For his second film, Josh pulled out a Sergio Leone classic that is the #2 Western on the IMDB top 250: Once Upon A Time In The West (which, in its genre, is second only to Leone’s The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly).
Once Upon A Time gets some really serious critical acclaim, and I can’t help but think that the majority of it comes from the the film’s two stellar opening scenes, which introduce the film’s two main plots, both of which share the same antagonist.
In the first, a trio of banditos takes over a dusty train station, and sits in the lazy heat waiting for the train. We don’t really know what they’re planning to do – the assumption is a hold-up – but the anticipation created by the scene is amazing. Water slowly drips onto Woody Strode’s hat (eventually he drinks it from the brim); a fly persistently harasses Jack Elam’s face, only for him to finally capture the pest inside the barrel of his gun – and you almost believe that in the monotony he might shoot his fingertip off to rid himself of it. Finally the train arrives, and the gang…does nothing. It turns out they’re waiting for a passenger, and they believe that he didn’t show until as the train pulls away they realize that he slyly disembarked on the opposite side. There he stands, playing the harmonica, and he shoots all three banditos dead. He takes a bullet to the shoulder in the process, but bullets don’t hurt good guys as much as they hurt bad guys. What does Harmonica want? Well, he came looking for Frank, to exact revenge. Revenge for what?
SPOILER! It’s not revealed until much later in the film, but as a kid, Frank (notorious bloodthirsty outlaw that he is) dealt a pretty dirty hand to a young child – stringing up his elder brother and using the child’s shoulders in place of the horse for the short drop. As the kid, hands tied, tries desperately to stay upright, Frank puts a harmonica in his mouth and tells him to play some pretty music for his brother before he dies. I think that sufficiently motivates Harmonica.
Frank didn’t show up to face the challenge of the as-yet-anonymous Harmonica at the station, because he was too busy out at the out-of-the-way McBain property in Sweetwater (the only source of water for miles around) in the second opening scene. McBain and his young son are out hunting fowl for a feast they’re setting up (red-and-white checkered tablecloths and EVERYTHING!). It’s a wedding party for the widower McBain, whose fresh young wife is arriving from New Orleans on the day. But the insects in the brush keep cutting out, which seems to disconcert the McBains. Finally, during a silence some birds are flushed out and a gunshot rings out, but none of the birds fall. Well, OK, a bird does fall – if you want to go the flapper route and refer to McBain’s teenage daughter as a “bird”. The rest of the family soon follows, with the youngest son last. “What are we gonna do with this one, Frank?” asks a gang member. “Now that you’ve called me by name?” says Frank, and kills the boy. See, Frank was trying to pass this off as the work of Cheyenne, when in fact it turns out to be an underexplained railroad land scheme.
Mrs. McBain shows up to find her new husband and stepchildren laid out on the feasting tables. She insists on staying the night at the Sweetwater homestead instead of accepting a ride back to town, but it’s not exactly because she’s the resilient type. It’s more that she’s a gold-digger, and she’s turning the place upside down trying to find her husband’s reported wealth. She’s not in on any plots, but she’s not exactly the most sympathetic character, and perhaps not the best choice by McBain for a quickie marriage. SPOILER: You can take the girl out of the whorehouse, but you can’t take the whorehouse out of the girl.
And with the majority of the best parts of the movie already behind us, perhaps we ought to give some head shots of characters.
This is Harmonica. You already know what Harmonica is all about. He’s going to live. Notice the white hat.
This is Frank. You already know what Frank is all about. Frank is going to die. Notice the black hat.
This is Cheyenne. You don’t already know what Cheyenne is all about, and if you’ve watched the film, you probably still don’t. Cheyenne is allegedly a bandit, but outside of escaping custody twice, he never actually does anything wrong. He spends most of his time helping Harmonica. Cheyenne is going to die, but it’s going to take a long time. At some point that we don’t even see, he gets gutshot, a fact which he hides. Because he’s so effectively hiding it that we didn’t know he was gutshot, it becomes a bit awkward when he reveals his impending death during the denouement. Notice the black hat with a lot of white stuff on it.
This is Morton. Morton is a crippled railroad magnate who is riding his short train out into the west as the rails are laid, in the hopes of seeing the Pacific before he dies. He’s not really that bad of a guy, he’s just a rich guy who uses money to get what he wants and doesn’t really have the judgment to not hire guys like Frank to do it for him. For instance, Frank was supposed to “intimidate” the McBains, not kill them all. Eh. Why? Well, Sweetwater is bound to be a rail station because it’s a water source for the steam trains. McBain, who has sunk all the money his wife was looking for into lumber to build a station and town in Sweetwater, stands to profit. Thing is, Morton’s got all the money he could possibly need, and he’s dying of a degenerative disease with his only remaining goal in life to see the Pacific, so why the hell does he care about one insignificant station plopped down in the middle of nowhere? HE SHOULDN’T. But then, there’d be no movie.
Morton dies, betrayed by Frank and his men, with his face in a puddle. But, you know, the wind is blowing the puddle and if you can believe the sound effects guy, Morton can hear those Pacific waves breaking on the shore as he expires.
All this leads (rather dully, in my opinion) to a final showdown between Harmonica and Frank. Guess who wins? Oh, I already told you.
As I said, the opening two scenes that set up the movie are classic in a way that makes other directors drool over them and wish they had shot them. The rest of the film? Kinda lacking, and the screenplay is not terribly inspired. So my recommendation is to watch the first 20 minutes or so – until the McBain massacre is over – and then turn it off. You know what’s going to happen and it’s going take another two and a half hours to do it. You could watch like five Arrested Developments in that time. I know, I know. Rough review for the 24th best movie ever according to IMDB, but hey, that’s what I think.