Pillar of the spaghetti western that Sergio Leone directs after “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”, “Once Upon a Time in the West” could have marked the reunion between the filmmaker and Clint Eastwood. Conversely, the film distanced the director and the actor.
Once upon a Time in the West : the other side of the American myth
After the dollar trilogy, Sergio Leone began a second in 1968 with Once upon a Time in the West, which will be followed byOnce Upon a Revolution and Once upon a time in America. Three feature films that evoke with disenchantment the bloody evolution of a country, whether it is the United States or Mexico.
Based on a story thought up by Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci and Sergio Leone – who then asks Sergio Donati for help with the screenplay -, Once upon a Time in the West takes place in the fictional town of Flagstone, marked by the construction of the railroad. Wanting to maintain complete control over the latter, tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) sends his henchman Frank (Henry Fonda) and his men to negotiate, or kill, anyone who gets in his way.
Arriving in town to start a new life, Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) discovers that her husband Brett (Frank Wolff) and her children have been coldly executed by Frank on their property, where the railway line is supposed to pass. The murderer leaves false clues suggesting that the bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and his gang are the culprits.
At the same time, a mysterious individual calling himself Harmonica (Charles Bronson) arrives in the area, driven by a thirst for revenge. With the help of Cheyenne, he will do everything to free Flagstone from the grip of Frank and Morton.
Jack Elam, Woody Strode and Lionel Stander complete the cast of this western magnified by Ennio Morricone’s score. In Europe, the film is a huge success, especially in Italy and Germany. Exploited for many years in dark rooms, the feature film has totaled 15 million admissions in France.
A cult role refused by Clint Eastwood
When he inherits the role of Harmonica, Charles Bronson already has an impressive filmography. Vincent Price’s disturbing assistant in the horror movie The Man in the Wax Mask, he then played second fiddle to John Sturges, in The Magnificent Seven and The great Escape. Robert Aldrich directs him in Bronco Apache, Vera Cruz and The Dirty Dozen.
Once upon a Time in the West gives the actor a new aura, in part because Sergio Leone captures his piercing gaze through unforgettable close-ups. Silent, almost mute, the actor is then in The Hills of Terror, Mr. Majestyk Where The Brawler, before camping the ultra violent avengers after the success ofA vigilante in the city.
Without the refusal of Clint Eastwood, and that of James Coburn, the career of Charles Bronson would probably have been very different. Not having yet acquired the notoriety that we know him across the Atlantic, the future interpreter of Inspector Harry would have refused to embody Harmonica to find a place in Hollywood. At the time, he began a collaboration with Don Siegel on A sheriff in New York, and turns in the western Hang ’em high and short as well as in the war movie When eagles attack.
The break between Sergio Leone and Blondin
During the preparation ofOnce upon a Time in the West, Sergio Leone would have returned to the United States to present the project to Clint Eastwood. But the meeting does not go at all as he hopes. In the biography Clint Eastwood, A Legend, author Patrick McGilligan says:
Leone loved (and he was right) the film’s opening sequence, where three gunslingers await Harmonica’s arrival at a train station and embark on a memorable and subtly satirical Western affair. Faced with a growing impatient Clint, he zeroed in on a fly caught in the gun barrel of the character who would be played by the iconic Jack Elam. “It took him a quarter of an hour to describe this passage”, explains Clint, who remembers asking him: “Wait a minute, where does this all lead us?” But Leone didn’t like being pushed around…
The reunion between the good, the bad and the ugly?
Another rumor, much less documented, claims that Sergio Leone would have liked to entrust the roles of the three men who wait for Harmonica at the station to Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach,…