Thoughts On: Once Upon A Time In The West - Motive And Then The Love Story


Once Upon A Time In The West - Motive And Then The Love Story

Thoughts On: Once Upon A Time In The West

Here we are, at the end of the western series. What that means is that this is probably the last time you'll have me asking you to check out the...

... and the...

... so that's good. What this is also means is we leave the western genre for a while. Maybe a little sad, but, I've a feeling we'll be coming back. The upside though is that there's a plethora of other films I'm dying to talk about. But, before that, check out the western series either by trudging back through a few old posts, or keeping an eye on the playlist page. The whole series will be there shortly. That said, let's go...

Lives of the shady, evil, questionable and hopeful coalesce over a small patch of land called Sweet Water.

This is my favourite Leone western. In fact, I think it's safe to say this is my favourite western of all time. This is an amalgamation, almost literally, of The Dollar Trilogy in terms of narrative. We have the clear archetypal Good, Bad and Ugly in Harmonica, Frank and Cheyenne, we also have elements of bounty hunting, gangs and revenge - all themes touched on in the Dollar Trilogy. But, let's not take the parallels too far. Let's take a look at the opener. Not only does this perfectly set the tone of the movie as a calm, yet suspenseful, yet entertaining movie, but it references the Dollar Trilogy. The three guys? Yeah, they were (as rumoured--where I heard this I can't remember (maybe DVD extras)) supposed to be played by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and possibly Eli Wallach. I think this could be nothing more than heresay, with Eastwood probably just turning down Bronson's role, but the idea of killing off his archetypes makes a lot of sense. Firstly, Leone wanted to retire from making westerns after The Good The Bad The Ugly. The Dollar Trilogy is a nice package about well... find out here... but, whilst Leone using similar tropes, there is a clear attempt to move away from the trilogy. The first three figures hold an air of competence, of belonging, a tone given by the good, bad and ugly. They suit the world they exist in, whether it be in the form of bounty hunting or a will to make money. The Dollar Trilogy was largely about getting on in the world. But, with Once Upon A Time In The West there's a clear idea of transcendence, of dying an unchanged man. The reckless nature of Cheyenne, Frank, and Harmonica especially, demonstrate no capitalist gain. They want land, respect or revenge. You could argue the same of the Dollar Trilogy characters with money being the stop between present and final goals, but take away the money and you take away security. The recklessness characters exhibit in Once Upon A Time In The West is near suicidal. Before moving on to that though, I'd like to talk about Leone's style. It shifted quite a bit for this film. His grass roots, slow, steady tone, visually poetic captivation of suspense through inertia, close close-ups, wide wides and so on is still present. But, the energy has been sucked out of this film - not in a bad way. Leone differs largely to indoor sets and has a full frame almost all the time with a flatter, more subdued colour palette. The big skies don't pop, the open dessert doesn't engulf. There's also a very strong sense of, and focus on, character in this film as well. This translates to less extravagant or boisterous camera work, with literal focus on faces, not just bodies and actions. Furthermore, the complex, wider range of emotions expressed throughout this film also grate against pacing - which doesn't happen in The Dollar Trilogy. All we have to do is look at the massacre sequence with Frank. There's a wide range of expression given with the tentative nature of the father awaiting his wife, Jill, in how he treats his children. In respect to this, the direction concerning the murder of his family is largely implied, not sensationalised. What this allows Leone to do is construct a more mature, dramatically based film.

