Once Upon A Time In The West – 1968 Sergio Leone vs. The Lone Ranger

The alternate title of this entry could be: I Sat Through Two Westerns So Now You Have To Read What I Think About Them.

I am not a fan nor a follower of Westerns as a genre, but I don’t dislike them either. As a kid, I saw plenty of them – as most kids growing up in the fifties and sixties did. My first love was The Lone Ranger, so I also saw the recent remake with Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp.  The stories couldn’t be more opposite in style and structure, although they share a couple common elements (particularly in how marginally the female characters are handled.)

Many, many people have written that Once is the pinnacle of Westerns and clearly enjoyed watching it. Leone did do some ground breaking work in the cinematography, his use of sound effects, and the almost anti-plot structure. I had no problem with any of that, in fact, I was quite mesmerized by the film for the first hour or so. My problem was the pacing and Leone’s love of looooong slooooow close-ups that apparently pass for character development. The shots were magnificent and the art direction superb – the sets were probably the most authentic of the era before and after, at least until DEADWOOD.

The frequency and length of lingering face shots turned the film from tense drama to annoyingly lengthy and finally into a parody of itself. Those were some steely blue orbs when Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson finally (and I do mean finally as in when-the-fuck-is-this-going-to-end) confront each other for the last time -the really last time, not all the other times – for many slow seconds of squinty staring as the camera panned between the mens’ eyes. By this time, I had seen so many face and eye close ups that the movie was beyond flat. I no longer cared and beside, I had a really good idea who was going to win. In spite of all its innovations and anti-hero attitudes, the outcome was utterly predictable.

See how bad he is? Not as bad as his brother though.

I’m sure most readers are familiar with The Lone Ranger as a hero and the recent remake is a classic hero-in-the-making plot structure. Act One: a young man wants nothing more than to uphold the law in the courtroom and abhors violence. Oh, and he’s crushing on his brother’s wife who has full pouty lips. By the end of the act he is forced to pick up a gun and swear to protect his brother’s wife against the band of evil outlaws, led by Butch Not-Cassidy who we know is really, really evil because he is Ugly and Deformed with Really Bad Teeth. As the story progresses, we learn that the real villain is the Railroad Tycoon who is hellbent on building laying tracks andplotting against the local Cheyenne to acquire their land.

I’m not going to go There as far as Depp playing Tonto goes. The movie is paced to perfection with nicely staged action scenes that logically follow the storyline so the whole thing is as enjoyable to watch as something like Jurassic Park. Which I do enjoy watching, so I enjoyed The Lone Ranger. Ultimately, the protagonist becomes the hero he need to be to stop the bad guys and save the damsel in distress (possibly the only female character with lines in the movie and not that many.) There is no surprise in the story since it is an old and familiar one, but the tension is maintained with excellent stuntwork and Johnny Depp’s impeccable comic timing.

Back to Once. Boiling it down to the storyline is very unfair because it is built on atmosphere, sound effects, silence, and as I mentioned, long and lingering close-ups of the characters. The main villain is introduced almost immediately although not by his presence but by the dialogue. Frank is not present but sends his men to “take care of things.” Big mistake, as the man they were sent to kill is played by Charles Bronson, a character who is only known by his nickname: Harmoncia.

Harmonica earns his nickname as you would guess, playing a dirge-like tune on his mouth organ to taunt his enemies. And let me tell you, he plays it loudly, usually with orchestral back up to enhance the effect. While Harmonica is playing tunes and shooting it out with bad guys dressed in flapping dusters after a brutal ten minutes of staring at one another and listening to sound effects, there is mayhem going on elsewhere. Henry Fonda as Frank shows up at the ranch of a Good Family, the McBains who are preparing a wedding feast for the widower father, who is sending his son off to the train station to collect the future Mrs. McBain.

Frank is so evil that he smiles and spits a lot. Ok, that’s unfair because actually, Henry Fonda is a gifted actor and he is chillingly creepy as Frank. This is a spoiler so if you think you would rather watch the movie someday without knowing all the facts, you should have stopped reading a few paragraphs ago. One by one, the members of the McBain are shot down. The last one to go is the youngest son, about eight years old, who stares imploringly and beseechingly at Frank (and this exchange of looks goes on and on) until Franks spits, grins, and pulls the trigger. It is a shocker and the movie seems like it is now going to pick up and start speeding down the rails.

