I reckon I can't explain the whys n' wherefores of it, but our recent election has instilled an uncontrollable desire in me to watch old Westerns. Not really old, mind you, but instead from that wonderfully pessimistic mid-1960s period when directors were first allowed to enhance their art form with generous helpings of violence and obscenities. Maybe my compulsion arises from a desire to debunk the cutesy-poo cowboy terminology and clothing utilized by so many candidates on this side of the Mississippi. Maybe it's just a fear that with a re-Republicanized Congress backing Dubya, my days of seeing sagebrush are numbered. In any case, the rentals are stacking up like tumbleweeds, and the one that simply won't leave my DVD player, hard as I may try to turn it off, is the 2003 deluxe reissue of Sergio Leone's 1969 masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West.
Not that the film is anything resembling a light watch. As the legend goes, Leone's 165-minute behemoth about railroad boomtowns contains only 15 scripted pages of dialogue, and most of the lines sound as if they were individually labored over for weeks to achieve maximum impact. Like the democratic process, Once was judged to be "too difficult" by American audiences. Instead, it thrived on the European mainland, and has only recently been adopted onto countless "Greatest Film" rosters by Johnny-come-lately film critics. Like the rail crews unceremoniously rending the desert floor in the film's opening minutes, we Americans blow things up with haste and only venerate them with hindsight.
The story in Once is every bit as wide open and difficult to explain as the title indicates--and besides, like every Leone western, it is really about the ability of a director and a composer (Ennio Morricone) to make nameless, homeless men into memorable demigods. The difference here is that unlike in his "Dollars Trilogy" (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) Leone actually had a few dollars more by 1969, and was free to embrace his most fantastical leanings--meaning, constructing entire towns and railroads in the middle of Monument Valley and bringing in wish-list talent including Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson and Italian bombshell Claudia Cardinale. The other, and most important, difference is that Once is intended to be the Western to end all Westerns--longer, meaner, with more expansive landscapes, better acting and music, deeper mythological themes and none of the usual humorous interludes that detract from the gravity of dying alone in the desert. It succeeds on all counts. Leone was not only done making westerns with Once; he wanted, like some kind of cinematic mining engineer, to leave no scraps of the genre behind for future filmmakers.
But the overpowering artistic beauty of the film aside, Once remains relevant today for another reason. In Leone's West, as in ours, powerful men build careers and fortunes without having to answer to anyone--case in point, Mike Crapo's recent unopposed senatorial campaign. In Leone's West, as in ours, the line between antagonist and protagonist has more to do with personality and opportunity than law--and this leads to few happy endings. Whether in the death scenes, as gripping as any in cinema, or in the sad fade away to The Future, Once betrays a profound cynicism with every notion of progress to which our region has clung. It is both frightening and humbling to ponder how far we have progressed.