“When they do you in, pray it’s somebody who knows where to shoot.”

Sometimes we abandon films begrudgingly.

A few years ago, I got my hands on a copy of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST; a film I was hoping to watch for the first time. I couldn’t find the time to watch it before I had to return it, but the evening I did try to watch it, I was witness to its iconic opening scene. I was awed by the stillness of that train station, becoming hypnotized by all of the environmental sounds, and feeling more and more curious about what the hoodlums gathered were doing there.

Sadly, I had to stop the film mere moments after Charlie Bronson appeared, but at that moment I knew: I would be back.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is a story about the fight for the McBain Estate. In the film;s early-going, a man named Brett McBain is killed on his own land, and a bandit named Cheyenne (Jason Robards) is framed for the job. When McBain’s newlywed bride Jill (Claudia Cardinale) comes to move into the family home, she finds herself in the middle of a rather large scuffle for control of the land, with no shortage of blood being spilled on all sides.

Seems as though a lot of the damage is being done by a railroad baron named Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) and his hired goon named Frank (Henry Fonda). Besides coercing Jill and going toe-to-toe with Cheyenne, the pair find their operation at war with stranger known only as “Harmonica” (Charles Bronson). Nobody seems entirely sure what he;s up to, but one thing is for certain, he’s out to make life for Morton and Frank very, very difficult.

What I first noticed about ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, is the amount of patience it has. This is not the sort of run-and-gun western that Hollywood has cranked out routinely over the last twenty years. This is more of the slow-burning epic that first made the genre famous. It’s the sort of film that picked up from the Man With No Name Trilogy and would go on to influence UNFORGIVEN, THERE WILL BE BLOOD, and THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. It is not interested in the violence its characters unleash every time they throw down, rather it is fascinated by the tension the characters create every time that moment of violence is at hand. Some might find that sort of pacing annoying or even off-putting. For me, it was like watching a string quartet play a slow, sorrowful number. The players are all in perpetual motion, even when their parts are quiet…and everybody is a small contributor to a much bigger whole.

Director Sergio Leone underscores how tiny these men and women are by continually including shot after shot of the vast landscape. It’s easy to forget how intimidating the land used to be now that we’re in an age where we are all so closely connected. If we do forget, Leone reminds us by dwarfing these heroes and villains under endless blue sky, and rock formations the size of skyscrapers. When one looks at it that way, it’s easy to understand why the violence in stories like this is so methodical and deliberate:

If you had to endure such an intimidating journey to exact justice, you’d probably want to make sure you got it!

The scale of this film is actually so grand, that of the eleven films I’ve written about in this series so far, I can safely say it’s the one I most wish I’d seen on a big screen.

The funny thing about ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, is that full credit cannot be given to Leone. Indeed, the film is a hodgepodge of many influences, winks, and nods to the vast number of classic westerns that came before it. There are allusions a-plenty, including HIGH NOON, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, and MY DARLING CLEMENTINE.

The trick is to take all of these winks and nods and turn them into something that can stand on its own two feet. Had it made a mess of things, it would be seen as pastiche. Had it been done just a bit better than “a mess of things”, it would be considered homage. Instead, by grafting all of these allusions on to an engaging story, Leone creates something that stands on its own merit and endures.

Quentin Tarantino has made a whole career on this, and co-incidentally he has alluded to Leone more than once on his career’s path. Like Leone did on this film, Quentin has approached many of his projects steeped in film lore and knowing just how much he can get away with before he’s branded a rip-off. What the two men share is a clear indication of where that line is…and likewise, a knack for clever casting.

Prior to this film, Henry Fonda was always known as a clean-cut everyman hero. He was nothing short of Tom Joad personified. Seeing him play the heel is still shocking all these years later – I can only imagine how it played in 1968. Maybe it was akin to seeing John Travolta play a hitman…

There are still several classic westerns on my to-see list, but I get the sneaking suspicion that none of them will escape the long shadow cast by ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. The film has enough faith in its audience, that it feels no reservation about taking a whole half-hour to put all the pieces on the board. Even more daring? In that opening half hour, I wager there are about fifty lines spoken. The rest of the time, we are being filled with a sense of unease thanks to three hoodlums waiting at a train station in silence…one mysterious stranger and his harmonica…and three senseless murders on a farm. In 2012, these scenes would have to be undercut with just the right musical choice, a snappy line or three, and a wild set piece.

That’s what came after – what came before, while sharp, often seem to be far more contained and interested in keeping the line moving (all except THE SEARCHERS). This film has all of the hallmarks of an epic, and if it needs to borrow a trick or two to achieve its epicness, so be it.

Entries usually post on the final Tuesday of every month, but given that the final Tuesday of December is Christmas Day, next month’s entry will happen on Sunday, December 23rd. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.

Here’s the round-up for November…

Sean Kelly watched TOOTSIE

Steve Honeywell watched DELIVERANCE

Dan Heaton watched THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES