Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Once Upon A Time In The West: Men Out Of Time

Once Upon a Time in the West is one of the greatest films ever made. Ever since I first watched it decades ago I've found it strangely hypnotic, ethereal, puzzling but compelling and also daunting, Once Upon a Time weighs in at a mammoth 2 hours and 50 minutes long. However, it wasn't until a recent re-watching that it all clicked into place and the true nature of this spectacular piece of film making was revealed.

 Sergio Leone's film is usually thought of as a ''Spaghetti Western'' though it was actually filmed in Spain and America's Monument Valley. Within modern pop culture it's considered iconic, mainly because of Ennio Morricone's score, the cinematography and the famously slow opening scene of 3 men waiting for Charles Bronson at a train station in the desert, who are promptly shot upon Bronson's arrival. Like Leone's The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and Once Upon a Time in America, Once Upon a Time in the West is very short on rat-tat-tat dialogue and very long on tension and atmosphere, the written script for this grandiose ''epic'' was supposedly just 15 pages long.

The plot of Once Upon a Time in the West is similarly straightforward, sadistic killer Frank (Henry Fonda) murders a family on behalf of a railway baron (Morton) who wants their land, unknown to Frank and Morton the, now dead, landowner was recently married and his now widow, Jill (Claudia Cardinale) arrives to claim ownership. Meanwhile a nameless man seeking revenge against Frank  (Bronson) arrives to assist Jill, as does Cheyenne, a local bandit played by Jason Robards who was framed by Frank for the killing of the family.

 That's the plot, the story is something far more poignant and timeless. The beating heart of Once Upon a Time in the West tells the story of 3 ''alpha'' males, tough, weathered and brutal, who're all coming to realize that their world, the Old West, is dying, it and they, are being absorbed by civilization and money, capitalism, progress. They're like coyotes watching the construction of a freeway through the prairie.

 The world of Frank, Cheyenne and Harmonica (Bronson) is a world in which only the most ruthless and courageous will survive, the advent of money and business and ''law and order'' subverts this. The primary agents of progress in the film are Jill (female) and Morton, who's riddled with TB and can hardly walk. Frank mocks his boss as a weakling but at the same time acknowledges while sitting behind Morton's desk that it (the desk) is more powerful than a gun. Morton later proves the point by paying Frank's own men to turn on him.
Frank: Cisgender White Male

 Progress, modernity and especially money, are ways by which men can be emasculated by women and cripples. Indeed, even the Frontier itself will no longer be the realm of the hardiest, Morton's motivation is to construct a railway across the West for the purpose of enjoying the warm waters of California's coastline, until then a journey only the hardiest would survive.

  This is essentially a deconstruction of the John Wayne/John Ford (And Henry Fonda) Western where the taming of the West and the unruly men who dwell there was seen as a moral imperative, Leone is far more ambiguous. Is the serpentine allure of money more noble than an ethos of kill or be killed? is the life of wage slave drudgery a higher form of Being than to live as a lonesome Samurai style warrior wandering the wilderness? 

One must be cautious however, Leone does not romanticize the Old West, all three men are bullies, they are ruthless and they do kill, frequently.  Yet between themselves they do have a code of honour, but it is one which can only be shared by the brave and the tough.

When Frank's men attempt to kill him Bronson's character assists Frank in killing his own men, but only because Bronson wants, needs, to kill Frank himself, to avenge his brother. Allowing other men to kill Frank ''wouldn't be the same''. Morton, the bankers and oligarchs, have no such honour, as Frank discusses with Bronson before their final confrontation:

Frank: Morton once told me I could never be like him, now I understand why. Wouldn't have bothered him knowing you were around somewhere alive.

Bronson (Harmonica): So you found out you're not a businessman after all?

Frank: Just a man.

Bronson: An ancient race, other Morton's will be along and they'll kill it off!

Both men understand that they differ from the businessman and the politician, if somebody crosses you you kill him, if somebody seeks revenge against you you confront them. The new men of finance and law, of ''civilization'', manipulate and corrupt other men into doing their bidding while sitting behind desks, both Frank and Harmonica hold such men in contempt.

As the two enemies speak the new man, the mass-man, swarms all around them preparing the way for the railway which will carry the bureaucrat, the politician, the stockbroker, the lawman. Viewed from this perspective one can see just how subversive to the Western genre Once Upon a Time in the West is, not just Henry Fonda eschewing his 'good-guy' persona to play a cruel killer, but because the very values Wayne, Fonda and Ford held up as the defining traits of the West; hard work, thrift, and capitalism, were always destined to become the McBurger munching cubicle dwellers of today. A commodity to be traded by the ''other Mortons''.

 Bronson's character appreciates the march of progress, but he also understands that it's a world to which he can never belong. The penultimate scene captures perfectly the pathos of the passing of an age, with typically sparse dialogue set to Morricone's deeply emotive score:

It's often said that great movies of the past would never be made today, Once Upon a Time in the West absolutely falls into that category, the bureaucrats, the Mortons, would hold a board meeting and either hack it to pieces or simply toss the script into the trash. Like the men whose story it tells, late modernity has no place for such films. The mass-man of the modern West expects, and gets, this:

Have the Mortons and the money masters ''killed off'' the ''Ancient race of men''? or will they, like Harmonica, return?

 Someday...perhaps, someday......

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