Silence. A door shrieks as the wind blows. An old man is writing in a chalkboard that the train from Flasgtone is going to be two hours late. Someone comes in, the camera focus on a gun and slowly moves upwards to the face of a man who just came into what appears to be a station. He is not alone. There are three of them. They are dirty. They are sweaty. Silence. The wind blows. The men are waiting for something.. The old man tries to sell them tickets but they ain’t there for that. They lock the old man in a room and go outside to wait. It is the middle of nowhere – desert. Silence. Except for the creaking of a chair or a fly that makes acquaintance with the face of one of the men. The train finally approaches. This is what they have been waiting for. It stops, an employee dumps a package on the floor and the train prepares to depart. No one seems to have come out. As the train is leaving, the sound of a harmonica fills the screen. It comes from a man on the other side of the tracks.
The three men face him while he plays the instrument.
– Frank sent us.
– Did you bring a horse for me?
They look at the three horses they have with them and laugh.
– Looks like we’re shy one horse
– You brought two too many
And they draw up their guns – but not as fast as the man with the harmonica – he kills them all.
And this is the opening sequence of Once Upon a Time in West and our first encounter with Harmonica (Charles Brownson) , the man with no name of this piece, the anti-hero who will spend the whole movie searching for Frank (Henry Fonda) , the vilain. His arrival in this town in the middle of the desert has coincided with the arrival of other people as well: Cheyenne (Jason Robbards), the bandit who is fleeing justice and Jill (Claudia Cardinale), a former prostitute who has come to meet her new family. Jill has left her old life behind in search of a new one only to find her new husband and his children dead. She is now alone , with a rundown piece of land and a house. She searches the place searching for the fortune her husband has promised her but find nothing but a model of a train station with miniature buildings. That intrigues her and eventually she finds out what they mean: a vision of the future.
Because you see, there is one thing in her lands that is the number one commodity in those parts: water. Which means that when the train tracks arrive, he who holds that land will be in good shape forever. She finds out that as a widow she is entitled to the lands but there is a catch: the station must be built by the time the tracks get there. She needs help, not only because this must be done pronto but also because Frank who at the moment is nothing but hired gun for a train tycoon who wishes the place for himself , has his very own plans. He wishes to become a businessman. So he needs to take care of Jill but Cheyenne and Harmonica will team up to protect her.
And this is how this Operatic, grandiose , fantastic Western proceeds. We have these three men , the archetypical Bandit, and the two Anti-Heroes. We have the obligatory showdown between them. Vengeance. Death. The usual. Or not quite, because unlike most Westerns, the center piece of the film is the Woman.
Jill, where all things converge.
Not only because the coveted lands and water belong to her but also because she has dealings with all three men – with Frank she plays the prostitute to save her own life but has a deeper connection with both Harmonica and Cheyenne. The Old Western is usually depicted as Ugly. Dirty. Violent. A place for men. Gunslingers, Gold diggers. Bandits. But the epitome of the West is actually the Pioneer – the opener of a new frontier and this is Jill – a strong woman, who symbolizes endurance, courage, will.
Pioneering is about new beginnings, new life. And it is so for Jill, and it is so for the new town, Sweetwater. But also, means the end of the Old Western and all it encompasses. Civilization and modernization are coming and there is no stopping it: the slow and yet unstoppable humming of progress.
Written and directed by Sergio Leone, it pays homage to Classic Western movies and it was his personal farewell to the genre that was dying in the late 1960s. This has a much slower pace than his other Westerns and it is punctuated with silence, permeated with violence but also beautiful, brilliant scenes.
As the movie comes to an end we are granted with the view of a train finally arriving in that middle of nowhere, and as Jill meets the rail workers, we fully realise that what we are seeing is indeed the inexorable end of the Wild West as we know it. As the camera moves away in all encompassing sweep o f the barren landscape and Enio Morricone’s magnificent soundtrack fills our ears, I am left with the distinct feeling that I just watched one of the greatest movies in the history of cinema.