After the great success of the masterpiece "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" which perfectly finished the "Dollars" trilogy. Sergio Leone get bored with nothing to do, and decided to start another trilogy, the "America" trilogy with "Once upon a time in the West". That today is considered the best Western ever made in the history of cinema.
"Once upon a time in the West" begins when the farmer Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) and his sons are murdered in cold blood by the hands of the ruthless bounty-killer Frank (Henry Fonda) who puts the blame on the criminal Cheyenne (Jason Robards). Frank was hired by the legged-rail baron Morton (Gabrielle Ferzetti) to just scare away McBain and his family of their land, because she would be much valued with the advancement of the railroad. But on the same day Jill (Claudia Cardinale) arrives in town, coming from New Orleans, and when she finds out of the crime she reveals that she married Brett McBain weeks before in New Orleans and therefore the land still had a owner. On the same day, Jill meets a mysterious man who is known for Harmonica (Charles Bronson) because he always carries with himself a harmonica, and offers itself as a protector of Jill. And when the criminal Cheyenne knows that he is being unfairly prosecuted, he decides to join forces with Harmonica to help Jill keep the lands of her deceased husband. But a web of mystery and deceit circulates between the contradictory relationship of the characters.
When the film premiered at the time it was poorly received by critics and was a box office failure, only today that the critics and the public praised the film as not only the best Sergio Leone's movie, but also the best Western ever made. Well, not quite (in my opinion), but I understand why people praise him as such. The main complain of the critics to the film at the time, it was that the film was extreme slow. But this slowness is caused by some reasons.
The first one is that the film was completely different from all the Western films ever made, even from the "Dollars" trilogy because Leone gives the film a dramatic tone. What Leone tries to show in the story is the end of the Old West, the title shows that perfectly. The original translation from Italian to English was "Once upon a time THE West", that is, the end of the Old West. And that originally came in the time of the advance of the railways, and the grand corruption and death that she brought to the population. Leone shows that giving the film an excellent script (written by him and Sergio Donati), which gives the film a superb narrative with beautiful dialogs between the characters, but like any Leone's film, it never loses his great sense of humor.
The other reason is, as always. the magnificent direction of Leone, which once again shows advanced for its time. With its perfect close-ups on characters and enormous scenarios, making everything beautiful and epic. But there it comes the problem that prevents the film to even beat "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly". Leone was known for his quiet moments brilliantly filmed, and "Once upon a time" is full of them (but maybe too much). Without considering the first 10 minutes of the film (which is brilliant, putting us in the heat of the scene), but others seem to boring taking the power of narrative and our investment on them.
Another problem with the film is the relevance of the characters. Not that they are not superb and memorable (which they are): Jill is nothing more nor less than the representation of the women in the world of men in the Old West and its extreme strength and intelligence, along with an excellent performance from Cardinale; Cheyenne can be compared with Tuco from "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly", both characters are cruel bandits, but in several times they are shown to be simple human beings with their problems and their kind and innocent side; Frank is another cruel-badass villain that Leone built in his films, Frank is a bounty-killer who in previous films its showed that they are honored to their "job", do whoever they were told and paid for and nothing more. But Frank in the film betrays its own principles, and gets into the corrupt world of the railways; Harmonica is almost the same character that Clint Eastwood was in previous Leone films. Mysterious, don't talk much, and never shows his true motives (only at the most epic and badass moment of the film). All characters are fantastic, but thanks to the silent moments of Leone, their relevance and relationship fails in several moments in the history.
I don't agree that this is the best Western film ever made, but I understand why people consider it so. From a fabulous story that shows excellently the end of the era of legends with a flawless script, magnificent direction and unforgettable characters. All this makes "Once upon a time" not only one of the best Western films ever made, but a beautiful masterpiece of cinema and the beginning of another amazing trilogy!