's top shows a lot of cleavage through most of the movie.
. Vulgarity/Language: 2 "S" words, 7 "h*ll," 4 "d*mn," 1 "a" word, 3 "b*stard," 1 "My G-d," 1 "S.O.B." (and another one that is mouthed silently)
. Alcohol/Drugs: Characters drink from bottles in a pub; Frank drinks on a train; Jill drinks at a bar
. Blood/Gore: A man has a slightly bloody bullet hole in his shirt; All four members of a family that was shot and killed are shown lying on tables with blood on their clothes and some of them with blood on their hands; We see blood on the mouth of a man who Harmonica is roughing up; Frank kicks a guy off a train, then shoots him twice with bloody holes on his shirt; We see some blood on a dead man's neck as he sits slumped over in a chair; Cheyenne fires his gun through a window, hitting a man in the eye. We very briefly see blood there before the camera cuts away (it's a little startling); Harmonica shoots a guy and he falls from on top of a building. We see some blood on the victim's neck; We see a long line of dead men outside a train. As the camera passes over the carnage, one victim has a lot of blood on his head (and possibly a bullet hole in his forehead). Another has blood on his face. The camera then stops with a man lying dead in the foreground with blood on his mouth; We see a man crawling on the ground with some blood on the back of his shirt; We see a little blood on a man's cheek as he cuts himself shaving; We see a bloody bullet hole on a man's clothed chest after he's shot; A man moves another man's shirt to find a bloody bullet hole in his abdomen (we see it in close-up, but it looks like a bloody cloth is beneath the bullet hole).
. Violence: A bad guy grabs a man by the back of his neck and shoves him; Three guys shoot at one guy and they all fall down, with the first three having been shot dead; A man shoots some birds with a rifle; A father slaps a teen boy in the face; A man and his daughter and teen son are shot and killed; Frank shoots a young boy off screen; All four members of that deceased family are shown lying on tables with blood on their clothes and some of them with blood on their hands; Harmonica hits a man in the dark and then throws him into a water basket and then into a couple different walls. He then strangles him in a roller with the scarf around his neck (but doesn't kill him); Jill shoots into the dark at Harmonica; Harmonica rips part of Jill's shirt off and shoves her down on bags of hay repeatedly in a violent manner; Harmonica shoots two guys off horses; Frank kicks a guy off a train, then shoots him twice with bloody holes on his shirt, then shoots off his belt buckle. The man falls over dead; Frank slaps Harmonica in the face repeatedly; A man is shot through a train window; We see another guy shot while on a train; Cheyenne fires his gun through a window, hitting a man in the eye. We very briefly see blood there before the camera cuts away (it's a little startling); Frank kicks a crutch out from under a crippled man and he falls over; Harmonica kicks open a locked door; Harmonica shoots a guy and he falls from on top of a building. We see some blood on the victim's neck; Frank shoots 2 guys; Frank shoots another guy who falls off a roof and through an overhang; We see a long line of dead men outside a train (with bloody results); We see another dead guy in a chair and one on the floor of the train; Frank flips over a dead man with his boot (the dead man's eyes are frozen open); We see a man crawling on the ground with some blood on the back of his shirt. He then dies; We see a man with a noose around his neck standing on a boy's shoulders. The man in the noose kicks the boy out form underneath him to give in to the hanging. We just see the boy hitting the ground; We see a little blood on a man's cheek as he cuts himself shaving; We see a bloody bullet hole on a man's clothed chest after he's shot. He then falls to the ground and dies soon after; A man moves another man's shirt to find a bloody bullet hole in his abdomen (we see it in close-up, but it looks like a bloody cloth is beneath the bullet hole). The man then falls over dead.

 

Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not exclusively on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion and experience of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's overall rating.

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