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Revisiting Our Favourite Movies: Once Upon a Time in the West

2011 June 15

Team BadRep were sent a writing prompt this month: What is your favourite film or TV series, and why? If it’s what you’d call ‘feminist-friendly’, what about it appealed? If it isn’t, how does that work for you, and are there nonetheless scenes, characters and so on that have stayed with you and continue to occupy a soft spot for you as a feminist pop culture adventurer?

Unlike the previous film I chose to write about , this one is definitely in my Top Three of all time.

Movie poster for the Western "Once Upon a Time in the West".

Source: Wikipedia.

I love all the Sergio Leone Westerns. I love the stand-offs, the saloons, the mad Mexican trumpeting – in fact, any music at all by Ennio Morricone.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) is different. It is a death-knell for the cowboy movie. The entire 2-3 hours is about how the world has moved on, and to me that makes it a specifically feminist piece no matter how much it laments that the change is happening.

First of all, take a look at that poster. Of those four faces, who looks like they’re the most important? Whose name is first after the director? Claudia Cardinale. This is a cowboy movie which is largely about a woman who isn’t a gunfighter.

A difference between this and the Dollars westerns that you immediately notice is the pacing. For the first ten minutes, absolutely nothing happens. Three men wait for a train. One catches a fly under the barrel of his gun… then lets it go again. They wait some more. This is a slower, more contemplative movie, and not remotely about how many bandits Clint Eastwood can kill in 90 minutes.

Henry Fonda (famous for playing the good-guy, brilliantly cast here as a ruthless killer of women and children) is hired to shoot Cardinale’s family because they own a piece of land which will be valuable when the railroad comes through. He kills the men and boys, but she hasn’t arrived in town yet. When she discovers she’s now the sole owner of the land, she decides to fight to keep it.

There’s also Charles Bronson at his squinty best as “Harmonica”, a silent man with a debt to settle, and Jason Robards as a bandit whom Fonda tries to frame for the murders. Aaaand… that’s about it.

There are several points at which Cardinale’s character Jill is exploited or attacked, but she refuses to give up. It is a struggle of power, and while the attacks and prejudices suggest that women are still as sidelined as they were in the Middle Ages in my previous post, the owner of the railroad doesn’t even see her as a woman: just a small person who can be bought or murdered to get them out of the way like everyone else. It’s about money, and large companies vs the individual, not women or lone gunmen. It’s barely a cowboy film at all.

And it is very much about money, because that’s the final message. As the good gunmen leave Jill to run the town herself, you don’t know where they or the other loners will go now. The time of individuals carving out the frontier is over. Civilisation has caught up, and their world has been replaced by Banks and Corporations; these men are relics and they know it – powerless, irrelevant, unwanted. The new money allows anyone, of any gender, with no gun skills or army, to live securely and with power over themselves. Jill as a merchant not only represents the death of the Old West, but is the one person who thrives and succeeds in the entire movie. As the romantic vision of the lone gunman rides off into obsolesence, we miss it a little but are reminded that the heroine of the piece would never have had a chance to live in safety under the old ways.

It doesn’t have the quick gratification of the Dollars trilogy, but just a few seconds of the trailer is enough to put a smile on my face. (Interestingly, the trailer depicts nearly every time that Jill is attacked or oppressed, when her character and role is the opposite for most of the actual film. I’m just grateful they managed to put her on the poster without making her boobs or legs the focus.)

None of this is why I love it, of course. It’s the music, the crazy camera shots, the 10-minute scenes, the almost infinite time Leone can spend looking at every crag on someone’s unmoving face while gunfight melodies swell in the background, and the stunning performances from everybody involved. Fonda’s incredibly hard icy eyes. Bronson’s unflinching return gaze. (Top comment on the YouTube link to the trailer is Chuck Norris took one look at Charles Bronson’s eyes and wet himself.) It’s an epic, entertaining masterpiece. It IS cinema. Several scenes were timed to fit with the soundtrack for maximum effect, and the end result is remarkable.

I’ll leave the last line to Wikipedia:

In 2009, it was named to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant and will be preserved for all time.

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