Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson
Director: Sergio Leone
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Mono, French Dolby Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Paramount
Features: See Review
Length: 165 Minutes
Release Date: November 18, 2003

"Nothing matters now--not the land, not the woman. I came here to see you. 'Cause I know that now, you tell me what you're after."

"…Only at the point of dyin'."

Film ****

If the western genre is to be forever represented by a single motion picture, Once Upon a Time In the West is that film.

Even prior to this film's release in 1968, director Sergio Leone had already become a name to be recognized in this genre of films. The late-great filmmaker had already sealed his legacy by practically inventing the term "spaghetti-western" with his legendary series of films starring Clint Eastwood; A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly. Although these three films are indeed make up a trilogy, with GB&U as the final installment, Leone's follow-up would no doubt signify as the ultimate closing piece, as well as the director's conclusion to his personal vision of the west.

And that vision is precisely what makes Once Upon a Time In the West the sweeping masterpiece that it is. Never before had the west been envisioned in such a dark manner, resembling something like an opera, but it hasn't really been done since, except maybe for Eastwood's Unforgiven, which is much darker kind of western. To watch the film is to be engulfed by it's every move and frame.

Leone's film remains as potent and masterful in today's era, because it has a rare poetic feel to it that doesn't find its way into many American movies, let alone a western. Leone paints a visionary and poetic portrait of the west that, except for the vision of the late Stanley Kubrick or Terrance Malick, could not be matched by any other director in my book.

Alongside its sweeping scope, Once Upon a Time In the West has long been known as the ultimate vengeance tale, told in its purest form. On a first viewing, this may not become entirely clear to the viewer until the film's end. However, what is clear early in the film is that each of the central characters is on a personal mission, with motives uncertain.

The story opens at a train station where a mysterious figure known only as Harmonica (Charles Bronson) arrives. He takes out a gang of thieves who don't take a liking to him. The man carries a harmonica with him at all times, playing a tune whenever he is taking down someone with his quick trigger finger. The mysterious man's quest coincides with the film's other central characters, who will eventually connect against the backdrop of the development of the railroad, one that is destined to change the fate of the west forever.

Perhaps the most memorable character of the story is the villain, Frank, who's a hired gun working for a notorious railroad baron. The main reason Frank is the most memorable is perhaps the actor portraying him delivered such an astonishing revelation. Henry Fonda, who at that point was loved by everyone for portraying the everyman in his movies, gave perhaps his most remarkable performance to date as the bloodthirsty killer without a conscience. His introduction is by far one of the striking of any screen villain, as Frank. Having just slaughtered an entire family, Frank is given no choice but to execute the remaining family member, a young boy, simply because one of his cohorts gave away his name. It's a monumental and chilling moment.

Following this incident is the arrival of Jill (Claudia Cardinale), who happens to be the wife of the man who was just killed by Frank. She also, as it turns out, is to inherit the same area of land that Frank and his boss, the railroad baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) are plotting to get their hands on at any costs. This will eventually place the newly-widowed Jill in a compromising position, especially when caught in grasps of Frank, whom she is amazingly seduced by.

The last of the characters is the bandit known as Cheyenne (Jason Robards), who makes an unexpected alliance with Harmonica to protect Jill against Frank's clutches. Robards provides a unique character, one who is in many ways nothing more than a lowlife, but manages to have a complex outlook on life. As it turns out, Harmonica is wanting Frank to catch up to him so that he can settle a long awaited score, and it leads to one of the most spectacular, if not THE most spectacular, western face-offs of all time.

Another important element in Once Upon a Time In the West is the outstanding music scored by Ennio Morricone. Words cannot describe the sheer beauty of the music Morricone unleashes onto this piece, but one thing's for sure, it will remain in your head long after watching the movie. Morricone has gone on to become one of the industry's most prolific composers, having collaborated with the likes of John Carpenter (The Thing) and Brian De Palma (The Untouchables, Mission to Mars), and although he has since gone on to make powerful movie music, his score for Once Upon a Time In the West remains his pure crowning achievement.

Not enough can be said about how powerful of a movie experience Once Upon a Time In the West is. If it's your first viewing, I envy you greatly because you are guaranteed an astonishing journey from beginning to end. Once you've watched it, you'll feel as if you have never seen, or experienced anything like it before.

BONUS TRIVIA: Leone's sole purpose for making this movie was be allowed by the studios to make his epic gangster film, appropriately titled Once Upon a Time In America.

Video ***

I must say that getting the opportunity to view this film in its widescreen format is a bonus in its own right, and Paramount has done a most exceptional job in converting this classic to the DVD format. The anamorphic picture, while not completely outstanding, must be given credit for doing the most it can with this late 60s release. Leone's many shots of wide landscapes get a most terrific treatment, as they fill the screen with endless beauty. A couple of shots do suffer a bit simply from cases of both noticeable age and slight grain, but these flaws are strictly minor, as this presentation explodes onto the screen with more highs than lows.

Audio ***1/2

The 5.1 sound mix is something of an achievement, as this movie has only been available through network TV repeats, or standard home video performance. The range of performance here is by far more wide and dynamic as you would expect for movie with more than 30 years age to it. Of course the highpoint of the presentation, as if I even need to mention it, is Ennio Morricone's score, which is lifted to stirring new heights thanks to this solid sounding presentation. Other elements including the roar of train engines, gun battles, and basic dialogue are all give superb enhancements. A terrific performance on behalf of Paramount.

Features ****

Fans of this film who've been patiently awaiting its arrival on DVD will no doubt get a lot more bang for their buck, as Paramount loads their gun barrels with this knockout 2-disc set package.

Disc 1 includes a commentary track with multiple contributors, including directors John Carpenter, Alex Cox, and John Milius. Also featured on this track is Sergio Leone biographer Sir Christopher Fryling and film historian Dr. Sheldon Hall, and additional comments from cast and crew members.

Disc 2 contains even more, including three in-depth documentaries; "An Opera of Violence", "The Wages of Sin", and "Something to Do With Death", each of which includes interviews with cast and crew members, as well as filmmakers/devoted fans of the movie. Also featured is an additional featurette titled "Railroad: Revolutionizing the West", a production gallery, a trailer, and cast profiles.


The vision of the west was forever changed with Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time In the West, and it remains as the most superb cinematic interpretation of what is known as "the old west", and has now been given a strong rebirth thanks to this remarkable DVD release.