The Western film, once the very lifeblood of the motion picture industry,
suffered a temporary decline in popularity during the late sixties. Many
producers felt the Old West was too unsophisticated for the fast-moving, hip
generation. They claimed the Western was no longer acceptable fare and out of
touch with this age.
The man who helped revise the Western and re-established it in top place in
the world of the cinema is an Italian writer-director, Sergio Leone, Director of
Once Upon A Time In The West, the biggest Western that was made in more than
Once Upon A Time In The West is a Western in the grand manner, a multi-million
dollar production set during the lawless period of the building of the railroads
across the West in the 1870's.
Across the screen stalk the people of the period—the swaggering gunmen, the
outlaws, the settlers, the railroad construction gangs, the corrupt and the
greedy, who try to steal the land over which the railroad will have to run and
the Indians, who are to be pushed farther back into the wilderness by the coming
of the Iron Horse.
There are the saloons and their brawling customers, railroad barons, bandits and
just plain townspeople, all of whom play their part in this story of the
Leone included everything that would make his motion picture a true
representation of the West in its burgeoning youth. He conducted almost a year of
research, visiting the United States many times, especially the states of Texas,
Arizona and Utah, to get the feel of the country and to delve into the
historical records of the 19th Century. He compiled 150 volumes of research,
including photographs of towns as they looked in the early days, and spent hours
at the American Railway Archives digging out the history of the building of the
Original German Poster
Original Italian Poster
Western Goes International
Italy's famous film director, Sergio Leone was weary of people asking him, "But
why an Italian director on such a big Western?"
"Why not?" he usually replied, and then went on to detail how many of
Hollywood's Westerns were actually made by foreign-born directors.
"Did you ask 'Why Fred Zinnenmnn?' when he made that great Western classic,
'High Noon?' I'm sure you never questioned his right to direct the film, even
though he is a German. And there was Fritz Lang, another German-born director.
He made some fine Westerns, too. And what about William Wyler? Did you think it
strange that an Austrian should direct 'The Big Country,' another excellent
Western? And don't forget Mike Curtiz, the Hungarian who spoke to the end with
an accent you could cut with the knife.
"So please," he said in an interview on the set, "do not ask why an Italian
directed 'Once Upon A Time In The West.' Actually, we Europeans see the West
with a new approach, because we are not as close to the Western legend as
American directors are.
Charles Bronson with Claudia Cardinale
Director Leone studying Cardinale's make-up
"We Europeans, as kids, grow up on the Western legend. The cowboy is as much a
knight of the saddle to us as he is to American youngsters. We all read about
the West as kids, in the books by Zane Grey, Fenimore Cooper and other American authors in translations.
Leone points out that before he began "Once Upon A Time In The West," he did a
full year of research, most of it in America visiting the archives of various
cities and especially the American Railway Archives, to make sure that what was
going into his film would be absolutely accurate. He and his staff put together
150 volumes of research, which contain drawings, old photographs, costumes,
trains and locomotives of the period and the architecture of buildings. From
this he produced his designs for his sets. The story deals with the coming of
the railroads to the West, and their effect on the inhabitants.
It was Leone's ambition that this film would rank highly among the works of
Zinneman, Curtiz, Wyler and other European directors.
Slovak poster was very unique
Henry Fonda behind the camera
Western American Town Built in Spain by an Italian
Just a few miles from the tiny village of Guadix, Spain, in the foothills of the
spectacular Sierra Nevada Mountains, the American frontier came to life exactly
as it was in the 1870's for Once Upon A Time In The West.
At a cost of more than $250,000, director Sergio Leone constructed one of the
largest Western town sets ever built, authentic down to the last hitching rail,
as well as several miles of railroad track.
