Once Upon a Time in the West is a spaghetti western epic, the first big film done by Sergio Leone after his trilogy with Clint Eastwood featuring the man with no name, each of which ended up being a bigger box office success than the one before it. The film was a big budget Paramount Pictures fever dream about the American mythology of the west, and is an absolute beauty from a cinematographic perspective. It got released in December of 1968, a month after Richard Nixon got elected in a somewhat unsettled Presidential election cycle.
1968 was a time of plenty unrest in America, with both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy getting assassinated that year, and riots spawning multiple times, both in African-American communities as well as among liberal college campus set. The Democratic Convention in Chicago was a huge mess, where thousands of activists showed up to disrupt the proceedings of status quo with antiwar protests. Police ran roughshod with tear gas and clubs, all of it on TV for the whole nation to see. Incumbent Lyndon Johnson had already pulled out of running after losing early primaries and with RFK in the race, long before it got to the convention. Hubert Humphrey came out of the convention as the nominee.
Richard Nixon’s launch into political success (he lost to JFK in 1960, so this was his second run at the big seat) was not without its own opposition, as the more racist South, who around this time were being rejected by the Democratic Party that had previously housed Southern Dixiecrats after the Civil War, wanted a pro-segregationist politician. The American Independent Party was founded via funding by Bill and Eileen Shearer, who positioned former Alabama governor George Wallace as an unflinching voice for law and order segregation. The whole thing has snippets and tinges of 2016-2020 politics, but even worse, which is a good reminder for this constant End Times vision we all seem to be instilled with in this great digital age of fear and self-loathing. Wallace actually won five deep south states in the election, with Nixon taking most everywhere else in the south and west, with Humphrey getting most of the northeast and notably Texas. Obviously, as history showed us in the years that followed, Nixon was absolutely not a unifying force with a grand vision for a better America, but instead a political bully who ended up being his own worst enemy. But when you have an outright racist like Wallace, and a status quo baby steps towards progressive visions establishment candidate like Humphrey, Richard Milhouse Nixon was the centrist, by default.
It’s also really strange to think about what’s historically painted as such a cataclysmic time in American history, with people literally setting shit on fire in the street demanding a better country. And the Democratic Party could only trot out a tired “old politics” safe bet (which sounds awfully familiar), and the Republicans brought out a longtime political snake who pretty much ran on blaming LBJ for Vietnam and civil unrest and everything else. That, combined with Wallace siphoning off the outright racists, allowed Nixon to win in an election more like that Three Stooges bit where two of them step backwards leaving Curly up front than any other.
In terms of my family, when this film dropped, my mom would’ve been 12, and my dad would’ve just turned 13 a couple days before. It was just his birthday this past Thanksgiving, and I miss him more now than ever, likely because familial relations are all fucked up, and I’m very alone in this world in terms of family, so I can romanticize my father (who died at 46, but would’ve turned 64 if he was still alive) and pretend he would’ve been a wonderful part of my life, instead of likely having fallen down all the wrong rabbitholes on a secondhand iPhone 6, and texting me links to youtube videos that were gonna wake me up to the reality going on. I am thankful for strained family relations so that I don’t have to tolerate proud pro-Trump voices who think they are incredibly smart for seeing through the Democrat’s bullshit. I also don’t understand that binary, because I could give a fuck less about the Democrats. Yeah, they’re hypocrites and the established portions of that party are likely corrupt as fuck. But you take that counter example away and have Trump standing there by himself without the comparison, and what you have is corrupt as fuck hypocrite.
Anyways, it’s good to look back briefly at a previous election and realize it’s always been fucked to one extent or another. The things we are experiencing in today’s America really aren’t that much of an anomaly. And it makes sense to go back to a western from that tumultuous 1968 year, because the American Dream, which has always been a myth and mythologized to a certain extent, was definitely kept alive by how we collectively imagined the old west. Early America was English colonies, where the fine English carved out the beginnings of a new world, and sent poor non-English people out into the Appalachian wilderness to settle and further colonize this already inhabited land. Once Thomas Jefferson (who lived in a nice house on the mountain overlooking my basement apartment I can barely afford) completed the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon, doubling America’s claims to land in size, and the concept of Manifest Destiny was ingrained in our consciousness, the settler-colonist mindset spread further west until it hit the Pacific, with the notion that America was creating a New World, better than the old one, like a chance to redo what Europe had done, but bigger and better, acting as if it was all new and people didn’t already live here. “Go west, young man,” was the phrase attributed to newspaperman Horace Greeley, about how you could build a new life for yourself, even if you didn’t have a great one yet, because there was unlimited wealth to be found. Gold rushes, and speculation, and the expansion of the U.S. railroad system all fed this, sending poorer eastern whites west, in the hopes of becoming rich as fuck.