With this dramatic basis we can begin to understand the depth to this film, which is furthered by the less quippy dialogue, but more metaphorical/ambiguous syntax. I mean to talk about the end and 'patting bottoms', but this is present throughout the film. We see this with reference to symbolism, i.e, Harmonica's harmonica. This is much like Mortimer's watch (it's almost exactly the same). However, instead of it being used to intimidate, to add suspense and mystery, it's a calling card, a passive/aggressive foreshadowing. So, whilst both characters are Leone's archetypal Good, they are separated by clarity in motive. This is prevalent throughout the film (in a convoluted way - which is ironic, I know). Whilst we never know what Harmonica is after until the final act, we do however always know what disinterests him. He's not too interested in Jill, in Cheyenne, in money, which whittles it down to Frank. This is the paradigm in character of the film and the way into its message. We'll start with Cheyenne. Why is he in this film? Firstly he is framed by Frank leaving evidence of a Cheyenne man's duster at the scene of the crime (the massacre of Jill's to be family). So, it seems like he's looking for revenge, maybe just to clear his name on the principal that he doesn't kill women and children. But then the aspects of what makes him the Ugly step in. He's very threatening, and unnecessarily so toward Jill, implying that he might just rape her because... something to do with coffee and his mother? This seems like bad character work until we get to the end of the film - like with Harmonica. Cheyenne is secretly an archetypal white hat, knight of the desert. Everything he does is in an attempt to protect Jill, or his persona as connected to her. This leads us onto Jill herself. At first it seems like her intentions for marrying McBain were purely based off of love. Later it devolves into pure material gain with Jill revealing herself as a woman willing to do whatever need be to get by - including sleep with the man who killed her husband. But, by the end we see a less back and white image of her and her motivations. Before surmising we still have Frank. He seems like a cold blooded killer who simply lives by his gun. Flash forward and it's all for money with his betrayal of Morton (the disabled train owning guy). Skip to the end and he throws it all away with the principals of an archetypal black hat cowboy. The paradigm in character is an arc of growing selfishness. This links directly into the philosophy of selflessness present in The Dollar Trilogy (for more on that click here then here). But this idea of selflessness not existing and selfishness not being bad is explored to much greater depth in this film.

Once Upon A Time In The West is largely about innatism and deep-seated character. Through this comes the themes of change--more specifically a lack thereof. Moreover, this is where we bridge from character actions to motivations. As is made clear in the film, Cheyenne has a soft spot for Jill because she reminds him of his mother. A mother's love is the symbol of his deep-seated character. It's also what makes him a more chivalrous character. His mother was the 'biggest whore', but the 'finest woman'. By societal standard she was filth, she sold herself to get by - just like Jill. Now, why is this a bad thing? Don't worry, I'm not going start advocating Slut Walks and such here. Prostitutes are looked down on because we (anyone with any kind of sexual inclinations - more or less everyone) look down on ourselves. Sexuality is a taboo subject and always has been (to varying degrees) throughout history. This is because it's a very destructive, yet creative, idea. Sexual drive keeps us all here, all 7 billion of us. But, if your Mum and Dad where the 'perfect people' we like to assume them to be, well... Jesus wouldn't be that special. Virgin births? A common thing. In this respect we can see inhumanity being revered. This stretches away from the film a little, but this idea is very common in religion. There is only heaven and hell, nirvana, enlightenment, such and so on, because human life and Earth aren't liked much. There is always more. something better in religions. This wishful thinking is strange and quite destructive, but, also links back into the destructiveness in the movie. Sexuality, Jill, prostitutes, are looked down on because sexuality is first and foremost, but also because they simplify the equation. Prostitutes nullify the idea of marriage in a certain respect. Marriage sustains monogamy - especially in western culture. It keeps small pockets of people happy. We call these pockets: family. Now, the reason why Jill, Harmonica and Cheyenne in that one small house is a... I'm not sure how to communicate this idea. They are a nice, familial, image. There is a very clear tone of romanticism in this film, some would go as far to say there is a love triangle--quadrangle--square--pentagon--I don't know. The point is Jill seems like she could suit a many number of men: McBain, Frank, Cheyenne, Harmonica... who knows? This is why with the three characters (Jill, Harmonica and Cheyenne) in the house in the very end of the film create a familial, comfortable even, image. Jill seems like a mother figure to these two men, she makes coffee, sets the table, gets water. All the while the men kind of look out for her, get her land back, save her from Frank. This is all down to the fact that she is a prostitute.

