Summer Classic: ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’

Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda in Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West."

Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda in Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West.”

America is the great melting pot, and one of cinema’s great 20th-century genres was the spaghetti Western: films about the American West, lensed by Italians, primarily Sergio Leone.

For its Summer Classics series this Fourth of July week, the Kentucky Theatre presents one of the classics of the genre.

Italian actress Claudia Cardinale is pictured at the set in a scene of Sergio Leone's epic "Once Upon a Time in the West" leisurely holding a revolver with one finger. © AP Photo.

Italian actress Claudia Cardinale is pictured at the set in a scene of Sergio Leone’s epic “Once Upon a Time in the West.” © AP Photo.

Once Upon a Time in the West, released in 1968, finds Leone at his most epic, telling a nearly three-hour tale about land grabs and scores to be settled, starring Henry Fonda as a villain; Charles Bronson in Leone’s favorite part, the man with no name; and Italian actress Claudia Cardinale as a former prostitute and widowed land owner.

Leone was drawn to Westerns as a child in Italy, watching Hollywood epics. The result was a sort of mythology re-mythologized in Leone’s films, which made TV actor Clint Eastwood into a movie star with A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). (Eastwood, it should be noted, went on to make the great exploration of the Western mythology in 1992’s Unforgiven, which won him Oscars for best picture and best director.)

With the final film in the Dollars trilogy, Leone retired from the Western genre, but he was drawn back in by Paramount Pictures, Fonda, and whole bunch of money that critics noted showed up on the screen.

“There’s a wealth of detail, a lot of extras, elaborate sets,” Roger Ebert wrote in his original review. “There’s a sense of the life of the West going on all around the action (and that sense is impossible to obtain on small budgets).”

The Internet Movie Database and other sources have the movie’s budget at $5 million, which was huge then but would get you a slightly generous indie film today.

It was the first Leone Western to be shot in some American locations. His others were shot in Spain.

Like a lot of critics, Ebert initially dismissed West as an overlong mash-up of Western stereotypes at best.

“Granting the fact that it is quite bad, Once Upon the Time in the West is almost always interesting, wobbling, as it does, between being an epic lampoon and a serious homage to the men who created the dreams of Leone’s childhood,” Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times.

The years have been kinder to the movie, Ebert later calling it “an unquestioned masterpiece.”

You can judge for yourself at 1:30 and 7:15 p.m. Wednesday at the Kentucky Theatre.

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