A railway station in the middle of nowhere. Three men in long coats enter, tooled up with weaponry. The nervous man behind the counter tries to sell them three tickets, but they throw them back in his face. They wait. And wait. Around ten minutes (in real time). Eventually a train arrives.
A man gets off the train, playing the harmonica. He checks them, and looks at their three horses. When he asks if they have a horse for him, they say they have one too few. “No”, he says, “you have two too many”. And shoots them.
Welcome to the languorous opening of Once Upon a time in the West, a film that’s not going to get any quicker. There’s lots of Big Men squaring up to each other and occasionally shooting. There’s also a sliver of Plot – about a piece of land which will become valuable when the railway arrives as this would be the only place with a water source that would be good for a station.
There’s a second piece of Plot where the main baddie Henry Fonda (cast against type) occupies a luxury compartment of a steam train which takes him up and down the track while he learns that the real power in the coming society lies more in money than in guns. Ultimately, though, most intricacies or plot twists gets resolved by Big Men shooting each other.
This is a Man’s film. I’m not even sure there are enough women with speaking parts to qualify for the Bechdel Test and the one that they do have – “the widow McBain” manages to be both a widow and an ex-prostitute whose only role is to serve men one way or another. A couple of scenes get seriously rapey, but no-one seems to have a big problem with this.
So it’s a terrible film, right? Well, actually no. It looks great and it sounds terrific. I guess that its being shown to commemorate Ennio Morricone who died recently, and if you shut off the dialogue and listened to Morricone’s prolifically varied soundtrack (which includes at one point a buzzing fly), it would be worth a visit for that alone.
I’d asked a friend if she fancied going along and she said that she didn’t really like Westerns, to which I thought “neither do I but this isn’t just any old Western”, but it does make you think how archaic this all is. We see the occasional attempt to revive the genre with a “Black Western” or a “Female Western” but there seems to be a reason why “they” don’t make Westerns any more.
Some of this is to do with the #MeToo sensibility, which would not just be appalled by the lack of female characters, but also by a pathological fear of dealing with emotions. The main characters ride into town and when they’re done those who are still standing ride out. As in Leone’s previous films with Clint Eastwood, the hero is not even afforded a name – this time he’s called after the instrument he plays.
In the end, it’s like watching a very good exhibition at a museum, which tells you lots about the time from which its exhibits come and little about our own. This is acknowledged a little in the film where the railway finally arrives and with it a new sort of collective community. The time of Big Men sorting out all their problems with their fists and guns is on the way out.
Once Upon a Time in the West is worth seeing for two main reasons – firstly the sumptuous sound and vision, and secondly for what it tells us both about US-American pioneer society and the tumultuous year of 1968 in which it was originally released. If it were released today, though, it would be rightfully slightly derided for its self-indulgence and a focus that rarely moves away from the boys.