What does this mean? Are we all prejudicial? Weirdly romantic? Yes. And possibly, but that's not a bad thing. You do you. It's beside the point anyway. This familial image has a lot to do with the idea of family touched on before.What!? Yeah, just bear with me. Leone in short romanticises the idea of a prostitute, makes her a feisty woman, a woman without morals, willing to do whatever she must to get by. The men around her are of a familiar sort. That, of course, in objection to the idea of monogamy and the preservation of small groups. This is intentional. There's a very liberal mentality behind having a prostitute be the protagonist of a film - and it's not too different from having a gunslinger being the protagonist. By doing this you support or advocate sympathy for the characters and their situations--this is why it was so important for The Force Awakens to have a female lead. Feminism is all the rage, and so to positively portray a female in a commercial piece of work is... well... good business. This may be why Leone used Jill, why Paramount agreed to fund the movie. Feminism really kicked off in the '60s - as I'm sure most know quite a bit better than me. But, in terms of narrative and meaning, this is not the soul reason why Leone is using Jill. She is the counter balance to the (at times) malicious male characters. By bringing the key characters closer together in concept, their screen presence implies a sense romance - in short, our minds connect the links between these characters. So, what has just happened? An untrusted, looked down upon, image of a prostitute has been linked to an untrusted, looked down upon, image of a criminal and/or vigilante. Leone has showed us that taboo ideas, or unsavory characters are acceptable - in context - when grouped. What he has revealed is the mentality of 'pocketing', grouping, family making. This is all intrinsically linked to the idea of deep-seated character. As was said before, Cheyenne has a soft spot for Jill because she reminds him of his mother. Him revealing the familial connection we place upon like individuals is exactly why she (and so Jill also) can be considered a fine woman, despite being the biggest whore. Prostitutes are an image of love for him. Now, connecting to the idea of liberalism: free love? This may be what Leone is proposing with the idea that men should be able to pat her bottom whilst she just ignores it. He may be using the image of a prostitute to object to tradition in the same way he uses the ugly to revise the western. This is a valid interpretation of the film and explains a lot of character actions. There's a mentality of living and letting die - an idea of justice arranging itself (why Frank comes back to be killed).

I prefer an alternative interpretation though. I think the idea of 'tapping bottoms' reveals the way in which we interact with symbols - namely, a prostitute. Jill should act as expected because that's who she is. Cheyenne may be telling her that she should pay no mind of men touching her to imply that maybe she should return to prostitution, or at least not be afraid men. He says this because the expectations of a widow are to be boring and sad. Moreover, he wants her to go interact with the men because he is dying - he can't stay with her. He doesn't want her to change, to wait for himself or Harmonica to come back (because they won't). Again, this is an act toward protecting her. This is why he can be considered a good guy(ish). We also see this affirmation of character in Frank and Harmonica. Frank refuses to become a modern criminal - as represented by Morton. He refuses to grow old and weak, using money as his source of power (linking to the idea of corrupt politicians and bankers). Harmonica too refuses to turn away from a fight even though he achieved what he seemed to have intended--getting Jill back her feet. No one changes over the course of the narrative. Everyone appeals to their character's core. Jill has her callousness, Harmonica his silent malevolence, Frank his gun and Cheyenne his reckless nature as well as his upbringing of his mother (which makes him sympathetic, giving him his black hat principals - no killing women and children). With the refusal to change comes the arc of growing selfishness. It's because all these characters are self-centred that they are strong, that they can be indifferent, that they can get along and survive. In this, Leone's message seems to be one of civilisation. He makes clear that uncivil characters and situations give rise to civility. The bad and good balance each other out, the unconventional (maybe uncivil) can live on because we let them. This is why the audience, you are so important. He has us align ourselves with certain characters to have us understand this idea. We like Jill, Harmonica and Cheyenne despite the connotations surrounding characters such as prostitutes and gunslingers because we all have an element of destruction within us all. This is why the likes of Jill can exist, why violence does, why 'Merica loves their guns. That's why Cheyenne says that the men patting Jill's bottom deserve it. First of all, they're working for her and she might not mind - but second of all, and more importantly, there's an idea of release, of letting go of suppression. I can argue that this exact same idea is why we love the film. We want to see violent, sexual, dangerous characters.

All in all,  Once Upon A Time In The West is about characters being driven by both selfish, questionable, good and bad mentalities, towards an askew and slightly romantic idea of civilisation. Like in the Dollar Trilogy there are happy endings despite not-so-happy undertones (the fact that Cheyenne dies, Jill endured tragedy, such and so on). With this Leone implies that equilibrium is an inevitability - an idea present in almost all of his westerns.

And there it is. The western series is over. No more...

... and...

... time to move on. Comment below on the films--or series even--that you would like to see.

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