Once Upon a Time in the West (DVD, 2003, 2-Disc Set, Special Collector's Edition) Reviews
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Once Upon a Time in the West (DVD, 2003, 2-Disc Set, Special Collector's Edition)

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They just don't make em like this anymore.

May 17, 2003
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Acting, action, humor, camera work, you name it.

Cons:Long-winded in some spots.

The Bottom Line: It's overall feel is like that of an epic novel adapted to cinema and done quite well.


In Hollywood, the word Epic gets tossed around an awful lot. Tossed until it gets to a point that the word is largely meaningless. Nevertheless, Once Upon A Time In The West is an epic film. There's no other way to describe it.

Once Upon A Time In The West was originally released in 1969 and has since been considered by many to be Sergio Leone's crowning achievement. Yes, that's the very same Sergio Leone who gave us many of the famous Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns. However, calling OUATIW (as it shall be referred to for the remainder of this review) a spaghetti western is severely limiting it. While it does have many of the same characteristics of the spaghetti westerns (Evil villains, heroes with no name, shootouts), it is at heart a human story with plenty of memorable characters and quite a bit of humor as well.

This is demonstrated in the opening scene. A group of three gunmen has been sent to a train station to wait for a mysterious harmonica-playing outlaw. The outlaw (Charles Bronson) shows up and the following exchanges occurs:

Harmonica: So Frank sent you. Where's my horse?

Gunman: Err we forgot one.

Harmonica: No. You brought two too many

Harmonica then eliminates the three gunmen quite effortlessly. The scene slowly proceeds from there to a scene where a father and his young son are quail hunting. Nearby the father's daughter sets up the picnic table for a special dinner to be served in honor of her mother to be, who will be arriving that day by train from New Orleans. Father and son return from shooting quails when their plans for the evening are interrupted by a group of cold-blooded thugs. The cold-blooded thugs promptly kill everyone in the vicinity, including the little boy. Or more accurately, the leader of the thugs, a man named Frank, who is played by none other than Henry Fonda, shoots the little boy.

Now when this film was first released, many people were frankly shocked that Henry Fonda was playing a cold-blooded killer who had no qualms about slaughtering people. One person who wouldn't have been surprised if he had lived to see this movie was writer John Steinbeck. In an essay he wrote in the late 1940s, Steinbeck commented on Fonda's versatility by noting that he could effortlessly move from playing a character like Tom Joad in The Grapes Of Wrath to a totally comic character like Mr. Roberts. So maybe, having Fonda play a villain isn't that much of a stretch. He certainly does a good job as the oily yet sympathetic in a way Frank.

Anyway, the wife to be (named Jill and played by Claudia Cardinale) arrives and discovers what happened. And slowly yet surely the story falls into place. Frank is in the employ of a railroad baron, see, and the track for the railroad goes right through the area where Jill's now ex-husband wanted to build a town.

Into the picture comes another outlaw known as Cheyenne (Jason Robards. He's the one who is at first fingered for the brutal killings and visits Jill to explain to her that he didn't do it. Then there is the aforementioned Harmonica who winds up taking sides with Cheyenne and Jill because he has a beef of some sorts with Frank that will be explained later on.

OUATIW is quite long (3 hours), yet it is never boring. The story pulls you in and keeps you involved all the way through, just the way a novel by the aforementioned Steinbeck does. Robards is the bruised and broken outlaw who never got an even break and is now risking it all. His partnership with Bronson provides some good moments, such as the scene where they go to confront Frank and the railroad baron. Cardinale brings a certain level of warmth and humanity to the proceedings. Bronson essays the first of what would become his de facto role over the next decade: Good guy with a gun and a personal vendetta. In fact, this may be the best performance of his career as he easily brings the Harmonica character fully to life.

As for Fonda, what is there to say other than the fact that the man could usually be counted on to give a good performance no matter what the role? When I think of Fonda three roles come to mind. The first two are the ones Steinbeck noted in his essay. The third one is Frank. Versatility is the spice of life and it was definitely the spice of Fonda's career.

OUATIW did what most westerns couldn't do. It managed to explode the romanticism of the old west, yet still managed to increase our appreciation of the men and women who worked to tame it. It's overall feel is like that of an epic novel adapted to cinema and done quite well. They just don't make em like this anymore.


Recommend this product? Yes

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