Stop right there. Don't delete this post quite yet. I know what you are thinking. "I hate Westerns". Well you know, I thought I did too. But my son has become addicted to them lately...the 12 year old who loves everything that modern technology has to offer film has discovered the beauty of action pre-CGI. And so we have been on a little bit of a binge.
We started out with the Dollars Trilogy...A Fistful of Dollars, A Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, all starring a young and extremely dude-ish Clint Eastwood. (Even my daughter thinks he's hot.) These films firmly established a Western sub-genre called "Spaghetti Westerns" in the US, primarily because they were directed by an Italian (Sergio Leone in this case) and the cast was primarily made up of unknown Italian actors pretending to be Hispanic. This trilogy is absolutely AMAZING in so many ways. I will do a post about them someday.
After the huge success of this trilogy, Leone followed it up with Once Upon a Time in the West. He wanted to get Eastwood in on this endeavor as well, but he was busy (filming Hang 'Em High I'm guessing), so Leone recruited a killer cast that made us forget about old Clint...Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, and Claudia Cardinale. In the past, Henry Fonda had always been a good guy. To shock his audiences, Leone cast him as an absolutely despicable character, who takes pleasure in cruelly killing his adversaries in cold blood, even kids.
Unlike most Westerns, our leading character is a female! Ms. McBain (Cardinale), a hooker-turned-legitimate from New Orleans has married a widower. When she arrives at her new home and her new life, in the undeveloped frontier of Utah, she finds her new husband and step-children all slaughtered. A well-meaning harmonica-toting Cheyenne (Bronson) offers to find out who has committed this heinous act. However, he may just have an agenda of his own.
This movie is darned close to 3 hours long, which spooked me at first, but in hindsight was absolutely necessary. Each character in this movie is developed to the fullest extent. Leone shows us all the little bits of baggage and idiosyncrasies and motivations, revenge being the biggest one. I particularly enjoyed Cardinale, who is drop-dead gorgeous - with lots of cleavage, but is a strong, clever woman. I found this curious, because you just don't see these qualities in female roles in Westerns made in the '60's.
I found Leone's directorial skills to be incredibly unique, for movies made back then and even now. There are some scenes in which the pacing is so torturously slow and deliberate and patient, they are unreal. And the musical score, written by Ennio Morricone, who also wrote the score for the Dollars Trilogy, almost needs no introduction. Even if you don't watch Westerns, you're going to know his music. Leone actually wrote some scenes around the music, instead of the other way around, and it shows.
Many lists have placed this film as one of the top Westerns ever made, and is considered a masterpiece. On Rotten Tomatoes, it has received a 98% rating. So if you were ever going to try a movie from this genre, this would be the one.