Ordinarily I steer clear of films that were intended as allegories. They go down like medicine and, let’s face it, most directors take themselves way too seriously when they embark on a mission. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) is an allegory in the form of a Western, too, a genre freighted with moral purpose. I confess, I was a little nervous going in, but I saddled up anyhow, put on my spurs, and set off for Sweetwater.
Henry Fonda disarmed me, right off the bat. Those baby blue eyes on the face of a cold-blooded killer. It took awhile to regain my bearings, after he blew away the McBain family, but when the dust settled, I saw that I needn’t have worried. There’s a message here, to be sure, but Sergio Leone has a light touch, an approach to lesson-giving that I can only describe as fatherly.
Affectionately, he drapes an arm around our shoulders. Us, the Americans: he loves us, we must understand that he is speaking as a friend. More than a friend, an admirer. As a boy growing up under fascism, watching Westerns (this was before World War II, when they would be banned), he believed all the clichés. Epic heroes, taming the frontier, armed not only with rifles but with integrity. Such a contrast, those virtuous cowboys and their G.I. brothers, the ones who liberated Italians from the Nazis, versus his defeated countrymen, who had embraced Mussolini’s nationalism and stood by while their leader formed a shameful alliance with Hitler.
Ah, but in the decades since the war ended, we lost our way. It pains him to say this, but he must be honest. First came the witch hunts of the McCarthy era (Mickey Knox, a blacklisted actor living in Italy, worked with Leone on the English dialogue for the picture), followed by the violence of the civil rights battle and capped off by the Vietnam war. No longer proud, our values tarnished, we turned away from our own epic myths. Sure, Bonanza was still running on TV, but the motion picture Western was languishing in America.
Once Upon the Time in the West revived the industry, which was already flourishing in Italy. Like Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), this picture features characters of dubious integrity and marvelous Western vistas (mostly shot in Spain), a score by Ennio Morricone. In addition to Fonda, there are fine performances by Charles Bronson and Jason Robards.
But here’s the big difference: Once Upon a Time in the West has a woman at its center, a prostitute, Jill (played by the lovely Claudia Cardinale). She brings hope at the end of the picture. Redemption, even. John Boorman saw this film as “Leone’s gift to America of its lost fairy stories.” I think he’s right.