Film / Once Upon a Time in the West

Harmonica: The reward for this man is 5,000 dollars, is that right?
Cheyenne: Judas was content for 4,970 dollars less.
Harmonica: There were no dollars in them days.
Cheyenne: But sons of bitches? Yeah.

Once Upon a Time in the West (in Italian: C'era una volta il West) (1968) is considered Sergio Leone's masterpiece; according to That Other Wiki, it's a prime example of an Epic Western.

It is remembered for its beautiful cinematography, extremely quotable dialogue, and fascinatingly enigmatic characters, as well for its brilliant casting: Charles Bronson as another "man with no name" seeking revenge, Claudia Cardinale as Jill, the young, pretty widow with a past, Jason Robards as the bandit Cheyenne, and Henry Fonda as the villainous Frank, who works for the railroad tycoon Mr. Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti).

City Slicker Jill arrives at the town of Flagstone by train just as Bronson's nameless character drifts into town. By chance their paths cross at a roadside establishment. Cheyenne, who has just escaped from his prison escort, dubs Bronson's character "Harmonica." Jill then discovers that her husband and his children have been murdered at their homestead. Frank, the real killer, frames Cheyenne.

Harmonica has a personal vendetta against Frank, so he and Cheyenne fight against Frank and his boss, Mr. Morton. They defend Jill's homestead and discover her late husband's plan to make a fortune.

Based on a story created by Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento. Under Leone's direction, Ennio Morricone composed the soundtrack before the actual filming started, and most of the narrative is built around the music, instead of the traditional way of fitting the soundtrack to the film.

Once Upon a Time in the West provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Absolute Cleavage: Jill, towards the end of the movie.
  • Accidental Public Confession: A chilling version occurs at the beginning of the movie. Frank and his men have just finished massacring a family, only to exit the house and find a small boy staring at them.
  • Affably Evil: Cheyenne is a bandit, but he's fighting against someone much worse.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: Morton had the desperate goal of seeing the blue ocean of the Pacific before he succumbed to his fatal disease. He instead dies slowly face down in a mud puddle while he imagines to hear the ocean.
  • Anti-Hero:
    • Harmonica is completely remorseless and nearly machine-like in his pursuit of Frank, using Jill as bait, and brutalizing those who get in his way.
    • Cheyenne.
  • Anti-Villain:
    • Cheyenne, who also gains Anti-Hero traits as the film goes along. It helps that he never kills anybody likable onscreen.
    • Mr. Morton, whose primary goal is to see the Pacific Ocean again one last time before succumbing to his disease.
  • Badass Beard:
    • Cheyenne's.
    • Frank sports one as well. But only in the flashback at the end of the film.
  • Badass Boast: Harmonica's first scene, when three of Frank's men are waiting for him:
    Harmonica: Did you bring a horse for me?
    Frank's Man: Looks like we're shy one horse.
    Harmonica: (shakes head) You brought two too many.
    • Cheyenne's reaction upon hearing Harmonica's account of the shooting: "One, nobody around these parts got the guts to wear those dusters except Cheyenne's men. Two, Cheyenne's men don't get killed." He then spins his revolver and states that he can count "All the way up to six if I have to, and maybe even faster than you."
  • Badass Grandpa: Frank. His hair is turning gray, but his deadliness and resolve seem as firm as ever.
  • Badass Longcoat: Cheyenne's gang. Frank sports a similar outfit when framing Cheyenne for the murder of the McBain family.
    Cheyenne: That's a crazy story, Harmonica, for two reasons. One, nobody around these parts got the guts to wear those dusters except Cheyenne's men. Two, Cheyenne's men don't get killed.
  • Bandito: Frank, in the flashback.
    • Cheyenne is a sympathetic example.
  • Best Served Cold: Harmonica's revenge is obtained decades after.
  • Big Bad Ensemble: Mr. Morton and Frank are the main antagonists of the film. Frank might be the focus of Harmonica and Cheyenne's anger, but it was Mr. Morton who hired him and set the plan in motion.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The bad guys die and the train finally gets to Sweetwater, which will grow into a beautiful town where Jill is going to be a very successful woman. On the other hand, Cheyenne, perhaps the most likable character in the film, dies, and Harmonica leaves to (presumably) never be seen again.
  • Black and Gray Morality: Frank is a sociopath, Cheyenne a bandit, and Harmonica a ruthless gunslinger.
