Well, loyal readers, I'm back after something of a hiatus. However, I'm back in something of a different context, being in what might be something of a cinematic sequester for a few months, for timely theatrical viewing, at any rate. So for these next couple of months I am going to indulge in some more studied and intentional home viewing, and all seven of you get to be on the receiving end of that.
First up will be a discussion of the two great mythology-beatifying westerns: How the West Was Won, and Once Upon a Time in the West. Both films are stunningly beautiful examples of the totally disparate schools that produced them and obvious high-water marks in the genre. In comparing the two, I want to look at individual merit as well as overall impact on the genre, especially since we live in a largely post-"western" world. First up will be the first of the films to be released, 1963's How the West Was Won.
The film is almost equal parts hubristic passion project and insane National Parks PR campaign, and indeed, the film is almost as large as its subject matter: the West. ALL OF IT. From early expansion in Ohio through the gold rush, Civil War, Indian conflicts and railroad encroachment up to glorious Boomer-era capitalist triumph. It boasts an impressive cast featuring anyone who had ever been in a western, and was co-directed by 3 giants of the genre. It was shot and originally presented using the new panoramic "Cinerama" technology, which used three cameras and three projectors launching three synchronized images onto a huge concave screen for a more enveloping experience. It was a mammoth picture.
And, looking back at it with a few days' insulation, it is the picture's mammoth-ness that most sticks with this writer more than anything else. The photography is a little overwhelming. Of course it is beautiful (as evidenced above) but it is not a film that can really be transferred for home viewing. Because of the original panoramic nature of the projection, when this is seen on a flat screen it is a little dizzying. Sometimes there are two points of focus on the horizon, and almost always more than the human eye normally takes in. After a while one wishes (for the only time ever) for some kind of reduction in presentation ratio.
As a landmark in the western canon, the film functions as more of a toast and tribute than anything else. It celebrates the triumph of good old wholesome American-ness, in an era when such was being questioned and criticized more than ever. And, really, what else could it have been? The western up to that point was never anything less than that, from Stagecoach to High Noon to The Searchers. The film is the culminating statement in the decades-long treatise chronicling the subjugation of all nature and people by the righteous white man. And few films make that statement less ambiguously than How the West Was Won.
Contrast that with Sergio Leone's 1968 masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West. (Yes, it's even better, maybe, than The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Maybe.) It is an operatic fairy tale, incorporating Wagnerian leitmotifs perfectly with Leone's quintessential grit. It is a film of stark beauty and deep melancholy: a eulogy where How the West Was Won was a celebration.
The image that ties the two films together is the subduing of landscape by the railroad. This was the only "spaghetti" western to shoot outside of Europe, and there is some spectacular photography of Monument Valley. Here, the railroad brings corruption, greed, and an end to what innocence the West had notwithstanding its inherent violence. It brings new life as well, embodied by the film's heroine Jill, but she is hardly the kind of Eve found in How the West Was Won. In that film, the railroad was only ever a good thing, bringing together all good and hardy people for the last great colonization of the last frontier. That film ends with a showcase of the railroad's modern technological descendants; Once Upon a Time closes with the departure of the last man of his kind as the train pulls into the station, no longer welcome in his only environment.
But the film, notwithstanding its melancholy and occasional mourning, is not cynical. It canonizes rugged individualism of a different kind than its more patriotic cousin. That film is clean and bloodless in its conflict; this uses grit and dust and blood as its medium to paint a final portrait of the kind of American that no longer is.
So I say that Once Upon a Time in the West is probably the better film, although they are both worthy of viewing. But its artistry is more lasting and resonant, and its impact more appropriate given the landscape of our American west today.
As a bonus, here's an excerpt from Ennio Morricone's overwhelming score for Once Upon a Time in the West. I put it easily in the top 10 film scores of all time. In case you don't believe how seriously beautiful of a movie this is.
by Chase Harrison