A western is a film genre that took me some time to warm up to. When I was younger, I presumed that the genre was all about stand offs and men taking themselves way too seriously. While those things are true, there is a sort of escape and connection to one of my dead relatives that I get every time I put on a western.
I was struggling on what to say about this film. Widely considered a masterpiece of the genre, it was easy to find pieces praising this film. They praise the acting, the dialogue, the structure of weaving several stories together, the score, the setting, and the cinematography. Leone also had major influence on many directors that are working today, including Tarantino and P.T. Anderson. He is considered an auteur who wanted his films to be just right, sometimes at the expense of the budget or actor, but most of the time to credit of the whole film.
I came up with something to say when I started to look into the history of Once Upon a Time in the West. Leone had a dislike for women characters. He took that out by killing most of them every chance he got. So when he got the script to the film, he objected to the main character being a woman. He was also a level-headed man, so he decided to really have three main characters; the woman, the bad guy, and the guy who saves her in the end. That is fine with me. Each character is well written, so nothing was gained or lost there, but what I think I object to the most is the treatment of the woman character by these men.
Charles Bronson stars as the harmonica playing vigilante who takes up the widow’s cause. (Her whole new family had been killed by a gang while she was traveling to live with them for the first time.) The moment Bronson’s character meets this woman, he stands her up and rips clothing off of her. During that time, women were supposed to keep their breasts and arms covered. All Bronson did was rip off her collar, so her bountiful boobies showed and made her dress into short sleeves. So What? You may ask. Well I find offense in her reaction to this stripping. She is in love with this ragged, white jacket wearing, harmonica playing man. She is taken so much from his masculinity that if Bronson wanted to at that moment, he could have had her way with her. This is the same woman who we learn in a previous scene that she was a former prostitute . She had a great line summing up the woman situation at that time. She said to another gang member who ends up helping her, “If you want to, you can lay me over the table and amuse yourself. And even call in your men. Well. No woman ever died from that. When you’re finished, all I’ll need will be a tub of boiling water, and I’ll be exactly what I was before – with just another filthy memory.” I thought that was an amazing line and I really responded to that character during that exchange. Everything changes in the next scene.
Another scene that I don’t understand is the scene where she meets the person who killed her family, Frank. Within moments of meeting him, she is in bed with him. At first I thought this scene was just a way to show some back and hint at some boobies, but then I thought about it a little more. This scene is in the film to illustrate two major things about these two characters. One thing is to illustrate just how mean Frank can be. He insults her while she is lying there naked next to her and she takes it like it was no big deal. The other thing the scene was there to establish is the widow’s past habits. She was once a prostitute who relied on men in order to get what she wanted. Up until this point, she was progressing into being more self-reliant. She cleaned up the house a bit, she took it to herself to find the killer and to give him a ultimatium, and she deals with the two men who are trying to help her in a calm manner. But once she sees big strong arms that could make everything alright again, all she wants to do is go back to her past solution helpers, men. She finds it as hollow as it was before she came to the middle of nowhere. She then takes up her mantle once again.
I want to say that I enjoyed this film immensely. It was very watchable, even though it is almost three hours long. I just wanted to point out my one issue with the film, mainly because I had nothing else interesting to say about this film, except “it’s good!” If you are at all interested in cinematography, I would suggest you study this film so much your eyes bleed. It is a wonderful example of outstanding cinematography and how much it can help tell a story.