  • Blue Eyes: Frank. This was one of the reasons Henry Fonda was cast as a total villain, as a part to subvert Beauty Equals Goodness.
  • Break the Cutie: Played with. It's straight for four minutes with Jill, in the second last scene, once she realizes that Harmonica will not stay with her, and that she will most likely live as a widow until her death... then inverted, after Cheyenne gives her some advice that takes a few minutes for her to fully comprehend, and then adhere.
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday: Frank doesn't remember who Harmonica is, although Harmonica isn't keen on reminding him until the end. On the other hand, when Frank demands Harmonica's name, Harmonica responds with a couple pseudonyms — which Frank does recognize as the names of other men he's killed. Facial Dialogue shows him finally recognizing Harmonica; Frank asks the man for his name and gets a harmonica stuffed into his mouth for an answer.
  • But Now I Must Go: Harmonica and Cheyenne are drifters with no place in a settled town. Cheyenne is also about to bleed to death, unknown to any of the other characters.
  • Butt Monkey: Wobbles.
  • Character Tics: Frank is constantly spitting out in a less than pleasant manner, another sign that he'll never make a proper businessman.
  • The Chessmaster: Frank—for a time, anyway. Harmonica is revealed to be one, over the course of the film.
  • City Slicker: Jill at first. She can't even start a fire. Justified Trope since she's alone with the man who she thinks killed her new family — it's not at all surprising that her hands are shaking. She gradually evolves via Character Development.
  • *Click* Hello: Frank does this to Harmonica when he catches him climbing down the train.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Harmonica uses Hidden Weapons to get the drop on others. Cheyenne and Frank also show few compunctions, striking from hiding, and distracting opponents in order to win.
  • Creepy Blue Eyes: Frank's eyes. Henry Fonda originally wanted to wear brown contacts, as he was playing a villain. Leone told him to take them off.
  • Cuffs Off, Rub Wrists: After Cheyenne cuts him loose aboard Morton's train, Harmonica's seen rubbing his wrists in the background.
  • Dark Is Evil: Frank goes all black in the second half of the movie.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Frank and Harmonica are both exceptionally sarcastic.
  • Deconstruction: Of the Western in general. A widow gains the support of a gunslinger and a local outlaw with a good heart in order to fend off the corrupt railroad tycoon? Sounds like the plot to half the Westerns of the 1950s. But in this case, the gunslinger isn't doing it for the widow and has his own agenda, the widow in question is a former prostitute who isn't above sleeping with the villain to save her own life, and the bandit chief is protecting her largely because she reminds him of his mother. In the end, the gunslinger moves off for his next showdown, there's no romantic conclusion, and the railroad moves on, pushing the West of the film further and further away.
  • Determined Widow: Jill
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Jill has lots of sexual tension with Cheyenne, Frank and Harmonica, but no one gets her. Cheyenne dies, Frank never stood a chance considering who he was and what he did to her, and Harmonica couldn't return her feelings. And since this aspect of the resolution is played largely from Jill's point of view, it's also a case of Did Not Get The Guy.
  • Dissonant Serenity: Cheyenne goes about his business and doesn't care one iota about the climatic duel, and is just annoyed when the shooting makes him cut himself while shaving. On top of that, he's secretly dying.
  • The Dog Bites Back: Unfortunately for Frank, the young Harmonica eventually grows up to become Charles Bronson.
  • Dragon-in-Chief: Frank is the focus of the plot, and has his own agenda, which involves getting Jill to sell the land to him so that he can then sell it to his nominal boss, Mister Morton at a higher price. Toyed with during the later parts of the film, as Morton proves that in his own way, he can be just as dangerous.
  • The Drifter: Harmonica hits the archetype.
  • Dying Alone: Cheyenne asks Harmonica to look away.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Cheyenne dies, but Frank and his employer are both dead, and Harmonica has avenged his brother. Jill will go on to become a wealthy widow, and a respected and well-loved member of the Sweetwater railroad town.
  • End of an Age: The railroads herald the end of the Wild West. In Romanticism Versus Enlightenment, the film is firmly on the side of romanticism.
    Harmonica: So you found out you're not a businessman after all?
    Frank: Just a man.
    Harmonica: An ancient race. [looks to the approaching railroad] Other Mortons will be along and they'll kill it off.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • A man of few words appears in a train station, blows his harmonica and takes care of the three gunmen who were sent to greet him. He outdraws them while his gun was still in his baggage. A classic, mysterious gunslinger and drifter.
