Genre Review: The Negotiable “Home” in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)


I concluded my Genre Review on The Searchers by arguing that the film “spelled the end of a certain type of western, not the least because the very idea of ‘home’ (and the associated categories of nation and race) had been overturned.” If this is the case, how did subsequent westerns differ in their attitudes towards race, nation, and “home”?

A glance back at Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) demonstrates a new sophistication in storytelling, dialogue, and cinematography, which work in tandem to situate nation as both vibrantly and violently hybrid, and race and “home” as fluctuating and negotiable. While I’d love to talk about all three topics, I’ll narrow my focus in this piece to how industrialism affects the conception of the home and notions of domesticity.

Roger Ebert’s “Meh.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of Roger Ebert’s ho-hum response to Once Upon a Time in the West; given his exasperation with the film’s running time, complexity of plot, and painstaking details, I’d like to chalk this up to youthful impatience. I’d like to, but the guy was almost 33 at the time (it was 1969), so what gives? It seems that part of Ebert’s disappointment derived from his feeling that this follow-up to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly was merely a “distillation” of a style already made famous; that it was too derivative perhaps. But this is far from the truth: Once Upon a Time in the West (OUTW) intelligently builds on the earlier film, moving beyond wars (like the Uncivil one) and gunfights to explore the winners and losers of industry: predatory capitalism, outlaws from society, and regular folks who are trying to go their own way.

Decrepit Structures and Moving Parts.

The creativity and textured richness of this film is as impressive as any in modern cinema. And it all starts with the sets and the tracking shots that place humans as actors on the stage of life. Images and sounds are used throughout the film to reinforce this sneaking feeling that Leone was (like other directors in the 1960s and 1970s) commenting on and critiquing the old western: if we look closely, we see the ghost of films past: the technical wonder of the steam engine and its promise of wealth and prosperity in The Great Train Robbery (1903); the conditions in which settlers daily confront strangers and nomads in both Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956)—and the anxiety that “settling” itself is impossible since society is in flux.

The train is not initially visible in OUTW, though the repetitive sound of a windmill is; and the sight of decrepit structures like the old train station. It’s almost as though Leone is playing with old western sets; and it seems deliberate that we can, like the old stereotypes of the “savage” and the “civilized,” see right through them. They’re hollow, feeble, and subject to ruin, like some of the humans that occupy them. Like the gunfighers who are after one of the film’s protagonists, “Harmonica” (Charles Bronson). DP Tonino Delli Colli captures the frailty of both human-made structures and the humans who occupy them, using close-ups of the assailants’ faces (in a manner that echoes the other Leone westerns) to display their flaws and vulnerabilities.

Then the train comes blowing through and the sound of the windmill—emblem of old world technology—is replaced by the sound of the steam engine. The eventual attack on Irishman Brett McBain’s (Frank Wolff) household is a crime fuelled by the industry: Morton the railroad baron (Gabriele Ferzetti) has paid off some nasty outlaws, like Frank (Henry Fonda), to use intimidation tactics to gain more road for his rail. Appropriately, the shot of the train arriving in town is almost from underneath, as though industry is running, if not roughshod, then steadily and inevitably over the mass population.  

Two Trains.

But Leone is not offering a purely Marxist critique of capitalist exploitation. This becomes abundantly apparent in the film’s second half where the initial conflict between industrialism (represented by Morton and his cronies) and plain country living (represented by Jill McBain, played by Claudia Cardinale) becomes negotiable. Yes, money is the lubricant for these moving parts—both humans and the machines they operate; but Leone shows how industry, far from serving quick-rich schemes and the accumlation of capital, can also serve basic human desires for mobility and comfort. This is brought home vividly when Jill and her allies, Harmonica and Cheyenne (Jason Robards), push to build a station before the train tracks are completed. On the one hand, Jill will lose the deed if the station is not finished; on the other hand, what’s the point of having a train with no destination?

In addition, there are actually two kinds of trains in the film, reinforcing Leone’s argument that “industry” is not inherently evil but part of the growing pains and change in American or Western society. There’s the public transport train, which goes from point A to point B, and, in the final scenes of the film, brings people literally to the doorstop of domestic comfort: Jill’s home is also a station. The new home is a convergence point, no longer separate; the “woman’s space” is also public place, once again breaking that old mold of “separate spheres” for men and women (popularized in the Victorian period and undergoing radical reimagination in the cinema and literature of the 1960s).

To be sure, there’s also the private train: that of Morton. This one runs on a separate track and has only one purpose: to fuel greed and violence. It is here that Morton hires men to kill his enemies, and hires these same men to kill each other. And the train is quite literally a bank: Morton doles out his dollars from a chest, which is also the same space where he and his hired thugs play cards. The train, decorated lavishly with art and antique furniture, is like a utopian dream of unfettered opulence—and just as impossible to sustain, Leone seems to argue. Morton, who is already enfeebled by tuberculosis, relies on the train like a life-support system: every time we see him outside it, he is limping and gasping for breath.

That dream of industry, that particular train, is not the one that dominates in the final scenes of the film. It is the public transport train that brings people and therefore business to Jill, who can thrive despite her horrible setback at the beginning of the film. I don’t think it’s a cooincidence that there are parallel scenes of both steam from the train and steam from the coffee kettle, prepared and poured by the hostess herself.

Is Leone being too optimistic here with these warm images of cozy domesticity? I’d urge you to watch the film to decide for yourself. Perhaps there is a cautious optimism, hinted at by Harmonica, who says at point: “Other Mortons will be along, and they’ll kill it off.” The “it” here could refer to civilization, general harmony, or something else. But, as both gunfighters admit, the “home” itself—and even the potential prize, the beautiful and intelligent Jill McBain—are not for them. This might just mean that the “way” of the West is changing, and that some humans (presumably not just women) have negotiated a new domestic space that is nurtured rather than destroyed by industry, however many Mortons might come along. This is made clear when we see how the home, far from being overrun, has been built around the train track and enables industry itself to thrive.

Though Leone’s gunfighters seem to only pass through and never settle in society, they function as harbingers of the new “West.” The indication of such change is signalled by the harmonica, played at various points throughout the film by the unnamed man (Charles Bronson) who is known only by the name of his instrument. (Here’s a sample of the “Man with a Harmonica” theme.) It could be Harmonica’s eerie song of death (he often plays it before he takes out his enemies). It could be his mischevous impersonation of the train whistle (an authoratative way of managing technology, imbibing it, “playing” it, negotiating it?). Either way, Harmonica’s tune offered the promise of a new song in an era when the old “West” was clearly moribund.


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