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Have You Seen…? Episode 16


On this episode of Have You Seen…? David Hast and WGVU’s Scott Vander Werf talk about Once Upon a Time in the West directed by the Italian master Sergio Leone, starring Claudia Cardinale, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards and Henry Fonda.

David Hast: Scott, have you seen Once Upon a Time in the West?

Scott Vander Werf: I've seen it several times and I worship at the feet of Sergio Leone, one of the greatest directors of all time in a very unique director of Westerns.

DH: Certainly, yeah. I feel the same way about this movie. For me it’s one of the greatest movies ever made. It's my favorite Western. Even though it is an Italian film from 1968. But it does so many things having to do with the American westerns that it has greatness on so many levels. And I think it'll be fun for us, finally, just to talk about one movie in one of our episodes here.

SVW: In terms of Leone, we grew up hearing about the Spaghetti Westerns and that was the Italian made westerns and this arguably is the finest of all of them.

DH: Yeah, I don't think many people would argue with that, who know those movies. Sergio Leone was the master of Italian westerns. And this is his masterpiece. The first 3 were what they call the “Dollars Trilogy.” The 3 that made Clint Eastwood into an international star. All really good movies. There are some people who even say their favorite Leoni film is The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. I think you and I are probably there with most critics and people who know Leone’s work saying that this one, because of its epic scale, and also the fact that it finally has a major, powerful female character, it just goes a whole magnitude beyond the Clint Eastwood films.

SVW: Yeah, The Good the Bad and the Ugly is a great film as well and improves upon the first two, but it's almost like a dress rehearsal for this film.

DH: Yeah, I think so…

SVW: In terms of how it's structured, like you said, the epic quality of it, the pacing and the iconic characters as well.

DH: And some context is important. Why would I say it's the greatest western ever made? I mean, the Western as an American genre, and there are so many great ones. By 1968 it was almost as if the western genre scene played out, this is the major American genre. Today, even now, with all the movies have been made in the 21st century and, you know, recently, I believe there been more Westerns made than any other kind of movie, because there were so many made in the early days of cinema. And it was really the major American genre. And yet by 1968, it almost seemed as if the major directors, John Ford, Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, Howard Hawks….it was almost as if they had told all the Western stories and the Hollywood Westerns were starting to look tired and repetitive and out of ideas.

SVW: And Hollywood cinema was changing anyway with the young directors coming up in films like Bonnie and Clyde and it was just prior to the emergence of people like Scorsese says he and Copella and Spielberg just a few years after this was made.

DH: Right. And Leone was much younger. The 4 major Western directors I just named were much older than Leone and they were in the latter part of their careers. But along comes Leone and what he does is he really makes the Western in a way that makes it even greater. You know, this movie pays homage and respect to the classical westerns. In fact, there's a huge list of the number of shots and scenes and moments and dialogue that refer directly to Leone’s favorite Westerns. But at the same time, he's not just ripping them off in an interesting way. He's making this movie that is like… “aren’t westerns great? and here’s how they can be even greater.

SVW: And the other thing that he does is he makes part of the film in the United States whereas the other Spaghetti Westerns were all made in Europe and he shot scenes in Monument Valley, which John Ford essentially owned Monument Valley in his westerns

DH: Well, yeah, that's right. You're saying he owned them because John Ford used more than most directors at the time he shot exteriors. I mean, once he started shooting Westerns and stuff later, he just wanted only shoot outdoors and he shot scenes, at least some scenes, for about 8 different Westerns, I think, in Monument Valley and its iconic and it was associated with Ford. And Leone, apparently the story goes, Leone went there with the cinematographer to think about shots and he would stand a spot, knew he would know this is the shot from The Searchers, this is a shot from Stagecoach, he knew Ford's work so well. And yeah, the Italian westerns were all shot, basically the exterior, they liked was this mountainous region of Spain. And so they shot there and then they shot in studios in Rome. And this movie is shot, mostly in the mountains in Spain. The interiors in the studio in Rome, but they went to Monument Valley for one week. Got amazing shots and then faked it for other parts. There's a scene where they're all going into a cantina, and this scene is undoubtedly shot in a studio in Rome, but the saloon doors swing open as these bandit characters come in and they had brought red dust from Monument Valley back with them. And as the guys walked to the door, the crew through this dust behind them, so you see the red dust. So even when you're seeing scenes that are shot in Spain that look like a kind of gray or tan looking mountains, he maintains the illusion.

SVW: Now, in talking about this movie, you have to talk about the opening scene which is one of the greatest opening scenes of any movie. So talk about the opening sequence.

DH: Well, the opening sequence is basically a sequence where 3 bandits, who we find by the end of the scene are basically hit men, are at a station waiting for a train to come. And they originally were going to score with music but Ennio Morricone the great composer and one of the reasons that Leone films, one of the major, great things in Leone films, Morricone music. Morricone decided not to score with music, but just to suggest things with the sounds. The sound of a windmill squeaking the sound of drops of water plopping in the brim of a one of the hit men's hats. And there's just want prolonged scene. You see right through it, it sets it up for the whole movie, the movie is very slow paced. But, the great thing about it is that all the waiting, all the slowness, pays off completely at the end of the film. And you see what it's all about. But they're waiting and waiting and it turns out there waiting for one of the major characters, Charles Bronson, who only goes by the name Harmonic in the movie because he plays the harmonica. And we see a gun fight there. The movie begins with this gun fight and then the movie ends with an even more spectacular gun fight.

