We were a grand group. An anti-string-theorist theorist, a shrink, a teacher, an SF writer, a couple of journalists, a mother and a sculptor gathered beneath Waterloo Bridge to see one (of the two or possibly three) best films ever made:
Once Upon a Time in the West. One hundred and seventy five minutes of bliss. Less a straight-forward Western than a precisely crafted work of art. What it has in common with my other all-time favourite film, Heremakono (better known as Waiting for Happiness), is minimal dialogue and slow slow slow long shots. It is, as someone close by said, the opera of Westerns. Oh my, yes!
(I think here I am supposed to say something about spoilers. So . . . SPOILERS abound.)
I won’t however talk about the music here. Others can do that better than me. All I will say is that a composer friend told me that it is one of the only films (the only film?) that was created around the music.* Many scenes are no more (no less?) than a marvellous excuse to show vast wild West country whilst listening to deliciously intestinally exciting music. You want desperately to be there, alive and shootin’, ridin’ your goddam stallion in a hackamore, across that countryside. Every cell of your body, every ounce of flesh, fat and blood, wants a gun and to be galloping alongside that train. Oh God Yes.
Less appreciated, I think, is the politics, which is so artistically delicately subtly sewn in that most people don’t even notice it. The coolest goody you’ll ever see, Harmonica, is probably a native American (or indigenous Mexican). He is the hero of this film, the hero of this tale, and the hero of history. And he shoots dead the biggest baddest baddie in the film, Frank. What interests me about this is that Sergio Leone originally offered the role of Harmonica to Clint Eastwood, but Clint turned it down. So Leone hired Charles beautifully-rugged Bronson (who had also originally been offered the lead role in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly) who turned out to be a grand success. Now, if Clint had accepted the role, would Leone have altered the storyline? Would he, in other words, have skipped the native American coming out in the end as the eventual hero? Because with all the make-up in the world, it would be hard to make Clint look anything other than the English, Irish, Dutch, Scot (and Protestant, and, er, Republican while we’re at it, to boot) he is.
Bronson may not have much native American in him, but he does have a heavy dose of Mongolian. A descendent of the Lipka-Tatars, he is certainly more than convincing (for me, anyway):
So did Leone change the plot because he couldn’t get Clint? Or did he always plan the narrative around the tale that the native American Harmonica will get his revenge on the evilest white man around, Henry Fonda? Which is another interesting point: the shots on Frank (Fonda) are often very very close up with his oh so blue eyes more piercing than you might ever have noticed before. Surely Leone would have thought about this, and the extent to which he sought to push a point about the brutal and brutally racist history of the USA? Just look at those eyes my friends:
Indeed, Leone purposefully shocked audiences – it was 1968 – by putting one of their favourites, Fonda, in the role as the Really Bad Guy. So Leone, in tune with the civil rights movement at the time perhaps, was in his own way, threading a tale that was pertinent to the times. And yet, even today, viewers don’t seem to notice this. It isn’t even a patronising plot either: Harmonica (who hardly utters a word throughout the entire film, preferring to play – of course – his, yes that’s right, harmonica) lures foolish Frank in slowly but surely, humiliating him, enticing him and eventually killing him with one beautiful clean shot.
Pure MDMA, indeed.
There’s more I could say, too, about the role of women (more accurately, woman), but I’m not a fan of long blogs so that’ll have to wait. Perhaps I could include it in a future blog about the other great western in my flife (though not quite in the same league as Once Upon a . . .), The Magnificent Seven, which, I am convinced, is really a film about feminism.
*McK says: “apparently Sergio Leone had the music played loud during the filming so that the actors knew what they were meant to be aiming for”. A thought which floods me with envy for those actors.