There was a time in my life when I was convinced I was a western fan. Then I watched a few classics, both actual and modern, like The Wild Bunch and The Proposition, which I assumed I’d like. Subsequently, I decided I was more an Italian western fan.
But even then, Sergio Corbucci lacks what I love about a movie like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. So perhaps I’m not really an Italian western fan, I’m just a big Sergio Leone lover. And yet, I haven’t finished Once Upon a Time in America…
This is the film that had a major hand in influencing the creation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, the author being attracted to the otherworldly sense of mythology and near-mysticism. The frame becomes a dimension of reality, where things don’t exist in the world until they enter frame. Blondie and Tuco don’t hear Angel Eye’s coming despite his proximity. They don’t sense the civil war encroaching just ten feet away.
Sergio Leone is able to establish a heightened reality unlike any other. These characters are not mere mortals, they’re larger-than-life and forces of natures, flowing through the desolate landscape with little connection to humanity. And indeed to connect these characters to an epic backdrop, of the Civil War, which makes for a lush and enormous environment.
The shelled town, looking like a post-apocalypse, the great green hills, the labor camp — this tour through American history is literalized in the most criminally deleted scene in movie history, “Il Forte,” or Angel Eye’s tour through a Confederate base.
Divorced of its politics, that alongside the Revolutionary War, the Civil War is the most justified American conflict — people can debate about our involvement in Europe’s wars in the early and mid-20th century — the Civil War was war. Sergio Leone felt the bloodshed was useless, and I agree to an extent: war is no way to solve national issues.
So the director takes no sides, and equates them on a level of body and injury — Angel Eye’s, the villain, walks through this base and Morricone’s Il Forte plays as the camera moves around in a beautiful way, with that revolving around his head, aside from the ever-gorgeous still compositions. It’s a wonderful scene, one that wordlessly speaks to the horrors of war. The scripts of these movies, often co-written by Leone and another Sergio, and sometimes Dario Argento, are lyrical and poetic, but sparse. When there is dialogue, it’s good, but more often than not, the director uses cinematic language to invoke mood or tell a story.
These characters rolling through town, this town being an Old West torn asunder by the Civil War, are gunslingers, so they bring their own morality to it. The Man with No Name offers a dying man his cigar, and blows up a bridge, thereby satisfying the last wish of another dying man.
But like in the final showdown of Once Upon a Time in the West, when the violence of the Old West, so ritualistic, is upon them, nothing else matters to the larger-than-life players. The Civil War is an impressionistic landscape, the physical and brutal violence to contrast with the three central men’s pulpy treasure adventure. Something is on the horizon — something is about to change here.
The themes and the story are a bit obfuscated, but this is an integral part of its DNA. Where A Fistful of Dollars is a straightforward adventure, For a Few Dollars More a dark, taut exercise in masterclass filmmaking, and Once Upon a Time in the West is a literary tale rendered in cinema form, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is an enigma. It feels episodic, it feels mystical. It’s violent, epic, and the music soars high.
It’s a cliché, sure, but goddamn it: nobody makes movies like Sergio Leone.