This is a post about cinema, the wild west, and trains. There are lots of films about the history of the wild west and many of those films include railway trains. Usually, the train is high-jacked or robbed, or chased by Indians. It’s unusual for the railway system to be structurally embedded in the plot; so as to draw out issues of land-grab, profiteering and social progress. This is post about Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).
The western genre has been a staple of the film industry from the very beginning. Of course, it took a view from outside Hollywood to see what “the Western” could be…
The European Western
During the 1960s, the Italian film industry re-invented the American western film. The genre was attractive for a variety of reasons. The first was that, for many Europeans and because of familiarity, the western was widely acknowledged as a quintessentially American form of film storytelling. Secondly, the pared-down circumstances of the American west allowed for a heightened, or operatic, intensity of drama. Finally, the films were attractive to producers in terms of costs because of their relative economy. These films became identified, because of their Italian origins, as spaghetti westerns.
Italian film-makers drew on their familiarity with the western genre to re-cast the western in a more cynical light than their American contemporaries. Film-makers in America had generally mythologised the west in terms of the harsh, but fair, moral certainties of biblical teaching.
The ironic re-invention of the genre became a global phenomenon through the success of Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. Clint Eastwood was cast as the man-with-no-name bounty hunter, Blondie, and was launched toward global superstardom.
The success of these films encouraged the producers to give the director, Sergio Leone, carte blanche for his next project. That project became Once Upon a Time in the West. In the beginning, the film was elaborated by Leone, Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci. The collaboration between these three produced a story with a conceptual and philosophical sophistication that is unusual for cinema. Argento and Bertolucci both went on to have important careers as film directors.
Marx in the West
The story of Once Upon a Time is set against the land-grab associated with the building of the trans-continental railway. So the drama is played out, against the background of money (capital) and technology (the railway and guns) that provides the determining forces for their actions. The foregrounding of these powerful determinants informs the film with a historical, sociological and psychological realism.
In the 1960s, the critical understanding of human behaviour was advanced through the development of social-science methodologies. The revelation, in detail, of the complex workings of modern society was generally understood as informed by Marxist theory and the pop culture sensibility of the Frankfurt School intellectuals. So, the film provides a watershed by acknowledging and foregrounding, in part at least, the complexity of the systems that determine our behaviour.
Every child is familiar with the railway as a system of interconnected mechanical parts. The model railway layout provides for a perfect representation, in miniature and in simplified terms, of the complex original. It was entirely appropriate that the scriptwriters of Once Upon a Time in the West should focus on the railway as signifier of a specific form of social, political and economic organisation.
The Opening (The Train Arrives)
The title sequence of the film is almost half an hour long. Three men, wearing trademark dusters, await the train and form an intimidating welcoming committee. After a long wait, the train arrives. The men are surprised when no one appears. It is only as the train departs that they become aware of the visitor. After some discussion, a gunfight takes place and the newcomer rides away.
The duster coats are recognised as belonging to a local gang. In fact the agents of railway speculator, Morton, wear the coats as a form of disguise. The ruthlessness of Morton is based on a number of personalities associated with the American railway boom and its associated frauds, scandals and mayhem.
The underhand and double-dealing of the railway speculator provides the framework for a film about violence, duplicity, and revenge. You can find out about the real-life dramas of the trans-co railway, here
A summary of the film is available, here
The duster is a long, loose work coat made of canvas or linen. It was designed to be worn by horsemen and to fit over their normal clothing and to protect it from trail dust. For practical purposes the coat had an exaggerated vent that allowed the coat to be worn comfortably whilst riding. On foot, the coats had a particular flapping gait. In addition the long, loose, coats allowed a variety of guns and weapons to be concealed. Just like the poncho, the coats allowed for the ready and speedy use of firearms. So the flapping duster was associated in the popular imagination, and from its very beginning, with violent and itinerant groups of horsemen.
These specific associations help explain why the duster was rarely seen in the traditional western. The hero, individually isolated, could ride long distances without requiring special clothing except in the most difficult circumstances. Furthermore, the moral integrity of the hero would be fatally compromised by the use of a coat to hide a gun. Lastly, the action of most westerns is played out against the civilised backdrop of town and community. Even the saloon bar setting of many westerns required the protagonists to fight it out in their Sunday best.
At the same time as the first train, and the visitor, is arriving a terrible massacre is occurring. Over at the Sweetwater Ranch, Morton’s gangsters have murdered an entire family, including the children; the McBains. They are gunned down as they prepare to welcome their new stepmother to the home. The arrival of this woman into the family is a sign of better things. After years of struggle and isolation, the railway is coming and the water, at the eponymous Sweetwater, will bring people, wealth and excitement. Sweetwater will become a whole town and community. McBain’s prescience will have been vindicated.
The Ending (The Railway Arrives)
At the end of the film, the railway is shown arriving at Sweetwater. The new Mrs McBain is shown welcoming workers to a feast and with great pitchers of refreshment. So, notwithstanding all the violence and mayhem, the railway is acknowledged to be an instrument of social progress…
The film starred Charles Bronson, Jason Robards and, cast against type, Henry Fonda. The female lead was Claudia Cardinale. The film has a remarkable musical score by Ennio Morricone.
This is my all time favourite film. I’ve watched it many times and I’m still amazed by it. It’s big, and clever, and beautiful. If you watch the film and like it, give Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) a go.
Supplemental Sunday 21st August 2011
The film is routinely described as “epic.” It’s certainly got big themes played out against the big spaces of the mid-west. Amongst the cruel brutality there are passages of amazing beauty. One of these, my favourite, is the scene when Mrs McBain (Claudia Cardinale) arrives at Flagstone Station. The train pulls up, she gets off, and is a bit surprised that there is no one to meet her (she doesn’t know that the entire McBain family have been murdered). She moves along the platform and arrives at the ticket office. The camera moves vertically over the building to reveal the town beyond.
The whole scene is touched by the terrible pathos of what we know to have happened. The amazing music by Ennio Morricone adds the finishing touch.
I’ve watched the film loads of times and have payed the opening sequence over and over. Even after all these years, and notwithstanding this familiarity, the sequence of Mrs McBain arriving still amazes me. The combination of pathos, sadness, and beauty; all combined in image, movement and music, is heartbreakingly moving.
Here’s another view, from my colleague, Steve Radmell, in moving image
Once Upon a Time in the West (Cera una Volta il West)
The partnership here is of course between Leone and the great Ennio Morricone. The sequence shows mail-order bride Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) arriving by train in the Western frontier town of Flagstone. As the camera cranes up and the music swells, oh man, that’s cinema.
You can check out Steve’s cinema blog, at
Supplemental, Saturday 27th August 2011
The BBC Prom 39 was broadcast yesterday evening. It featured music by Morricone performed by The Spaghetti Western orchestra. You can watch it on iplayer, here
Morricone is best known for his film music; he’s composed hundred of scores. But, in the 1960s, he was part of a jazz inflected avant-garde. Morricone also performs with an orchestra…
Check it all out on Wiki, YouTube, and Spotify…