The town consisted of some 70 buildings, all constructed of solid lumber or red
brick and mortar and including stores, houses, hotel and saloon, all completely
finished inside as well as out so that Leone could film his interiors on
Some of the sets remain today
Only the Italian and Spanish conversation of the film crew kept the illusion of
an Arizona frontier town from being total. The realism was no accident, for the
famous Italian director searched all over Spain for a site which would match the
terrain of Arizona. He even brought back from his research trips to the United
States samples of the red soil of Arizona
so that he would be able to find a Spanish location which would offer the vivid
"I first planned to shoot all the film in the United States," said Leone, "Until
I discovered the America of the 1870's had vanished, replaced by too many modern
inconveniences for a period film, such as power poles, billboards, ranches and
telephone lines. I was forced to come here, where my cameras can turn a full 360
degrees without encountering anything modern.
Leone, who had moved to the top of his field after only five films, spared
neither time nor money to produce what he planned as the "definitive Western,"
in the tradition of John Ford, the hero of the 38-year-old director.
Famous scene, where Harmonica's brother is hanged, is still a major attraction
Sergio Leone, Western Director
Sergio Leone, born in Rome, Italy January 3, 1929, was the son of Roberto Roberti (a pioneer in Italian cinema) and actress Bice Valerian. As a child he often spent time on the sets of films that his father was producing. He entered the film making process as a teen, working for several local directors (both Italian and American) in Italy. Near the beginning of the 50's, he started to write several screenplays and had the chance at his first direction with Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei(1959) when the original director was too ill to finish the film. Il colosso di Rodi would be the first film he would direct himself in 1961. His style would become widely known throughout the industry, with extreme close-ups and very lengthy long shots. His style was indeed unique but very effective because he knew how to see through the camera as if it were a cinema screen. Early on he had done some work on Quo Vadis (Second Unit Director) and Ben Hur (also Second Unit Director but uncredited in the titles). He would become Assistant Director for such films as The Nun's Story, Sheba and the Gladiator and The Teacher of the Miracle.
Sergio Leone on the set
The Director hard at work
The 1960's would be the decade of his rise to fame. He was a big fan of Spaghetti Westerns, whose origin was in American films. He spent many an hour at local cinemas watching these movies and it is written that he told his family "This is the field of movies I want to be in, it excites me and I think I have a very good picture in my mind of what was happening in those early years." His first major studio directing effort was for MGM with The Colossus of Rhodes in which he also served as writer. In 1964, he wrote the screenplay and also directed A Fistful of Dollars, which began his long relationship with Clint Eastwood. The film had a budget of $200,000 and went on to gross over $3.5 million in US grosses alone. Nearly every year following this success, he went on to produce some of the most famous westerns in film history. Following A Fistful of Dollars, he directed For a Few Dollars More, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West and Duck You Sucker (also named Fistful of Dynamite) all released in the United States by United Artists. His original intent was to film Once Upon a Time in America, but the studio told him they wanted a western first. Once Upon a Time in the West would be that film. He directed his last big Hollywood film, the one he wanted to direct for years, Once Upon a Time in America" in 1984, five years before his death in 1989 at age sixty.
Best available cast/Director publicity shot
Henry Fonda Turns "Bad Guy"
"I once shot poor Jimmy Stewart in the leg, deliberately, and that was bad
enough, heaven knows. But now I kill a little boy in cold blood. What am I
coming to?" So said Henry Fonda, in obvious amazement at himself.
Fonda commits this foul deed in Once
Upon A Time In The West, in which he plays one of the most ruthless killers
ever to stalk the West.
Admitting this is likely to tarnish his image as the gentle hero and defender of
the little man, the actor stated that in his more than 30 years in motion
pictures he had never been so excited by a role.
Talking of Sergio Leone, the film's director, Fonda said on the set: "This Leone fellow is
not only persuasive, but one of the most exciting new directors in films today.
He seems to get right inside your head, making you think differently, react to
situations as never before and perform as you've never performed in the past.
I've done things for him that I once would have backed away from.
"Leone never plays a scene without a reason. His violence has a reason."
