Behind the Scenes: “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1969)

“Tedium in tumbleweed,” was the verdict of Time’s magazine’s critic. That was hardly the intention of Sergio Leone, Dario Argento (then just a critic) and Bernardo Bertolucci (Before the Revolution, 1964) after they met just before Xmas 1966 in a projection booth for a screening of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and decided to try and write the quintessential western. This was a strange notion given that a) Leone had already revolutionized the western and b) on the completion of the last of the “Dollars” trilogy, had avowed to give up westerns and in consequence turned down Hang ‘Em High (1968).

When their six-month collaboration only produced 80 pages of script, Leone turned to Sergio Donati who finished it off in 25 days, adding such essential elements as the fly tormenting Jack Elam at the railway station, turning Morton into a cripple and giving him the motif of the ocean, and many others. Donati claimed, “The best thing I did was give a meaning to the story…This railroad which unites one ocean to the other is the end of the frontier, the end of adventure.” The completed screenplay drew on such influences as Johnny Guitar (1954), John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924), The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960), George Stevens’ Shane (1953) and a dozen pictures besides.

With a budget of $5 million, equally shared between Euro-International – flush from being the Italian distributor of German sex education film and box office smash Helga (1967) –  and Paramount at the height of its European investment cycle, it would be the most expensive movie made in Italy since Dino de Laurentiis greenlit The Bible (1966). Twelve times as expensive as Leone’s debut western A Fistful of Dollars (1964) – the set of Flagstone alone cost more than that film’s entire budget –  it would be shot at Cinecitta in Rome as well as on location in Almeria, Spain, and the iconic Monument Valley.

“Creative geography” had been utilized to find a connection between the famed Western landmark and the new town of Sweetwater. Prior to filming, Leone had undertaken a guided tour of Monument Valley and returned able to pinpoint exactly where Ford had made use of the location in the ten westerns he had shot there. Leone was the highest-remunerated, picking up $750,000 and 10 per cent of the profits with Claudia Cardinale on $500,000, but the others nowhere near such salaries.

It was Bertolucci who had persuaded the director to give Jill (Claudia Cardinale) the pivotal role. In Leone’s previous films, women were side-lined. But now Jill would run the gamut of all the roles typically allocated to different women in westerns from the reformed whore, submissive woman, object of lust and chattel to the spitfire and woman who took charge. More, she represented, “the promise of the West.” She was central to the plot and sole survivor at the end after Harmonica (Charles Bronson) departed with Frank (Henry Fonda), Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) all dead.

When Leone wooed her for the role, he acted out the entire film in her presence, using the music to give her an insight into her character. “While I listened,” she recalled, “I understood every moment of the film shot by shot.” During filming of her scenes, Leone replayed her theme music. “This helped me concentrate, remove myself from the world.”

Although Leone and Clint Eastwood had fallen out during the shooting of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the actor agreed to meet to discuss the role of Harmonica, but in the end Eastwood rejected the part, perhaps because the monosyllabic character was too close to The Man With No Name. Other names in the frame were James Coburn (The Magnificent Seven), Terence Stamp (The Collector, 1963), Rock Hudson and Warren Beatty (Kaleidoscope, 1966). The last actor Paramount was interested in was Charles Bronson who was regarded as nothing more than a steady supporting actor. Leone’s insistence was because the actor had a “face made of marble.” He would not be required to act much, just represent an immoveable object, capable of expressing the sadder side of his character through his harmonica.  

Henry Fonda was Leone’s first choice for the “ignoble assassin” but the actor prove hard to recruit, the director thwarted first of all by the star’s agent, then put off by the original script and only persuaded by old friend Eli Wallach that this might represent opportunity. However, when the actor came prepared he came prepared for the wrong picture, sporting the moustache traditionally worn by the villain, and, worse, concealing the baby blue eyes which the director coveted with dark lenses.

Although accepting the exceptional stage talents of Jason Robards whose only foray into the genre at that point had been box office flop A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966), Donati believed he had the kind of presence that did not “translate to the big screen,” especially lacking the kind of eyes the director required for close-up. Leone disagreed, believing he was tailor-made for the role of Cheyenne. The first interview was not a success, the alcoholic actor arriving drunk. Only warnings of financial consequence ensured the star remained sober during filming.

