FILM (1968)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 September, 2011, 12:00am


Once Upon A Time In The West
Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson
Director: Sergio Leone

Times were hard for American cowboys. The one constant was change. These truths lie at the heart of many A-list westerns and form the core of Once Upon A Time In The West, a 1968 epic directed by Sergio Leone.

The Italian director had previously made spaghetti westerns, such as Fistful of Dollars, the film that launched Clint Eastwood's career. Once Upon A Time was a comment on the classic themes that inspired him to begin making westerns.

Back in the days of the Wild West, settlers first arrived in wagon trains and tamed the land. Towns sprung up from ramshackle roots, and the chaos of places like Dodge City was gradually replaced by law and order. Then big businesses from the east moved in.

In westerns, these businessmen are usually dishonest, powerful and exploitative men, often railroad barons, letting loose gangs of thugs to kill anyone who gets in the way.

This idea lies at the heart of Once Upon A Time, which was partly written by Bernardo Bertolucci, who later directed Last Tango In Paris. Henry Fonda plays the cruel leader of a gang which works for a railroad baron.

The glamorous Claudia Cardinale stands in his way, refusing to give up her land for railway construction. Fonda is dispatched to change her mind. Cardinale is aided by Charles Bronson, who is seeking revenge for the murder of his family, and Jason Robards, a romantic outlaw.

The film's big sell was that Fonda, who usually played heroes, was the villain. Wrinkled and quietly psychotic, he stands in dark contrast to the honest Marshall Earp of My Darling Clementine, his most famous western role. 'When Fonda is cast as an outlaw, the implication is that something is basically wrong with society,' writes critic Philip French in Westerns. While the film is entertaining, novelist Brian Garfield in his book Western Films: A Complete Guide, comments: 'The filmmaker clearly has no understanding at all of the fundamental reality of the western myth.'