The future Mrs. McBain arrives on the scene and announces that she already married Mr. McBain, so she is his widow. Claudia Cardinale plays Jill, the now widowed McBain and as soon as she’s alone in the house (who stays alone in a house after a multiple homicide took place there?) she searches from top to bottom but comes up empty.  A third character arrives at the house in the morning, another bad guy played by Jason Robards, who gets all the good lines. Robards plays Cheyenne, an escaped outlaw introduced in an earlier scene that I didn’t mention because it is not possible to describe each scene in this movie.

Around this point, I started asking myself who was the protagonist? Who was going to be changed by these events? Which one had a goal that carried the plot? It wasn’t obvious – and that was a strength of the film in the first half but ultimately a flaw.

Cheyenne likes Jill’s full pouty lips and her other assets. As the only female with more than a couple of lines, Cardinale plays a vixen/slut, well-endowed and attracted to every man that pays attention to her. She presents herself as independent and strong and amenable to rape because “that’s never killed any woman.” Ouch.

Cheyenne is a mixed bag of murderer and morals. He’s been accused of killing the McBains and wants to catch Frank and his gangs, the real murderers. Meanwhile Frank hooks up with his boss — an evil railroad tycoon hellbent on laying tracks to the coast who hired Frank to remove all obstacles in the way. The Tycoon is slowly deteriorating from tuberculosis of the bones and so is physically vulnerable, wearing a brace and walking with crutches. But he explains to Frank that he is powerful because he has money and money is the one thing that can stop guns.

Tthe body count is high in both movies, but in Once, the killing is extremely casual, even the McBain family is immediately glossed past.  With its four main characters, Once loses focus and fails to develop those characters with anything other than brief dialogue and more long meaningful stares. Robards is another fine actor and the movie is always interesting when he or Fonda are present. Cardinale is not much as an actress and is not required to do much besides gasp and clutch. Eventually she displays cleavage full-time which marks her character’s development from Poser Lady to Real Woman.

Gun blaze, bodies pile up, more glowering and staring ensues. I had high hopes we’d reached the big gun battle between Bronson and Fonda several times. I suppose I should explain what Harmonica has been up to. He has been tailing Fonda around, avoiding getting killed by him and naming the names of men that Fonda has murdered. He also forms an attachment/alliance with Cheyenne in their common cause of protecting the damsel in distress: Jill (Cardinale) who is being persecuted by the Tycoon.

Frank starts a shootout (after the requisite staring contest) with Harmonica but his gang turns against him, having been paid by the Tycoon to turn on him. In a surprising twist, Harmonica comes to Frank’s defense and kills the traitors, enabling Frank’s escape -and adding a whole lot of minutes to the movie. Harmonica explains to Jill that he “didn’t let him die” which is different than saving Frank’s life. Then he rides after Frank to kill him.

Frank rides to the Tycoon’s railroad car, where he finds a whole pile of bodies that were shot up by Cheyenne. The Tycoon is barely alive, attempting to crawl to a puddle for a last drink of water. Frank points his gun, spits, grins, and then puts his gun away and rides off. Tycoon dies a slow painful death.

Cheyenne and Jill are in the kitchen of the railroad construction camp (I’m skipping major plot points, sorry) when Harmonica shows up. Clearly, Jill is smitten with Harmonica while Cheyenne is smitten with Jill. But Harmonica has to go and confront Frank so no time for romantic tension. Major spoiler coming but seriously, do you think that Charles Bronson is going to be gunned down by a child killer, even if Henry Fonda plays him? Even if the movie is anti-plot, anti-hero, chock full of symbolism and running roughshod over the usual Western tropes (while worshipping others)?

A lot of this

And even more of that

Extremely long staring contest ensues but this one has flashbacks that reveal the basis of Harmonica’s motive. Frank and his outlaw gang had visited his town when Harmonica was a boy. They put a rope around his father’s neck and made him stand on Harmonica’s shoulders, forcing him to keep his father alive as long as he could stand. During this torture, Frank pulled out a harmonica and stuffed it in the boy’s mouth. Eventually, his father kicked him away in order to save him from stumbling and becoming the cause of his father’s death.

This takes awhile to unfold so Frank’s stare is starting to falter as he ponders Harmonica’s identity. When the guns fire, there is no surprise that Frank is the one to crumble, but he is still wondering who Harmonica really is. Harmonica takes out his harmonica and stuffs it in Frank’s mouth. Frank dies with horror in his eyes as realization dawns. Dramatic ending, it just took too long to get there. Oh, and it isn’t the ending either.