Shooting was scheduled for April-June 1968. The first scene on the agenda was the love scene between Cardinale and Robards, which accounted for two days shooting. Paramount’s eager marketing team promoted these as the first sex scenes the director had filmed, ignoring the fact that sequences showing Eastwood in bed with a woman had been shot for For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, although they had not made it into the final cut. It took four days to film the shoot-out at Cattle Corner, three hours alone devoted to capturing the drip of water onto Woody Strode’s head and hat. Composer Ennio Morricone had already written a theme to cover the period of the gunmen waiting, but instead opted for the exaggerated sounds such as chalk scraping on a blackboard and the insistent fly. A jar of flies were kept for this purpose but in the end only one sufficed.

Although length became an issue outside of Italy and Parisian fist-run cinemas, Paramount was already planning for a 150-minute picture. In the end the 168-minute Italian cut was shaved by 24 minutes for the U.S. release, outside of a roadshow the longest western sent into general release, and therefore a risky prospect. The idea that Paramount got cold feet over the American release does not stand up. It was part of a major promotion on a huge sign above Times Square that promoted four of the studio’s upcoming offerings – the others being Goodbye, Columbus, True Grit and Those Dangerous Young Men in their Jaunty Jalopies.  It was launched in New York on Memorial Day (not as big a box office day then as now but still a major U.S. holiday) in first run cinemas two weeks ahead of the rest of the country.  

In fact, its first week’s box office there ranked it the western of the year so far, beating The Stalking Moon, 100 Rifles and Support Your Local Sheriff. The New York figures were actually the best results for a western for the entire year with the exception Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and True Grit, outgrossing the likes of the more critically-successful The Wild Bunch and more marketing-friendly Mackenna’s Gold. However, its initial New York audience appreciation was rarely not matched elsewhere, Boston being one exception.  Some cinemas found it difficult to market, the Berlin Drive-In in Hartford, for example, tying-in with country-and-western music on a local radio station. While some smaller cinemas called for another 30 minutes in cuts, others proclaimed “this is what the public wants.” Once upon a Time in the West  finished tenth for the year among westerns and a disappointing 47th overall in Variety’s annual rentals chart.

While it also flopped in Britain and, given the budget, proved a disappointment in Italy, not on a par with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, it posted 14.8 million admissions in France, making it the seventh-best performing picture of all time. By 1984 it ranked eleventh on the all-time German rental champs list, above Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. In Switzerland in 1987 it came eighth on the all-time chart, easily the oldest title on the list. It was a video “blockbuster” in German homevideo setting a new sales record in 1984.

However, for such a commercial and critical failure, reassessment in the U.S. was not long in coming. In 1973, the Beverly Canon in Los Angeles launched its new “Classics At Midnight” programme with Once Upon a Time in the West, Harold and Maude and Repulsion. The prospect of the first showing in the U.S. of the full-length version captured all the headlines at the 1980 New York Film Festival. There were occasional revivals: in Toronto at Easter 1973 and Washington and New York among others in 1984, and Washington in 1985.  

It was named the best western ever made by British newspaper The Guardian newspaper and film magazine Empire. In the Sight and Sound once-in-a-decade Critics Poll in 2012 it placed third in the western category behind The Searchers and Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959). With the results of a new poll out this year I wonder if it will ascend to the top spot.

SOURCES: Brian Hannan, The Gunslingers of ’69: Western Movies’ Greatest Year (McFarland, 2019); Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone: Something To Do with Death (Faber and Faber, 2000); Christopher Frayling: Once Upon a Time in Italy (Thames & Hudson, 2005); Christopher Frayling, Once upon a Time in the West: Shooting a Masterpiece (Reel Art Press, 2019); “Huge Sign on Times Square Plugs Paramount Product,” Box Office, May 5, 1969, pA2; “West Tie Up With WEXT,” Box Office, June 16, 1969, pNE2;  “Box Office Barometer,” Box Office, July 14, 1969, pA4; “The Big Rental Films of 1969,” Variety, January 7, 1970, p15; “The Exhibitor Has His Say,” Box Office, July 6, 1970, pA3; “Beverly Canon To Offer Midnight Classics,” Box Office, April 13, 1973, pW1; “Scorsese Speaks on Saving Prints,” Variety, October 8, 1980, p6;  “CIC Video Preps Low-Ticket Bow for Raiders,” Variety, March 21, 1984, p47; “All-Time German Rental Champs,” Variety, March 7, 1984, p336; “With Plenty of Film Buffs, NYC Is Reissue Heaven,” Variety, December 12, 1984, p74; “Box Office Barometer,” Box Office, October 1, 1985, p43-44; “All-Time Swiss Top Ten,” Variety, October 21, 1987, p498.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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