Rare Publicity shot of Henry Fonda
Henry Fonda on the set during a take
Fonda plays a greedy, corrupt Westerner out to get rights to all the land
straddling the new railroad, which is moving West. He and his gang find it
cheaper to kill settlers or terrorize them off their land than to buy it.
"Leone has a way of showing greed, corruption and violence like no other
director before him," said Fonda. "He knows that the West was a lawless land
where men lived by the gun. He shows this in all its brutality, but always with
a reason behind it. This Italian knows our West and its history and people
better than most Americans. Even his costuming is exciting, because it is
authentic of the period and not the hoked-up outfits we see too often in
Fonda sincerely believed that Leone may have made a Western milestone. "If he
has," says the actor, "the credit is due to him alone. He is a creative, daring
director and it shows in his work."
Claudia Cardinale: Truly An International Star
At a press conference in Rome marking the start of production, Claudia Cardinale surprised the press corps and
demonstrated just how international motion pictures became by answering
questions in four languages.
Once upon a time it was sufficient that a girl be sexy and photogenic to become
a film star. By the time of release, it helped to have command of languages if she wanted to meet the
demands of the international film market without someone else's voice "dubbing"
for hers overseas. Miss Cardinale is among the few actresses who was genuinely at
home in at least four tongues: Italian, French, Spanish, and English. She
speaks each of them fluently.
"This makes my working life much easier," she stated during a film promotional event, "because I make so many
pictures in those four countries that I have no trouble understanding the
directors or the crews. It helps to be able to communicate without having to
depend on an interpreter. I know some stars who have but one language and they
are nervous wrecks when working on a film that is in a language other than their
She was among the first three box office stars in the world to do this. She had played
almost every nationality on the screen, from a saucy New York showgirl in
Blindfold, an oriental princess in The Pink Panther, a French mistress in
Le Cocu Magnifique to her role as a girl from the bordellos of New
Orleans in Once Upon A Time In The West.
(l-r) Bronson, Cardinale and Robards on the Paramount lot
Claudia Cardinale studio publicity shot
Jason Robards Jr. picks up Up Where His father Left Off
No one thinks of Jason Robards, Jr. as a product of Hollywood, yet that is
exactly what he was, having been literally born to the purple of screen
nobility, though he himself began his career on Broadway.
Robards was rated among America's finest actors, but there was a time when he
wanted no part of either stage or screen.
Robards grew up in Hollywood. His father, Jason Robards, Sr. was one of the
screen's top stars during the silent era and in early sound films, going back as early as 1921.
Robards Jr. soured on the profession after seeing his father fall from top stardom to bit
parts and watching the cynical reaction of his father's colleagues. "It was
heartbreaking to see my father waiting for the telephone to ring, hoping that it
would be a new and better role. It never did."
Following these experiences, Robards told his father, "One thing is sure, I'll
never become an actor." Luckily for us he changed his attitude and became a
respected performer. Robards went on to make dozens of films before his death on
December 26, 2000 at the age of 78. In his last film, Magnolia, he would play Earl Partridge.
During a break, Jason Robards takes a needed rest
From Coal Mining To Film Stardom
Charles Bronson spent the first seven years of his working life in the coal pits
of Pennsylvania. There was a time, too, when he first came to Hollywood, some 15
years ago, when the only work he could get in films was playing Indians, because
of his high cheekbones and his overall appearance. That was back in the age of
the "beautiful" hero, but now, in a more realistic era of film-making, he has
moved rapidly to the top of his profession.
Bronson is the product of a coal mining family and began in the mines when he
was still in high school, working a night shift and attending classes by day.
His father was a miner and so were five of his nine brothers.
Life in the mines has colored to a considerable extent Bronson's philosophy. He
tends to think that American youth start working too late in life.
"Most of them do nothing until they've finished college," he says. "This is
perhaps all right for those studying for one of the higher professions, like
medicine or law, but even they would be better citizens if they did part-time
jobs on the side. Only working for wages can develop a sense of responsibility
in a boy, even give him pride in being a member of the community."
