Death is everywhere in the western – anytime a cowboy wants to settle his problem, he reaches for his gun. But ‘Once Upon A Time in the West’ has none of the basic ‘chasing injuns’ morality – it is men who know they are going to die, and who act upon their frontier instincts of greed, vengeance and honour. These are cowboys at the end of their time, at the brink of their era and having to lie down in the face of a new age. The evolution of industry and civilisation is symbolised in the film by the railroad – a major feature of both the mise-en-scène and the narrative. In the vast, empty landscapes of the desert, the black railway line could appear as an intrusion; something new and out of place in an untouched place. The worst enemy of the cowboy is the future – a threat to their old-fashioned methods and philosophies. But the representation of the cowboys in this film provides a sensitive and thoughtful depiction of a time that changed
This awareness of the presence of death allowed the film to be permeated with a sense of mourning and melancholy – a farewell to the old west. But the railroad is also present to signify change, and a progression in civilisation. One famous shot follows the film’s heroine
Gender roles, too, are examined in the film. Traditional westerns had women firmly as secondary characters – distressed damsels, humorous squaws or homely mothers and wives.
And yet, for all it did to help the western, it has to be said that the film is responsible for killing a few cowboys itself. Dead were the heroes of
‘Once Upon A Time in the West’ is undoubtedly a classic – a master class in how to make a film truly effective. As if the countless pop culture references and tributes weren’t proof enough of its staying power, the film frequently appears in ‘Top 50’ lists, and is widely considered – alongside John Ford’s drastically different ‘The Searchers’ – to be the greatest western ever made. It is refreshing for a post-Tarantino audience to still admire film that treats the subject of violence so gracefully, and with such little self-referential irony. In its absolute conviction in itself and its inimitable style, ‘Once Upon A Time in the West’ signalled a significant change in the genre – this is the peak of the Spaghetti Western, the peak of Leone, one of the peaks of the Sixties – simply put, this is the best that cowboys ever got.