    • Frank shows up as the leader of a gang that has massacred a family, and ends the deed by killing a little boy.
  • Even Evil Has Standards:
    • Cheyenne draws the line at killing children and Catholic priests.
    • Mister Morton loathes senseless slaughter, and comes to see Frank as little more than an animal.
  • Evil Versus Evil: Frank and Morton spend the second half of the movie trying to checkmate each other, with increasingly violent results.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Frank can maintain a layer of civility and behave in a likable, reasonable way when it suits him, but he's eager to murder more and talk less.
  • False Reassurance/Metaphorically True:
    Morton: Tell me, was it necessary that you kill all of them? I only told you to scare them.
    Frank: People scare better when they're dying.
  • Flash Back: Used to reveal why Harmonica pursues Frank.
  • For Doom the Bell Tolls: Harmonica's brother is hanged from a bell.
  • Gallows Humor: A dying Cheyenne takes a moment of levity to trifle about his circumstances.
    Cheyenne: Hey, Harmonica - when they do you in, pray it's somebody who knows where to shoot.
  • Good Colors, Evil Colors: Frank always wears dark brown or black. Harmonica always wears light yellow, almost white.
  • Grand Finale: This film is generally seen as the grand finale to Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Western films.
  • The Gunslinger: Harmonica, Frank, and Cheyenne.
  • Handicapped Badass: Morton. Not only does he have the balls to play mind games with Frank, he would have succeeded in having him killed as well, if Harmonica hadn't intervened. He also killed Cheyenne.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Frank is this when he's angered.
    Frank: How can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? The man can't even trust his own pants!
  • Heroic B.S.O.D.: Jill during her final meeting with both Cheyenne and Harmonica
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Jill is the most morally sound character in the film.
    Cheyenne: You know, Jill, you remind me of my mother. She was the biggest whore in Alameda and the finest woman that ever lived. Whoever my father was, for an hour or for a month, he must have been a happy man.
  • I Have You Now, My Pretty:
  • Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain: Mr. Morton doesn't do much killing, being a crippled, dying old man. His last dream is to see the Pacific Ocean before he dies. He spends his dying moments desperately crawling towards a small, muddy puddle as a substitute for the Pacific.
  • Invincible Hero: Averted right from the start, as Harmonica, badass though he unquestionably is, is wounded in the very first fight. From then on, it's not inconceivable that he might lose to Frank.
  • Ironic Echo: Harmonica places his harmonica between the lips of a moribund Frank, a Call Back to the death of Harmonica's brother, which Frank caused by hanging him from a bell.
  • Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: Harmonica tortures a man to get information of Frank.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Mr. McBain abuses one of his sons when the lad talks back, and seems to be a domineering man in general, but it's also evident that the man deeply cares for his family, specially for his daughter.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Jerk: Frank. He shows no remorse for his actions whatsoever, and his less indecent actions are motivated by the wrong reasons, be it sadism or greed.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • Frank and his gang kill a family of four, including a young child.
    • Frank gets another one near the end of the film in the "keep your lovin' brother happy" flashback. While Frank does spare the life of young Harmonica, he does it only to experience sadistic glee at seeing the guy witness the murder of his brother.
    • Frank kicking Morton's crutches out from under him.
  • Killed Offscreen:
    • Cheyenne provides a playful double example. First, he's mortally wounded in an off-screen skirmish, and then during his actual death, he asks his companion to look away, which the camera also respects with a brief discretion shot.
    • When Frank shoots the younger McBain boy, the camera cuts away to the train with Jill arriving at the station, merging the sound of the bullet with the train's whistle.
    • All of Cheyenne's men and the last five of Morton's men, killed in the train battle.
  • Leitmotif: Most of the main characters have their own, with Harmonica having the most obvious one, also a Theme Music Power-Up. During the duel between Frank and Harmonica at the end, both their themes overlap.
  • Leave the Camera Running: Sergio Leone's signature style, the first scene has the characters waiting for a train and runs for almost 15 minutes before the first words are spoken.
  • Left the Background Music On: Just before Harmonica's entrance, the music changes subtly. Everybody starts looking around, then it is revealed the new tune is being played by a man with a harmonica.
  • Light Is Good: Harmonica. Basically Sergio Leone playing with the Western tradition of the "good guys" wearing white hats.