That is the foundational essence of the western genre, which reflects this mythologization of the American west during this period, and it’s the underlying theme of this particular Sergio Leone written and directed film as well. This Irish dude, McBain, has landed just outside a place called Flagstone, on a chunk of land he bought and named Sweetwater, as it was the only source of water in the area. McBain had secretly been planning on building a station, and making a brand new town out here in the desert, just by having the foresight to get the land and figure out where the railroad was gonna get built.
The film opens with magical imagery, as three dudes have congregated at a station, presumably to do some dastardly shit, as they’re bullying the station manager. One of those three is that crooked eyeball dude Jack Elam who played in a ton of old movies, and was an amazing character actor. He’s even in the credits in the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West, but very little time passes before our antihero, the ghostly harmonica playing Charles Bronson, simply called “Harmonica”, shoots Elam and his compadres dead. That establishes our first character in the drama triangle.
The second is quickly established in elder Henry Fonda, who is part of a bad crew of dudes (some real bad hombres, as Trump would say) who end up murdering not only McBain and his teen children, not only the sweet teen daughter softly singing “Danny Boy” a few moments earlier, but even the young maybe 8-year-old child who was far too young to be murdered openly, even by old west standards where you lived by the gun for the most part. But Fonda’s character, called Frank, was named out loud by one of his fellow gunmen, so he had to shoot the boy so the boy didn’t talk about who killed his family. This obviously establishes Fonda as the hard evil on our drama triangle.
And finally Jason Robards wanders into a saloon, recruiting some sucker to shoot his hand shackles loose, and has a tense interaction with both Harmonica as well as McBain’s whore wife from New Orleans (she really is a sex worker, so I’m not projecting here), before wandering off as the third part of our drama triangle, all of which get involved with the widow McBain to one extent or another, with varying levels of mutual consent.
It should be made abundantly clear that the pacing of a Sergio Leone movie is absolutely amazing – a morphine dream of a slow boil, so unlike today’s marathon explosions and CGI-induced sensory shock and awes. So many close-ups on various white faces that have become dirt and sand and sweat and blood-stained to various degrees of non-whitening. There’s a long sequence of a sweaty ass Elam sitting in a squeaky chair fiddling with a fly on his face, slow thick drama like southern humidity.
The unwhitening is both an actual phenomenon and digital cultural posturing seen in actual life. I remember on a Greyhound layover one time, getting drunk with two dudes from California outside the Oklahoma City bus station, from a bottle of vodka stashed in the trash can, and both dudes were belligerently white, but their faces were that deep brown leathered, crackled broke ass for two generations, half that time stuck outside white faces. That same shade as seen on the face of the mother in that famous Dorothea Lange photo, of dust bowl family fleeing west. I think about those types of whitefaces a lot when I contemplate my internal philosophies of dirtgods juxtaposed with shinefaces. Shinefaces are always clean, perfectly manicured, no scars or cracks or deep brown effects of public poverty on their faces. Smooth silky handshakes, smooth silky clothes, and smooth silky faces. The wretched of the Earth white are not the equals to the fine whites, which is also why I get tripped out by poor people supporting Trump so nihilistically. I used to live across the road from a dude who was a shitty HVAC repair dude who worked on farms both days in the weekend, often times driving animals to the slaughterhouse at night too. He worked seven days a week, every week, and still ain’t have shit, yet had a Trump sign out front of his house. How does a guy like that, who can’t get ahead no matter how much he works, get behind a guy that literally had a gold-plated home? I don’t get it.
And then the other side of that unwhitening is what we see as a response to white fragility and guilt in digital culture, where every white person tries to distance themselves from the most oppressive versions of American whiteness, by being part Jewish or from a poor rural family, fetishizing Appalachian identity, even though that was the settler-colonizers who pushed the American Dream deeper into this continent, albeit less silky, less smooth handshakes and outfits. But just like Jason Robards or Henry Fonda, flashing blazing blue eyes behind that dirt-crusted face, it’s easy to still see what’s up.
As Harmonica and Jason Robards (called Cheyenne) are linked up as allies finally in this drama triangle, and realize McBain’s plans, and that Frank is a hired gun who’s come around to help some shithead on his own Trump-like train, complete with gaudy garnish galore, get ahold of McBain’s land and build the town at Sweetwater, they decide to work together to foil the plans, basically just to be dicks to be honest, but being dicks to the biggest dicks, so good, in relation, I guess using the same binary I said was stupid before with regards to two-party politics. The drama triangle at least gives us the illusion of more than one alternative, that sometimes even work together against the worst evil. We could use a drama triangle in American politics more, although I guess that’s also what George Wallace was in 1968. Fuck, are we just entirely doomed always?
