Sergio Leone is mostly known for his series of westerns featuring Clint Eastwood. However, Once Upon a Time in the West is also regarded as an epic and one of the best films of his career. Prior to making the film, Sergio reportedly watched a lot of western films and tried to combine all of them into one giant story. The result was a novel that was reduced to this film's screenplay.
The film is entirely based around a ruthless railroad baron named Gabriele Ferzetti who is using brute force to seize land for his railroad as he moves west. For muscle, he hires thugs led by a man named Frank. We don't see this happen since it has been apparently going on for some time. What we do see is what happens when Frank razes a homestead that is situated on land needed for the railroad.
The family that lives on the homestead is brutally slaughtered on the day that the owner's wife is due to arrive from the east. Jill McBain arrives at the railroad station to find her husband suspiciously absent, then hitches a ride to her home to discover the gruesome scene. She then realizes the value of her land and her husband's secret plans for it and seeks to realize those plans.
Jill's cause seems hopeless if she is left to defend herself against Frank alone. Luckily, two strangers arrive in town and help her cause. One is a very mysterious fellow named Harmonica, who is an excellent gunfighter and always plays a strange tune on his harmonica. The other is Cheyenne, who is a rough outlaw with a good heart.
The film has a stellar cast, including Henry Fonda, who gives a chilling performance as Frank. Jill McBain is played by the stunningly gorgeous Claudia Cardinale, who was originally an Italian film star. The two unlikely allies consist of Charles Bronson as Harmonica and Jason Robards as Cheyenee and finally, the railroad baron is played by Gabriele Ferzetti.
One of Leone's strengths in filmmaking is his ability to create suspense and he uses it to great effect in this film. The opening scene is one of the best in the film and consists of three ruffians taking over a train station and waiting around during the opening credits. Throughout the scene, not a word is spoken, but sounds such as a creaking windmill serve to add to the suspense. Finally a train arrives and we see Harmonica for the first time as he faces off with the three men.
The scenery in the film is almost entirely desert since the film takes place in the western United States. All of the towns are small and thrown together, much like they were in that time period, but that makes the movie all the more appealing. Everything looks historically accurate, from the clothing to the architecture.
In conclusion, I consider this my favorite western film and favorite film by Sergio Leone. The atmosphere, the music, and the acting all come together to make one of the best films of all time. If you enjoy westerns, this film will probably become one of your favorites as well.