Philosopher Jean Baudrillard has been credited with claiming alternately that Sergio Leone was the first post-modernist director and that Once Upon a Time in the West was the first post-modern film. Either seems like a specious claim, in that the French New Wave fairly lived in
Its post-modernity lies almost exclusively in the tenet of self-reflexivity, the ability to recognize that a work lies not outside its history, but is, indeed, a product of it. Sergio Leone, along with Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, who helped him fashion the treatment for Once Upon a Time in the West, repeatedly watched their favorite old Westerns during the story process, then consciously cribbed and quoted those films to lay the groundwork of familiarity against which the plot of the film would be set. In this way, they honored the conventions of the Westerns of their youth, while using them to deconstruct the Western itself.
The most striking use of this technique is in the casting. Henry Fonda, whose career had featured a long-line of heroic and morally-upright characters, including Abraham Lincoln, Tom Joad, Wyatt Earp, Mister Roberts, JFK, and Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., was cast as the evil, amoral Frank, a fact which was hidden from the audience until after he and his men had massacred an entire family, and just before he gunned down a child. The audience’s expectations for the character, then, were completely shattered, giving Frank full reign to be as brutal as he needed to be.
Also familiar to Western fans was Charles Bronson, who had appeared in Vera Cruz, Jubal, 4 For Texas, and Guns of Diablo. But it was his role as the wood-whittling Bernardo O’Reilly in The Magnificent Seven that made him the perfect choice for the role of Harmonica. What was, in The Magnificent Seven, a sweet and generous gift of music became a totem of revenge in Leone’s film.
Beyond this, there are many scenes or sequences in the film that refer directly or obliquely to previous Westerns. The beginning of the film is similar to that of High Noon, where three men wait for a single passenger at a train station. The person they are waiting for is a bad man named Frank. The massacre of the McBain family at Sweetwater was influenced by a similar sequence in The Searchers, where the Edwards family is setting their places for dinner, as the anticipation of an attack by unseen Indians mounts. The massacre is conducted by five men in dusters, including Frank, much the same way that the stagecoach is robbed by five men in dusters, including Liberty Valance, in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
The funeral scene is borrowed very closely from the Sonewall Torrey funeral scene in Shane. The character of Jill McBain bears close resemblance to that of Joan Crawford’s Vienna in Johnny Guitar, in what Bertolucci called “one of the more explicit references in Once Upon a Time in the West.” Henry Fonda, working the dark side of his personality in Warlock, wears clothes similar to what Frank wears here. His character also kicks a crippled man off his crutches, much as Frank does to Morton near the end of the film. And, of course, the entire concept of the colonization of the West, and the role of the railroad in it, is a common theme in Westerns. Veteran writer Frank Gruber calls it one of the seven basic Western plots. But in Leone’s interpretation, it bears closest resemblance to John Ford’s The Iron Horse and Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific in its affectionate close-ups of the trains.
But the references did not stop at Westerns. Leone pulled from all of film history, including a reference to the final scene of film noir Farewell, My Lovely, in which Marlowe says “She made good coffee, anyway,” echoing
Jorge Luis Borges once wrote that “every writer creates his own precursors.” Filmmakers are no different. Rarely are they as apparent in Once Upon a Time in the West, but we all live with a collective past, a collective memory, that exists to shape our perception of what is to come. Whether what is to come agrees with or contradicts what has passed is the choice of the artist.
~Jared Case, Head of Cataloging, Motion Picture Department, George Eastman House