Once Upon A Time In The West Ending Explained: An Ancient Race

I don't think I'll ever tire of rhapsodizing about the shootouts in the movies of Sergio Leone. He was a director fascinated by the infinite possibilities of the showdown -- the critical few moments before the duelists draw their guns and try to shoot each other dead. With extreme close-ups, he studied faces as time stretched out to impossible lengths. And then, the matter was settled in a brief flurry of violence.

Leone's obsession with the waiting period reached its artistic peak in "Once Upon a Time in the West." Here, the timer for the showdown begins well before the logical starting point -- when all the adversaries are present and facing each other. For eight breathless minutes, three villains stand around and do nothing at a dusty train station in the middle of nowhere. One cracks his knuckles. Another tries to take a nap but is bothered by a fly. The third catches drops from the water tower in the brim of his hat. It takes a talented director to make an exciting action sequence, but a genius to make boredom just as enthralling.

Then the train rolls in with a burst of noise and smoke, carrying our hero. He plays a mournful tune on his harmonica. Images and music are intrinsically linked in Leone's films and, like the tinkling pocket watches in "For a Few Dollars More," the man's leitmotif is crucial to the movie's emotional payoff. You can tell he's probably in town for vengeance, but what drives him to haunt his target before pulling the trigger?

So What Happens In Once Upon A Time In The West Again?

After Harmonica (Charles Bronson) realizes he's been set up -- he was there to meet the boss, Frank (Henry Fonda) -- he exchanges a few terse words with the three killers and shoots them dead.

Meanwhile, Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) and his kids are preparing a wedding party at their isolated Sweetwater ranch to welcome his new bride, Jill (Claudia Cardinale), a former New Orleans sex worker who Brett married in secret a month prior. Frank and his henchmen crash the party early and murder the whole family.

When Jill arrives in the nearest town and finds no one waiting for her, she gets a carriage driver to take her to the ranch. On their way, she sees Harmonica exchange words with Cheyenne (Jason Robards), an escaped outlaw who belongs to Frank's gang.

Learning that her husband and new family have been gunned down, Jill decides to stay at the ranch regardless. This scuppers Frank's plans, as he had been hired by the filthy rich railroad tycoon Mr. Morton (Gabriel Ferzetti) to scare the McBains off the land. Why? Mr. McBain bought the patch of desert knowing the railway would one day pass through it and was preparing to build a station and a town in readiness.

After Frank's men try to frame Cheyenne for the murder of Jill's family, he joins forces with Harmonica. Together, they plan to keep the land in Jill's hands and out of the hands of the avaricious Frank and his power-hungry boss. As we eventually find out, Harmonica also has a far more personal reason for stalking Frank.

The Evolution Of Westerns

"Once Upon a Time in the West" is often regarded as Sergio Leone's finest film, with the director at the height of his artistic powers. All the signature techniques and stylistic flourishes that he honed in the Clint Eastwood-led "Dollars" trilogy are woven into a tale that is as thematically rich as it is cinematically lush.

If his earlier spaghetti westerns were a playful response to the classic era of Hollywood westerns, Leone's near-three-hour epic was in a direct dialogue with them. Working with writer Sergio Donati, he packed the story with references to their favorite westerns. The bad guy wears black and the good guy wears (almost) white. Henry Fonda plays against type by stepping into the villain's shoes. The Monument Valley backdrops evoke John Ford. And the key plot point of an enterprising outsider anticipating the arrival of the railroad recalls "Johnny Guitar."

In other words, Leone was doing a Tarantino while the future "Pulp Fiction" director was still in short pants. Not a lot happens over 166 minutes, but Leone is supremely confident in his ability to grip an audience's attention with his mega close-ups, terse dialogue, and Ennio Morricone's stunning score. Each principal character has its own theme and these leitmotifs interweave as they prowl around each other.

But in my opinion, the ending doesn't pay off as satisfyingly as the emotional final duel in "For a Few Dollars More." But that's likely because Leone had the bigger picture in mind -- "Once Upon a Time in the West" is a film about the death of the Old West itself.

Harmonica's Revenge

From the moment Harmonica's wailing lament pierces the silence of the desert, he lets the instrument do most of the talking for him. As Cheyenne notes, "Instead of talking, he plays. And when he better play, he talks."

Harmonica follows Frank like a vengeful wraith from the moment he arrives. He trails him to Morton's opulent private train. He is captured and Frank wants to know who he is. Harmonica only answers with the names of men Frank has killed in the past. After Harmonica and Cheyenne team up and use the $5,000 bounty on the latter's head to buy the Sweetwater ranch at auction, Frank confronts Harmonica with the same question and receives the same answer -- more names of dead men.

Not only does Harmonica intend to leave Frank guessing until the end, but he also wants to make sure he gets to kill him. After Morton bribes Frank's men to take the latter out, Harmonica saves his life twice, much to Jill's fury.

Frank and Harmonica finally have their showdown as the railroad arrives at the Sweetwater ranch. A flashback shows us why Harmonica wants revenge so badly. When he was a boy, Frank and his gang sadistically made him support his older brother's weight as they hung him from an archway. Just before Harmonica collapsed under the weight, Frank forced the instrument of his name into his mouth. Now the dirge-like tune becomes clear -- it represents the boy's cries as he watched his brother die.

Back in the present, Harmonica beats Frank to the draw and shoots him. As Frank collapses to the floor, Harmonica pushes the instrument into his mouth. There is a horrified moment of recognition in the man's eyes as he draws his final breath.

What The Ending Really Means

Before their final showdown, Harmonica and Frank have a brief exchange that sums up the main theme of "Once Upon a Time in the West:"

Harmonica: So you found out you're not a businessman after all.

Frank: Just a man.

Harmonica: An ancient race.

(Harmonica gazes along the newly built railway track.)

Harmonica: Other Mortons will be along, and they'll kill it off.

Men like Frank and Harmonica don't have a place in the modern world and they know it, just like Ethan Edwards in "The Searchers" and Bishop's gang in "The Wild Bunch." "Once Upon a Time in the West" is a lament for the adventure and freedom of the frontier and all the hardship and bloodshed that came with it, romanticized as simpler times when tough men settled their differences by quickdraw. It also doubles as an elegy for the classic westerns of Hollywood's golden era -- the simplistic black vs white narratives gradually became extinct as revisionist westerns began to interrogate the genre's tropes with more nuance, complexity, and guilt. Hence the "Once Upon a Time" of the title. The Old West has passed into myth, like ancient legends and fairytales.

Read this next: The 20 Best Westerns Of All Time

The post Once Upon a Time in the West Ending Explained: An Ancient Race appeared first on /Film.

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