Better Late than Never blog series…goes west: ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ (1968)

Have you ever watched a movie and thought, “I think that was a good movie, but I didn’t actually like it?”

That’s exactly what I thought after watching “Once Upon a Time in the West.”

I decided to watch “Once Upon a Time in the West” next in my Western blog series because I don’t have access right now to some of the other movies on my shortlist due to the fact my local library is closed as part of the national COVID-19 quarantine. “Once Upon a Time in the West” popped up when I searched for Westerns on Netflix, so I thought, “Why not?”

The film appears to be critically well regarded (95% on Rotten Tomatoes), and directors I love, like George Lucas and Quentin Tarantino, are reportedly big fans.

“Once Upon a Time in the West” is a very long film, clocking in at almost three hours. I actually watched it in two parts.

The film is directed by the legendary Sergio Leone, an Italian film director, producer and screenwriter, as well as creator of the “Spaghetti Western” genre. He directed “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” a film I absolutely loved and actually inspired this whole Western blog series.

At the heart of this film is a battle for control of a plot of land in the desert called “Sweetwater,” made valuable by the fact it possesses a much-coveted resource: water. The land’s owner, Brett McBain, invests in this property because he believes it will bring him prosperity when the railroad comes through the region. Greed leads to the tragic spilling of blood, and McBain’s newly widowed wife Jill has to fight to maintain her stake in the land.

For whatever reason, I had trouble concentrating on this movie, and it never really pulled me in. I’m hesitant to blame the movie itself for that, however. Since the COVID-19 quarantine started, I’ve found that I have trouble concentrating on books and movies sometimes. It’s hard not to be preoccupied by all that’s going on in the world, and even though I normally love gritty, darker Westerns, I found I just wasn’t in the mood for this one.

What I did really love was the music, which was composed by Ennio Morricone, who’s as legendary as Leone is. The score was lush, beautiful, and epic, and I enjoyed the film most when the music kicked in. Also, this is a really small, obscure detail, but I noticed that one of the themes from this movie actually reminded me a lot of one of the themes from “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.” (I know, that’s a deep cut.) I thought maybe I was just crazy and I’m the only one who noticed this, but I did find a Reddit thread from a year ago of people discussing this topic, so I’m glad I’m not the only one!

Just in case you’re curious, here’s a comparison of the clips:

The POTC song plays during a tense moment where the heroes and villains are facing off on a narrow strip of land, reminiscent of a gunfight in the Old West. I wouldn’t be surprised if POTC composer Hans Zimmer was directly referencing Morricone’s work.

Anyway, I’m always fascinated by how important the score is to the overall effectiveness of a film, and it really helps set the tone in a Western, letting viewers know if this is supposed to be a fun, rip-roaring adventure, or a more solemn, reflective story.

Although “Once Upon a Time in the West” had some intriguing characters, the film didn’t dig as deeply into who these people were as I would have liked. The last two movies/miniseries I watched for this blog project, “Hell or High Water” and the Netflix series “Godless,” did a really great job telling stories that were both engaging and emotionally satisfying, yet “Once Upon a Time in the West” didn’t have that same type of impact on me.

Maybe it’s because I was disappointed in how the character Jill McBain was handled. As I’ve been going through this blog series, I’ve been paying particular attention to how female characters are portrayed. You have such richly drawn female characters in stories like “True Grit” (both versions) and “Godless,” and Jill just isn’t given the same agency. I really didn’t like how the male characters in the film treated her, and a few scenes and bits of dialogue made me flinch. “Once Upon a Time in the West” could have done more to give Jill her own voice and shown how she truly is a toughened survivor. She travels all the way out West to marry a man who dies before she arrives, and has to take over the homestead on her own.

Overall, I feel like I need to watch this film again at a different time, to get a more accurate impression. It’s entirely possible I might enjoy it and appreciate it more.

In light of that, I think I’m actually going to close out my Western blog series for now. Originally I had planned to continue it for a while, due to the fact the summer movie season has essentially been postponed and I don’t have new movies to watch, but I don’t think it’s fair to keep trying to review these movies when my heart isn’t fully in it.

Next week I’m planning to be back with one more post, closing out my thoughts on this Western blog series, and then I think I’ll be moving on to some lighter fare (“Schitt’s Creek” has been my quarantine binge-viewing of choice lately, and it’s absolutely delightful). Until then, happy trails, and please keep sending me recommendations for Westerns, because now I really am proud to say that I’m a fan of the genre, and I’d like to watch more in the future.

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