  • Loveable Rogue: Cheyenne
  • Love Triangle: Very subtle. Over the course of the film, Cheyenne gets a bit of a soft spot for Jill. Who in turn develops one for Harmonica. Harmonica's feelings are unsaid and he moves on at the end of the film.
  • Mail-Order Bride: Jill McBain
  • Ms. Fanservice: Jill has a lot of moments of this, often against her wishes.
  • Miss Kitty: Jill
  • Murder Is the Best Solution: Morton just wants his opposition bought out or intimidated, but Frank prefers to massacre first and ask questions later.
  • Musicalis Interruptus: Cheyenne's theme pauses several times so he can say a line, and starts up again. It even stops to allow his dead body to drop to the ground.
  • Mutual Kill: A delayed one. During a shootout Mister Morton and Cheyenne mortally wound one another. Morton dies a few minutes later, Cheyenne a few hours later.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: The trailer makes it look like Harmonica is the villain of the film, and a ruthless killing machine. Frank, meanwhile, almost looks like he's the hero.
  • Nice Guy:
    • Cheyenne has his moments in the film.
    • Jill is a Nice Gal.
  • No Name Given: The man out for revenge is only ever called Harmonica, as he plays a harmonica everywhere he goes. Cheyenne is probably an alias too and Frank an example of No Last Name Given. All this adds a lot of mystique to the story.
  • Non-Action Big Bad: Mr. Morton. A theme of the movie is how new money will displace old weapons in the villainy business.
    Morton: How does it feel sitting behind that desk, Frank?
    Frank: Almost like holding a gun... only much more powerful.
  • Not Me This Time: Frank frames Cheyenne for the massacre of the McBain family, knowing that it's plausible since Cheyenne's no saint himself.
  • Not-So-Harmless Villain: Mr. Morton, who refuses to be intimidated, convinces Frank's men to betray him, and kills Cheyenne.
  • Number Two:
    • Cheyenne has an unnamed lieutenant, who among other things, is responsible for carrying his coat and smuggles him off the train to Yuma "Two tickets, amigo, to the next station. One way only." He gets killed in the shootout with Morton's men.
    • Frank has two: One participates in the massacre of the McBain family (he's the one who asks "What are we going to do with this one, Frank?" and the other found Jim and Logan dead, killed by Harmonica and reports that to Frank. Both are killed by Cheyenne's men.
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: Cheyenne gets two: his escape from a prison escort and his shootout with Morton and his henchmen.
  • Once Upon a Time
  • One-Woman Wail: "Jill's America"
  • The Only One Allowed to Defeat You: Why Harmonica helps Frank against Morton's minions.
    Jill: You saved his life!
    Harmonica: I didn't let them kill him and that's not the same thing.
  • Overly Long Gag: Frank's henchman Snaky getting increasingly annoyed by a fly landing on his face. There's also the joke of a residue or water dripping from the ceiling onto Stony's head, and then onto his hat.
  • Pet the Dog: Jill serves as a big Morality Pet for Cheyenne.
  • Police Are Useless: The Sheriff of Flagstone's only role in the movie is to oversee Jill's auction of Sweetwater. In a deleted scene his deputies rough up Harmonica, and he's revealed to be a Dirty Cop on Morton's payroll.
  • Post Modernism: See Deconstruction or Wikipedia. French theorist Jean Baudrillard once deemed Once Upon a Time in the West the first postmodern film.
  • Pre-Asskicking One-Liner: "When you hear a strange sound, drop to the ground..." It's referenced in a later shootout:
    Jill: I swear we're gonna hear that strange sound again.
    Harmonica: Right about... now.
  • Psycho for Hire: Frank, who enjoys killing every bit as much as he enjoys the money he makes from it.
  • Quick Draw: Harmonica has a very fast one. So does Frank. And Cheyenne.
  • The Quiet One: Harmonica is the strong, silent type. He prefers to let his instrument, revolver and body language do the talk.
  • Railroad Baron: Mr. Morton.
  • Railroad Plot: Mc Bain knew that any train line through the region could only refuel water for the steam engine in a single place and build his farm on the site, expecting to make a small fortune by selling water to the train company. So Morton had the family killed by Frank so that he could buy the land himself.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Cheyenne doesn't get to enjoy his newly heroic life very long.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Cheyenne and Harmonica respectively.
  • Retired Outlaw: Frank is a former bandit, who now works for the railroad company. This has not made him a more sympathetic individual.
