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Once upon a Time in the West: A Critical Response.

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Josh Olah Dr. Waltersdorf English 239 November 19, 2002 Once upon a Time in the West: A Critical Response Once upon a Time in the West, directed by Sergio Leone, is a story of evil and vengeance (with a dose of mystery) set in the American West. As the story develops, characters are introduced who are essential to an understanding of the plots. Since there are two simultaneously developed story lines, the maturation of each character provides the viewer with insight as to why certain events occur as they do. But an analysis of the four levels of characterization (physical, social, psychological, and moral) of the two main characters will afford the viewer a greater understanding of the subliminal message of this story set in the Wild West during construction of the transcontinental railroad. That not-so-apparent theme is the triumph of morality over amorality. The antagonist of Once upon a Time in the West is a character wielding a sorrowful harmonica and a quick gun, portrayed by Charles Bronson. This character is appropriately named Harmonica. Harmonica's physical appearance is convincing of a stereotypical cowboy, being a rough, gun slinging nomad. However, when more closely examined, a more sophisticated and mysterious character is revealed. Harmonica, of medium stature with a stone face, possesses a focused, purposeful personality. We are quickly convinced he can defend himself when he survives the three-against-one gun fight in the opening scene. ...read more.


Early on, Harmonica kills several men, letting viewers suppose that Harmonica is without morals. Yet there comes a time when he saves Frank from being shot by Frank's own men. But even that is perplexing because Frank is totally without morals, so he is not really worth saving. In another scene, Harmonica seems to abuse Jill McBain, but even then, we overlook that because of the greater good he provided when he gave Jill the deed to Sweetwater. In the climax, the storyteller gives us all we need to conclude that Harmonica espouses morality after all. Through an enlightening flashback we are taught that Harmonica has merely been seeking retribution for his older brother's death (murdered by Frank when Harmonica was a youth), and we are relieved to learn that Harmonica is really a justice-seeking hero, having prolonged Frank's life earlier so that Harmonica could himself avenge his brother's death. The protagonist in Once upon a Time in the West is a deceiving cold-blooded killer played by a surprising choice of actor, Henry Fonda. Fonda is a bright blue-eyed, pleasant faced man who portrays a ruthless murderer. Sergio Leone used Fonda in order to depict a real life character who develops just the opposite of Harmonica-seemingly quite amiable at first, but who, it is later revealed, is really quite the epitome of evil. Frank's black clothing, combined with a chilling glare, illustrate him as being fiercer and more ominous than the other characters, including Harmonica. ...read more.


In many other Westerns, there is a decided difference in style and tempo between the music of the "good guy" and "bad guy," but in this one, the identifying music is eerily more alike than strikingly different. That's because the director believes that no one person is entirely good or entirely bad. Yet Frank's morals seem clearly to be non-existent. Slaughtering a family, slyly smiling while shooting a young boy, extortion, and seduction are all the proof we need to label Frank as one devoid of any morals. The only possible aspect of morality exhibited by Frank is his observance of etiquette in not shooting a man in the back, a possibility that is underscored by having Frank, in the movie's climax, participate in a fair duel with Harmonica (instead of ambushing him or having Harmonica killed by Frank's henchmen). In light of all Frank has done in the past, we find ourselves asking why not this time as well. Momentarily at least, we wonder whether Frank actually possessed a pinch of morality-only to conclude that such was not the case. Harmonica and Frank are two very interesting and complex characters, and without the juxtaposition of them, Once upon a Time in the West would not be such a captivating movie. Sergio Leone's intricate design for Once upon a Time in the West provides a superb environment in which to situate these characters, and allows them to be a foundation on which all other characters, themes, settings and plot elements could build. 2 Olah ...read more.

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