Once Upon a Time at the movies

Today has been gorgeous in the City of Lakes and its environs. The weekend’s blessed rains washed the humidity out, and the temperature stayed south of 80. This is what outsiders imagine a Minnesota summer day to be like, but it happens all too rarely in real life.

By way of Gene Edward Veith’s Cranach blog, I have discovered one of the funniest blogs I’ve ever read. Luther at the Movies purports to be film criticism as practiced by Dr. Luther, whose natural exuberance cannot be stifled by the mere accident of death. If this doesn’t win all you thin-blooded Calvinists over, I don’t know what will.

I bought the DVD of Once Upon a Time in the West a while back, and I watched it yesterday. What an incredible piece of work that film is.

If I were to read the things I’m about to write about a movie I hadn’t yet seen, I’d probably boycott it for life. Fortunately for me, I first saw the movie without knowing anything about it (I’d never even seen an Italian Western before), so I was caught in the majesty and sweep of the thing, and nothing I’ve learned since can cut that visceral connection.

It was 1969, my second year of college. I had an evening at loose ends, and decided I wanted to see a movie. This western was playing at the theater in Forest City, Iowa, so I walked downtown to see it.

It was the strangest western I’d ever seen. Parts of it troubled me a great deal.

But it stuck in my head as few movies ever have.

Westerns are generally “about” scenery, when it comes down to it, and OUATITW certainly lays the scenery on heavy. It was filmed both in Spain and in the United States, and director Sergio Leone used John Ford’s iconic Monument Valley to particular effect. On a big screen, the spectacle is breathtaking.

But even more than scenery, this movie is about music. One of the commentators on the DVD notes that the film was shot like a music video. Before there was a script, the genius Ennio Morricone, who’d already done the classic scores for the “Dollars” movies, wrote the music. The script was built on that. I’d nominate it as the greatest film score ever written, and there are those who agree with me (actually I agree with them, but I’m on an ego trip here).

They don’t make movies like this nowadays. Today’s action movies are all about speed. Forget plot consistency. Forget character development. Just put bodies in motion and crash them into each other a lot. Blow things up. Set things on fire.

Once Upon a Time in the West is purposely slow, like Henry Fonda’s walk. It’s about tension that builds and builds, from Charles Bronson’s shoot-out with three familiar gunmen at the beginning, to his and Henry Fonda’s climactic showdown, in a corral around which the whole world revolves.


Mysteries abound. What was Brett McBain’s secret? Why is Charles Bronson pursuing Henry Fonda, and what is the meaning of Bronson’s recurring flashback of a man walking toward him? How can any heterosexual male manage to spend time around Claudia Cardinale without spontaneously combusting?

There’s a political subtext, I’m afraid. At the time some people congratulated the Italian Westerns for bringing to us a newer, grittier, more realistic picture of the American West than the old Westerns had.

This is balderdash. Even granting that the old movies were bowdlerized (of course they were), that doesn’t mean that the kind of cynical violence and cruelty we see in spaghetti westerns is closer to reality. Cowboys were Victorians. Yes, there was a lot of prostitution in the West, but men still took their hats off to ladies, regardless of their reputations. Even cold-blooded killers like Kid Curry, or genuine psychopaths like John Wesley Hardin never killed innocent people for sport (not white people, anyway). They believed in virtue and considered themselves respectable men. Jesse James taught Sunday School off and on.

When Sergio Leone shows us Henry Fonda murdering a little boy, he has a purpose in mind. He wants Americans to think differently about themselves and their history. He wants the viewer never to be able to watch My Darling Clementine or Young Mr. Lincoln the same way again.

And he succeeded. More’s the pity, in my opinion.

But the spectacle. The music. I can’t get free of Once Upon a Time in the West.

9 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time at the movies”

  1. Thank you, Herr Walker, for your recommendation! It is nice to see a red-blooded Lutheran achieve some literary success! I have taken the liberty to add your encomium to my home page. I would also like—WILL YOU TURN THAT MUSIC OFF, YOU TONE-DEAF DIMWIT! I’M TRYING TO BLOG HERE! HOW MANY TIMES CAN YOU LISTEN TO “LADY MARMALADE” IN ONE MORNING?! I WILL LOSE MY MIND!

    Excuse me, Herr Walker…I work under the most egregious of conditions…


  2. And why shouldn’t we be?

    Just kidding. I don’t know how Luther got soteriology wrong, but I know there are differences b/w his and Calvin’s somewhere.

    I’m going to hide now.

  3. I just love that film. It is one of my absolute favourites (for confirmation, see my list of favourite movies via Petrona).

    I even bought the DVD from Amazon on special offer (for peanunts). I have about 30 such movies (most of the ones on the list on Petrona, actually), waiting for that mythical “one day” when I will have time to sit down and watch a movie. Two hours? I must be joking.

  4. I’m not wild about the film myself, mostly because I don’t find the surface story particularly compelling, and the sociological subtext Lars mentions lies too close to the surface for my taste. Leone’s earlier films are actually a bit less removed from American frontier mores, in some respects-like in Few Dollars More, where the bounty hunter barges in on a prostitute in a bathtub, and once he’s ascertained which way his target left from there, apologizes to the woman and leaves.

    “Italian” westerns are not the homogenous block many critics make them out to be, and certainly are not uniformly gritty or revisionist: many have more in common with the Eurospy James Bond knockoffs of the period and are consciously cartoony and campy. There are some aspects in which they are more like each other than any of them are like American westerns-the way they treat women, for instance-but anyone who claims to be an expert on film (not meaning Lars, who doesn’t claim to be anything but Ia guy who likes certain kinds of movies) and treats Once…West as typical of the subgenre…eh, they’re all wet.

  5. If memory serves (and increasingly it doesn’t) there was a great song by Dire Straits called ‘Once upon a time in the west.’

    – ‘John Wesley Harding’ was a song by Dylan I know; but I can’t recall a thing about it.

  6. Getting back to soteriology, I don’t know why a bother with hard theology. Sometimes I prove to myself how weakminded I am, and it casts my more brilliant moments in a silly light.

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