  • The Reveal: Harmonica's motivation for wanting to kill Frank. Frank hanged Harmonica's brother with sadism; a young Harmonica, on his knees, was made to support his older brother above his shoulders, until the inevitable happened when he either collapsed from exhaustion or his brother kicked him away on purpose.
  • Revenge: Harmonica is driven entirely by desire for revenge on Frank.
  • Sadist: Take a wild guess.
  • Say My Name: "MAUREEN!" It's quite heartbreaking.
  • Scenery Porn: Emphasis on Monument Valley, Utah.
  • Secret Stab Wound: Gunshot wound, actually.
  • Secretly Dying: Due to the above gunshot wound. Throughout the whole of the last scene with Jill, you can tell that there's something wrong with Cheyenne, but he's doing his best to hide it from her. It's only once he leaves that we find out what happened.
  • Settling the Frontier: Jill becomes the matriarch of the small community literally being built up around her as the railroad approaches.
  • Ship Tease and Ship Sinking: Jill seems to be showing interest in Harmonica and Cheyenne as the film progresses. However, when Jill expresses her interest in Cheyenne, he replies that he's not the right man...and neither is Harmonica.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Bursting with references both obvious and subtle to classic American Westerns, from High Noon and Shane to Johnny Guitar and Run of the Arrow.
  • Showdown at High Noon
  • Signature Style: This film signals a shift to the second phase of Sergio Leone's style, being slower and more serious than the Dollars Trilogy.
  • Slasher Smile: Frank and some of his men in Harmonica's flashback.
  • The Sociopath: Frank.
  • Son of a Whore: Cheyenne. He still calls her "the finest woman who ever lived".
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Cheyenne's upbeat little motif plays as he dies.
  • Spaghetti Western
  • Special Guest:
    • Woody Strode and Jack Elam as two of the hitmen waiting for the train at the beginning.
    • Keenan Wynn as the Sheriff at the auction, Frank Wolff as Jill's ill-fated husband, and Lionel Stander as the barman at the saloon where we first encounter Cheyenne.
  • The Starscream: Frank becomes this to Morton. Flawed as he finds Morton, Franks holds some respect for the man's tenacity in the process.
  • Sugar and Ice Personality: Jill. She's icey towards Cheyenne and Harmonica in their first interactions, but eventually warms up to them.
  • Team Dad: Cheyenne to a degree. He goes out of his way to protect Jill and Harmonica. And while he speaks rough of his men, he trusts them.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: The synopsis on the back of the DVD case has a pretty significant spoiler about just what Harmonica's beef with Frank is, saying that he "remembers how his brother was savagely tortured". Although it doesn't say outright who did it, it isn't difficult to put two and two together, and on top of that, it gives away one of the film's most shocking scenes.
  • Turncoat: Endemic among the bad guys. Frank betrays Morton, and Frank's henchmen betray him.
  • Vehicle Vanish: Harmonica makes his entrance this way, behind a train.
  • Villainy Discretion Shot: Cheyenne killing his prison escort.
  • Villain Protagonist: Frank is more or less this, as most of the conflict in the main plot revolves around him.
  • Wham Line: "Keep your lovin' brother happy."
  • Wham Shot: Cheyenne getting the drink he ordered, revealing to the camera his shackled wrists.
  • Whammy Bid: The five-thousand-dollar bid.
  • White Shirt of Death: Most noticeable on Maureen (well, dress actually) and Timmy McBain.
  • Widowed at the Wedding: Subverted with Jill. The story begins during her Wedding Day party with McBain, but it's revealed they already married in New Orleans the month before.
  • Would Hurt a Child: One of the earliest evil deeds Frank does is kill a child after this sinister excerpt of dialogue —
    Goon: (about the boy) What are we gonna do with him, Frank?
    Frank: (beat) Well, now that you've called me by name... (shoots the child)
    • Henry Fonda, the actor who played Frank, was initially reluctant to take another a role in a western, having been in so many already and always playing one of the good guys. That is, until director Sergio Leone told him, "Picture this: the camera shows a gunman from the waist down pulling his gun and shooting a running child. The camera pans up to the gunman's face and... it's Henry Fonda." He signed on in a heartbeat (with some encouragement from a mutual friend).
  • You Have Failed Me: Frank dispatches Wobbles when he finds out that Harmonica followed him.
  • You Killed My Father: Brother, actually.