“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Hello and welcome back to “The Ten Percent,” a regular column here on Biff Bam Pop! where every other week K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the ten percent of everything which is not crud. Sometimes it can be hard to remember that for each film or television show that gets people talking years after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that barely cleared the horizon before being (thankfully) shot down. The works that soar above the rest – well, those are the works that stand the test of time.
The American West has been a place of myth, violence, and wonder ever since the first Europeans looked up from their toehold on the east coast and gazed towards the distant Appalachian Mountains. As the young United States once again expanded in the aftermath of the Civil War, coming into direct contact and conflict with the great horse peoples of the plains, and with the often brutal realities of life in often marginal environments between the Mississippi and the Rockies, the Western myth only grew. William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his Wild West Show began framing the mythic space into the shape we know today, and The Great Train Robbery (1903), one of the first American movies ever made, opened the door to an era of cinematic American mythopoeia that continues to this day.
The myth is epic. Vast open spaces, scrub desert, and red dust against the primordial background of John Ford’s greatest discovery: Monument Valley. It is a space of violence and bravery, endurance and reduction, with heroes and villains who rival the legends of Arthur or the pen of Shakespeare. It is an immigrant story, and of the men who stood above them for good or ill by virtue of their guns and their deadly willingness to use them. It is a racist myth, where white skin is ascendant while red and brown are in degraded decline. It is difficult to overestimate how much of American mythic culture is bound up in the Western, yet it is somehow appropriate that the director to take the genre, and the myth of the West, to its highest cinematic summits, was an Italian: Sergio Leone.
Perhaps best known for his “Dollars Trilogy” starring Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name, Leone was the great director of the “spaghetti western.” These films were made relatively cheap and fast, using a mix of American and European actors, used Cinecitta sets, and Italian and Spanish exteriors to create a (for the time) hyper-violent, heavily symbolic version of an already legendary West. The films found international success, even in America, and helped to launch Eastwood’s career as a star and a director. With scores by the ever-brilliant Ennio Morricone, Leone’s westerns reinterpreted the genre for audiences of the mid- and late-1960s as Europe and the US convulsed in unprecedented peacetime social and political upheavals. Despite a desire to move away from Westerns, his Dollar Trilogy was so popular in the States that Leone found that before he would be able to direct something new, he would have to create one last western – only this time, he would be able to film in Monument Valley.
The result is Once Upon a Time in the West, one of the greatest westerns of all time, and truly the apotheosis of the mythic West in film. At the height of his powers, Leone’s mise-en-scene is almost obsessive. There are no accidents in composition here, and every scene, every sequence partakes of a detail and a slow devotion to telling the story that creates frame-by-frame works of art. Leone’s use of both ambient sound and Morricone’s score is brilliant, and his trademark close-ups show every dusty crease and pore, and allow every pair of eyes its own revelations, right from the opening sequence of the film.
Once Upon a Time in the West is operatic in scope and scale, and cries out to be seen on the largest possible screen. The tale centers on a former prostitute, Jill, played by the staggeringly gorgeous Claudia Cardinale. She has travelled into the West to join her husband, only to arrive hours after the massacre of him and his children by a group of ruthless, duster wearing outlaws led by Frank, played with true malevolence and dark joy by Henry Fonda.
This may be the most brilliant stroke of the film. At the time, and even today, Fonda is known for playing good guys, and his entrance, every bit as dramatic as Charles Bronson’s still chills. Indeed, this intertextual effect was exactly what Leone wanted to achieve. When Fonda arrived on set with brown contacts and a moustache he’d grown for the role, Leone ordered that both be removed – he wanted to shock of an immediately recognizable Fonda in the role, and he wanted those sharp blue eyes. Frank and his employer, railroad magnate Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) want the widowed Jill’s land, but the Man with the Harmonica (Bronson want’s Frank, as does the infamous outlaw Cheyenne, who’s given a perfect comic edge by a scruffy Jason Robards. The two combine forces to protect Jill and, through her to get to Frank and Morton. Interwoven with the drama are the themes of technological and social change, of the coming of civil order into formerly untamed spaces, and destruction of a world.
It’s a pretty standard plot, but the meat lies in the telling of the tale, and Leone and his cast elevate the story into something so tightly choreographed that the grime, murder, greed, heat, lust, and hatred come together to transcend the usual limits of the genre, and catapult the story into the realm of pure myth, where something like demi-gods, or Jungian archetypes stride across the screen, their every twitch a symbol – of power, of inevitable change, of resistance and revenge.
There really is nothing quite like Once Upon a Time in the West. The film mesmerizes, and takes over the space in which it is viewed. Taken out of Leone’s hands for editing for US release, the movie failed at the box office, but the uncut, international release gained widespread acclaim and is now the standard version for DVD and Blu-Ray. Leone’s film is superb, but there is more to it than mere mastery of craft, artistic talent, and decades of experience. One Upon a Time in the West is myth making, a tale passed down around fires lit against the darkness in which failed and fallible gods walk and limp and dance and kill. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, part of the Ten Percent.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2016). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.