SVW: And another thing that's great about this movie is the casting. Harmonic is played by Charles Bronson and it really sets the stage for his career.

DH: But Bronson before we started doing all these low budget vigilante movies, right?

SVW: But casting Henry Fonda, the Great American iconic actor as the bad guy, as the villain.

DH: Right, so there’s 4 major characters. The lead, the first name in the credits, his Claudia Cardinale, who was a wonderful Italian actress. And then there's Jason Robarts who is more known as a stage actor, but who did a lot of great movies. And American actor, Charles Bronson. And then Henry Fonda and the genius of casting Henry Fonda is that Henry Fonda was always a hero in movies. He was an iconic hero in American films, he played Abe Lincoln, he played Tom Joad. He always played heroic characters and Leone decided to cast him as one of the most evil villains in the history of cinema.

SVW: And it works so well.

DH: Yeah, I mean, Henry Fonda can be. He's a great actor and he's really scary. His a beautiful blue eyes are suddenly cold. And dead, you know, and and he did it deliberately because he knew American audiences. It's the classic casting against type. It's very effective. Sometimes when you take a character that's known as one type of of a character, an actor who is known as one type of character and you cast him as the opposite.

SVW: And one of the things that's so striking about Fonda's essentially his face and his eyes being on camera is at Leone is constantly using close-ups and in the way that he frames the close-ups is very, very much a part of the pacing of the film.

DH: Yeah, so we should talk a little bit about his style. I mean, first of all, the movie itself, you know, is its mythic. It's it's like an Italian opera. It's like mythology. He recognizes very well that that the American West is America's mythology. Right? And there's bigger than bigger than life heroes use a bigger than life things. The the screenwriter John Melia said at the end of once upon a time in the West, you feel like you've been part of something big, something important. It has all these themes. You know, the themes of that revenge heroes and villains, Western expansion, the railroad, the role of robber barons and capitalism and greed in the westward movement, the old-fashioned when Western bandits and maybe beyond more than anything else. It's about the end of the West. We the the future of the West is kind of represented by Claudia Cardinale, a woman who represent family and growth. But the the the The Evil villain hitman the bandit and and the gunfighter play by Robarts, Fonda, and Bronson they all are. It's the end of their time. And then how does he do that? How does he show it? And this is you just mentioned his close-ups and so forth. He has a style unlike anyone else's and it's perfectly fits this ability. This this goal of of creating an epic. So, yes, he showed he always shot in widescreen, right, cinema scope, widescreen and color, of course. And and he would do these extreme close-ups of faces. But he also showed huge mythic landscapes like Monument Valley, and he would often do them in the same shot shooting in bright daylight. So he has a lot of depth of field is a great range of focus and one side of the screen would be a close-up of faces so close to the face itself is almost like a landscape and in the background to be this huge landscape and so it and then you add to it all the other things that that make up. The only the incredible use of Ennio Morricone is music with very unconventional scoring used electric guitar harmonica, clavichord, whistling. I mean, a lot of things now or more don't electric guitars used freely and movies is as scoring now, but it was pretty different then.

SVW: And each character has their own theme.

DH: They do. Yeah. And and in fact, the story goes that they already had all the music composed with each character’s theme and they played the music on the set. Italian films are almost entirely re dubbed in post-production. They use very little if any of the sound they record live. So it gave him the freedom to to even though they're speaking their dialogue, they're going go back and dub it back in again later. So it gave him the freedom to just almost like a silent movie was playing the music so people could move in the rhythms of the music that was going to be in the finished product.

SVW: Claudia Cardinale’s character makes an entrance and it shot in a certain way and then um a minute or 2 later, Jason Robarts character comes in Cheyenne and it's shot completely different. It's it's a little bit more skewed with his entrance whereas hers is straightforward.

DH: I wasn't aware of that. Yeah, which makes sense because she's sort of the character that represents sort of the moral center of the film. But he's he's a bandit, right? He’s like a train robber kind of guy. So although he turns out to be up a good character, he's trying to help her. He and the completely mysterious character who just plays his harmonica and all he wants to do is find Frank, the evil character. And no, we never know why until the end of the movie. Haha, I show this movie to my classes. We've talked before about how I taught film the high school students and they didn't have a high tolerance for slow pace, tough. And I would sort of start to lose them along the way. This movie. I mean, that they be like this is so long. It's so slow. And of course, takes a few days to show it. When you've only got an hour to time in the classroom, by the end, almost everybody was like they agreed with me that it was worth the wait. It just everything comes together at the end.

SVW: Anything in closing.

DH: I all I can say in closing is if you have never seen once upon a time in the West, see it. One last warning I guess I should've made, which is that it is kind of sexist. It's a little dated. It's definitely dated in its portrayal of some of the sexuality. People might laugh at that or be annoyed by it now. Just very nice

SVW: Or even offend.

DH: Or even offended. Definitely. It's a product of the time. But the Claudia Cardinale’s characters are really the most important. She's a strong, powerful, intelligent character. And so you just have to sort of realize it's a product of its time. But yeah, anyone is interested in westerns at all and history movies. This is a must-see.

SVW: All right. Thanks for joining us.

DH: Thank you.

David Hast is a retired high school English teacher. He has an MFA in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and worked 15 years in the film and video industry. Some years ago he taught video production part-time at GVSU, and as a high school teacher he regularly taught a course in Film and Media Analysis.
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