Bronson feels that parents are largely to blame.
"It is natural for parents to want their son to have it easier than they did,
but this can sometimes spoil a boy and make him think the world owes him a
living. Actually the world owes none of us anything."
Bronson himself is living proof that hard work never hurt anyone. He left the
mines only when he was drafted during World War II.
Widely used Paramount publicity shot
Rare Charles Bronson rehearsal shot
With a $5 million budget, Once Upon a Time in the West was a major production for Paramount for its time. Production company Finazia San Marco was in charge of the large scale production. Shot in many locations including Arizona and Utah USA, Italy and Spain, all stops were pulled for the film. Interiors were filmed in Cinesitta in Italy. A Dozen sound stages were used where saloons and rooms were replicated by researching the era. It is said that the Flagstone set was one of the most expensive, costing more than the entire budget of Fistful of Dollars. The film required use of dozens of stunt men, more than any western until its time. If fact, one of the stunt men is actually John Landis.
Alternate Italian Poster
Japanese One Sheet Poster
The casting took some time to be completed. Henry Fonda initially refused the role due to its nature, a type of character he did not like to play, but Leone traveled to the United States to meet with him and convinced him that the shock of seeing Henry Fonda shoot a child would stun audiences. It was weeks later that Fonda took the role. He arrived on set with a full grown beard and mustache expecting it to look right for the film, but Leone had him remove it so he would instantly be recognizable when he was first seen on the screen. Leone originally offered the role of Harmonica to Clint Eastwood who turned it down and Charles Bronson was hired. Robert Ryan was offered the role of the Sheriff but asked to be released before production because he was very interested in a role in The Wild Bunch.
Original release lobby cards
Tragedy struck the production when Al Mulock committed suicide on the set, jumping from the hotel. Sergio Leone and several others rushed him to the hospital but the fall was fatal. A break in shooting was implemented and the cast was in very poor spirit, so Leone gathered them together for a pep talk, telling them "He would have wanted us to complete this production. He was a master at his craft and we must move forward and complete this movie, for ourselves and especially for him." He is seen as one of the three gunmen in the opening of the film.
This is believed to be the last still taken of Al Mulock before his suicide on the set.
After shooting was completed, several months were spent editing the film. In Italy, the film in its initial showings ran 171 minutes, while in the United States it was released in a shorter version. Cut was the entire scene at Stander's trading post, the scene with Frank and Morgan at Navajo Cliffs, Cheyenne's death scene, and cut shorter was Morton's death scene. Jason Robards later said that he was very upset that his death scene was cut from the film and actually went to Paramount demanding it be restored. But it was too late as prints were being struck, and it is highly unlikely that Paramount would have restored the scene anyway.
Leone wanted the musical score to be grand for this film, and hired Ennio Morricone, who was a classmate of Leones, to compose the music. Morricone studied at the Conservatory of the National Academy of Santa Cecilia. Morricone's style was unique and Leone would work with him on many films. Morricone liked to use women's voices as instruments blended with his orchestrations. He worked from Italy because he refused to work in the United States, even though he was offered a home by one of the studios. After he composed the score for Once Upon a Time in America, he was deprived of a possible win for best score at the Academy Awards because the US distributor failed to file the proper paperwork for the year's awards.
Ennio Morricone, Composer
Rare drawing of Mr. Morricone
He was nominated for scores of over five hundred films and television productions (many of them international films) and won Grammy Awards for Wolf and The Starmaker, Golden Globes for The Mission and The Legend of 1900, and dozens of other wins. After being nominated for five Academy Awards, he finally received his Honorary Academy Award for "His magnificent and multifaceted contributions to the art of film music." Among his most notable scores are Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Exorcist 2 the Heretic, Days of Heaven, La Cage Aux Folles parts one and two and of course Once Upon a Time in the West. He is still at work at 83, composing music for Kill Bill 3 and The Untouchables: Capone Rising.
