Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) puts the opera into “horse opera.” Leave it to the Italians to put genuine operatic dimension into the great American saga of western expansion.
Sergio Leone’s loving tribute to the myth of the American West leaves the cool, cruel mercenary world of the Clint Eastwood Dollar films for a glorious epic that transforms western tropes into horseback fairy tales in the wonderland of John Ford’s mythic landscape. Though most of the film was actually shot in Spain, the defining landscapes were shot on location in Monument Valley, including one stunning sequence that quotes Ford’s Stagecoach.
Casting Charles Bronson as his slow-talking, harmonica playing hero, Henry Fonda as a steely, blue-eyed killer, and Claudia Cardinale as the fallen woman who stakes out her claim for the American Dream after her new husband and his entire family have been massacred, Leone creates a horseback epic of bad guys with a heart of gold and an iron engine that reshapes the landscape as its tracks are laid through the wilderness. Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento co-wrote the screenplay and Ennio Morricone’s operatic score (one of his greatest) so inspired Leone that he directed and edited to the rhythms of the music, which Morricone completed before the film was finished. It flopped in release but decades later it stands out as Leone’s masterpiece, a sun-baked blast of frontier opera. Jason Robards co-stars and Leone casts such icons as Woody Strode, Jack Elam, Keenan Wynn, and Lionel Stander in small but memorable roles.