Sergio Leone decided to kill the western by making a film about the death of the west. To accomplish the former he attempted to make the ultimate western film, pulling from all the archetypes of the genre and reducing them to their essential, mythic core. To do the latter, he shot a western like it was the end of the world. Every set feels like it’s one gust of wind away from going the way of the tumbleweeds, and all the actors appear to have been worn down by centuries, more weathered sculptures of antiquity or crinkled leather than flesh and blood.
Leone’s twin mission statement of ending the west and the western in one fell swoop is no more apparent than the film’s protracted opening sequence. This standalone sequence sees three duster-clad outlaws waiting for a train, presumably for someone they need to kill. The subject of their dazed wrath, and the cargo of the train, is Charles Bronson’s unnamed hero (later dubbed Harmonica for an obvious reason). Harmonica and the train are both specters of death, and both arrive with a feeling of finality. Harmonica represents an avenging angel, promising death to outlaws, and the train represents the death of the west itself, as it brings civilization along with it (although not necessarily civility, as we come to understand that the modern world is capable of the same cruelties as the old, only without its warrior’s code). Harmonica is intent on wiping out the sins of the past and ushering in civilization even if it means the end of his “ancient race,” as he bluntly states later in the film.
The real joy of the scene, however, comes before the train arrives, in a perfectly measured exercise of tension through banality. The ominous silhouettes of the duster-clad trio of outlaws are all we really need to clue us in that something bad is going to happen, so in the meantime, we can take pleasure in the excruciatingly protracted atmospherics that occupy time until the fateful train has delivered its payload. Water drips on the unmoving face of the first outlaw, the second cracks his knuckles impatiently, a rusty windmill creaks, and the third outlaw (my favorite), who most resembles a bullfrog, hilariously attempts to remove a fly from his face without mustering the effort to use his hands.
Leone draws out the tension to the breaking point of our attention. The scene begins eerie, turns funny, before finally resting on the cusp of boring. Right as you might be giving in to the notion that this is a three hour old west version of Waiting for Godot, the train arrives, and with it the promise of swift death and quick cuts. However, those long minutes before the train even arrives are not only all Leone needed to show that this era of American myth has reached its epoch breaking point, but they just about prove that nobody could make a better cinematic interpretation of it than he could. Two coffins with one nail.
Were the rest of the film as good as its opening, this probably would be the final word on westerns too, but Leone peaks early with that masterpiece of suspense. That’s not to say the rest of the movie is poor; immediately following is a scene that’s nearly as iconic –the brutal and shocking reveal of watery-eyed Henry Fonda as not just a villain, but a butcher of children– but it never mounts that same level of tension or wit again. The film’s themes become more bluntly stated (indeed by the end of the film Bronson and Fonda go ahead and spell them out for us with their, admittedly very cool, dialogue). Leone keeps the same measured tempo throughout most of the movie somewhat dulling its effect. Had the more charismatic trio of Eastwood, Wallach, and Van Cleef replaced their obvious counterparts perhaps the middle portion of the film would have felt more lively.
Fortunately, the film ends on a thrilling and appropriately epic duel that has the weight of extinction on its shoulders. Leone alternates between his landscape like extreme close-ups and his actual landscapes as if the duelists are already one with the geography they’ve chosen to let define them. Despite the film being about literal and symbolic death, Leone doesn’t allow it to become too mired in operatic gloom; however, as you know that a story that begins with “Once upon a time” only ends one way.