There is a love triangle to be resolved, remember? Cheyenne is the noble sort, even if he is a mass murderer, and steps back to let Jill embrace Harmonica and declare her love when he returns alive. But Harmonica isn’t the type of guy to settle down and after they exchange longing looks while more minutes crawl by, he walks out the door. She begs him to come back and he mutters “Someday.” in a tone that suggests she will be long dead before that happens.

Cheyenne sees that Jill’s heart will never be his so he decides to follow Harmonica and be his comical sidekick. He’s thinking that Harmonica could wear a mask and he could dress up as…no, I’m making this part up. He does catch up to Harmonica though but alas, he (Cheyenne) has a bullet in his gut. No real good explanation of how that happened but he expires after exchanging meaningful looks with Harmonica. And the movie ends but not until some long lingering shots of Claudia Cardinale in a revealing dress, bringing water to a bunch of hot, sweaty, and bare-chested construction workers.

Left in the dust, pouty lips and all.

Also left in the dust, despite pouty lips.

Just like Once, the female love interest in TLRis deserted in the end, as the Lone Ranger must ride off to continue his mission of justice. Only the Lone Ranger as a movie is a throwback, in spite of it attempting to have enlightened views of Native Americans, while it unabashedly marginalized women. The sole female is weak and serves to be saved – and gets abandoned because the movie franchise needs sequels, so the hero leaves love behind. Both movies end on the same note, Harmonica also leaves the chance of love behind to continue something, we’re not sure what but it probably has to do with righting wrongs.

NOTE: I totally forgot that TLR does have an alternative female role. Helen Bonham Carter plays a woman with an artificial leg that converts into a gun. The whole apparatus takes so long to set up that it is more intrusive as a device than clever. I was so impressed by her part that I forgot it entirely until searching for images. Oh, and Carter is a Madame of a whorehouse, natch. And then there was Silver, how could I forget about the horse?

I will point out that cows did appear briefly in ONCE, qualifying this post for a cow tag. As for recommendations, I am ambivalent about either movie. LONE RANGER is a go-see it if you have a soft place for the old shows and predictable archetype characters (and brilliantly choreographed action sequences.) ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is recommended for anyone interested or passionate about the art of film, the western genre and so on. It would be great grist for discussion but maybe not worth watching in its entirety if you do find yourself bored and restless. It is far more interesting to talk about than to watch and I am sure I failed to do it justice here.


Once Upon A Time In The West – 1968 Sergio Leone vs. The Lone Ranger — 8 Comments

  1. I haven’t seen the new Lone Ranger yet, but I’m a big fan of Once Upon a Time in the West, and other spaghetti Westerns. The Good, the Band and the Ugly is my favorite in this genre. It’s sort of sad that Westerns are out of style these days, but perhaps that goes with the times.

    • Westerns never go away completely though. Did you ever watch DEADWOOD? Probably my favorite Western of all time.

  2. I am a huge fan of westerns: movies, corny TV shows, books. I was holding off on the Lone Ranger remake because it looked more like a spoof, but I could deal with a fun movie. Somehow I missed Once Upon a Time in the West. And I could stand close-ups of Charles Bronson. Yum.

    BTW, Lonesome Dove is possibly my all time favorite book and the mini-series with Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones is amazing. They really did the main characters justice. If you missed it, give it a whirl.

    • I did see Lonesome Dove and it was great. I read the book afterwards, I liked it that much. Lone Ranger is a spoof of sorts and worked best when it was comic. But they had some horrible, tragic occurrences that I couldn’t shake to get back into fluff mode.

  3. Thanks for the analysis, Maggie. I’m not a big fan of westerns either, but have enjoyed many of them. Some are like a guilty pleasure (the Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns), others deeper and more interesting (Pale Rider–also a Clint Eastwood project).

  4. Just a suggestion: re-watch Once Upon A Time in the West. Know this: Jill is the protagonist. The west is ending for the cowboy/ the outlaw/ the hired hand/ the railroad Barron. The only one left is Jill. She is ushering in the new era. Trust me, if you watch it that way, it’s a totally different movie.

    • I agree that Jill is the character who opens up to the changing west. It’s been a long fall and winter since I watched this movie but it has stayed on my mind. Especially since the music themes seem to turn up quite frequently. I may watch it again but I will fast forward through the stare downs if I do.