Once Upon a Time in the West is one of the highest rated Westerns in film history. Originally released in Italy at 171 minutes and edited to 140 minutes for its US release, the film was later restored to 165 minutes which has been the version released on DVD. It is said there were over 200 minutes actually shot, but whether that material exists remains a mystery. When the film premiered, many of Hollywood's stars attended the gala event in Hollywood. Premieres of this caliber were starting to become very rare by the late 1960's. Leone later commented that one of the best moments of his life was the long standing ovation at the end of the film, following by a party on the Paramount lot.
Shot in Technicolor 35mm (2-perf) Techniscope with an aspect ratio of 2:35:1, the picture would fill the long cinema screens used for earlier Cinemascope presentations. This film and The Good the Bad and the Ugly would use the Techniscope process in a masterful way, shooting with spherical lenses. The film would go on to be added to the National Film Registry in 2009. The film ranks as 20th on the top 250 on the Internet Movie Database with an average reader rating of 8.7. The film is truly a remarkable achievement, and is available to own for the first time on Blu-ray in high definition on May 31, 2011.
Images included in this column are owned by Blu-ray.com, Robert Siegel and the respective movie studios. They may not be used without permission.
For discussion on this and other Silver Screen columns, see The Silver Screen forum thread Here
Actually, all the labels are written in Slovak language. At the time of the local premiere, which took place in early 70's (at least my father says so :-D), Czech and Slovak republic had been joined into Czechoslovakia for decades already.
Original Czech posters written in Czech can be found here: www[DOT]terryhoponozky[DOT]cz/web/search?search_field=Tenkr%C3%A1t+na+z%C3%A1pad%C4%9B&x=9&y=11 .
This movie stands among the most popular movies in our teritory in category of males aged 40+. I'm half that old, but I love it too since I saw it two years ago on DVD. Blu-ray is a must-buy!
Thanks for the article, I will reserve few days in a future to read it carefully. :-)
Another outstanding article! I have that first movie poster hanging in my basement theater! The opening sequence of this film is alone worth the price of a new blu-ray, hope its as nice a transfer as Ten Commandments!
This is definetely my favourite site when it comes to anything relating to Blu Ray releases and now the only one I even bother with anymore, no rumours or any other crap, just straight up reliable and entertaining information. Blu-Ray.com sets the standard. Congratulations!
Leonard Maltin's guide says it best: "A languid, operatic masterpiece." I'd underscore the word "operatic." If you want to know more what grand opera is--with its epic themes of human passion, heroism, and tragedy and use of melodic character themes known as leitmotifs--watch this film. A magnificent achievement by not only Leone, but also Ennio Morricone.
Modern film makers could learn much from these old gems. It's amazing how much emotion is conveyed through a few lines of dialogue and a facial expression. Movies try way too hard these days. The overly clever dialogue and close up action shots trumped up to bombard our senses just don't compare.
I am happy Clint Eastwood turned down the role of Harmonica, Charles Bronson owns Harmonica. I wish you could have said something about the other two actors, Jack Elam is incredible, he always played baddies in his films. Woody Strode was something else also.
Very nice article,thank you.
Absolutely wonderful! Love these thorough and detailed inquisitions into the background of great classics. Keep up the good work ... please
I know the movies aren't as known as the first two, used for these articles, but The Man Who Would be King and The Outlaw Josey Wales, both on their way in digibook format, could need some attention. Josey Wales one of the greatest westerns ever made and rather unknown.
Very good article. Wow.
I too am VERY excited for the blu-ray release of one of the best movies ever. I really hope they give this movie a great transfer because it definitely deserves it. I already have my copy pre-ordered with Amazon.
Another wonderful Silver Screen article, Mr Siegel, this time on one of my favorite films of all time -- and my favorite Leone film. It's nice to learn so many interesting facts about these movies. To echo others: keep up the nice work.
I've had Once Upon a Time in the West on preorder for some time and can't wait to finally receive it, especially at its attractive price point.