But as Harmonica and Cheyenne talk, Cheyenne says the potential Sweetwater train town could be worth “thousands of thousands”. Harmonica answers, “They call that millions.” An unimaginable wealth, just there for the cultivating, if you’re willing to do the dirty work to make it happen. That old west mythology, of manifest destiny, which is also still the American Dream as it is written in the brochures, but not seen as often as maybe it once was.
I’d like to tangent here about the rich dude who had his own train, because THIS MOTHERFUCKER HAD HIS OWN TRAIN! Like, he was just riding around out west in this gilded ass fancy car, walking on crutches because he had polio or something, hiring these evil bastards to kill whoever he needed killed in order to make his destiny manifest, namely increasing his already exorbitant wealth even more. He was Trump, or Jeff Bezos, or Bloomberg, or whoever you feel best putting that role with your own personal biases, as the already wealthy asshole who is using his powerful wealth to make it even larger and more powerful. Of course, those who live by hired guns often die when they get turned on, and that’s exactly what happens to rich polio dude with his own fucking train, left to die in a mud puddle, ironically in a rare desert water source. Frank killed him.
This all leads up to the final showdown (as all westerns do), as the railroad is getting built closer and closer, and Cheyenne’s men are building the station to seal in McBain’s vision before the other bastards can steal the plan, and Harmonica Charles Bronson is just sitting there whittling a piece of wood. All this shit going on, and he’s just whittling with a knife. I briefly tried woodcarving, and found it highly enjoyable, but my 21st century mind is too ingrained with productivity and there being an end result to any effort made. I mean, fuck, this long ass pontification of a 1968 western is perfect example – I couldn’t just watch a bunch of old ass movies, one per year. I had to make a project of it, to share, and feel like I’ve produced something worthwhile instead of just slothing about on my secondhand Ikea futon couch in the purple Christmas lights watching an old Bronson flick. So woodcarving didn’t work out long term because I didn’t accomplish anything with it, other than whittling on some chunks of wood. Maybe I should give up all these stupid projects and just carve on some chunks of wood more. WHAT’S THE POINT OF ANY OF THIS SHIT?
Frank shows up finally, and Cheyenne is in the house with McBain’s widow (who I think would’ve slept with all three men in our triangle, except Harmonica was the hard good in the triangle, so didn’t reciprocate the advances). Harmonica lines up against Frank, and we get the flashbacks that show the childhood Harmonica being forced to stand with I guess his brother or father on his shoulders, in a noose, and a younger Frank (along with his bully buddies) is there, tormenting the young Harmonica, by putting a harmonica in his mouth as he struggled to stand upright to save his family member’s life for another few moments, before inevitably falling to the ground, thus being complicit in the death of his loved one. Frank’s just laughing in the flashback, but as we come back to current time, with bastardly Frank slumped to the ground, Harmonica pulls his namesake instrument out of his pocket and stuffs it into Frank’s mouth, coming full circle.
After that, Frank is dead, and Bronson splits, with no real point in life any more. Not everybody is bound to achieve great dreams of wealth and a wonderful destiny being manifested. Some of us are controlled by vengeance, and after he got his, he ain’t even need his harmonica no more. He just grabbed his satchel, and split. Cheyenne did too, catching up briefly to Harmonica, but he got clipped in the earlier shootout, so was dying too. Hard evil was shot dead, and indeterminate kinda evil but kinda good also got shot but bled slow. And hard good just disappeared into the distance, while the town got built and other people got rich and progress happened.
We ran out of land to head west on, but there’s still speculation galore. Our entire stock market is built on that. The rise of cryptocurrency is essentially that old west speculation, just in an even larger abstract realm, but it’s same damn shit as always. These imaginary entities get built, and fortunes get made, and a lot of people get fucked, and the only thing that undoes one of these super-evil super-wealthy assholes is them crossing the wrong person, who doesn’t give a fuck to be bought out, and just wants to gain revenge somehow, and plays that out slowly and quietly and with great attention to every nefarious detail. Within the grand abstraction of whiteness, the hardest evil point of that triangle always hopefully get undone by a vengeful spirit somewhere else on that confusing non-binary triangle. That’s our infamous antihero – too fucked up to actually succeed according to civilized standards, but amazingly beautiful in their ability to briefly light a better path for us all with their bridge arsonry.n