It’s incredible to think now, but Sergio Leone’s epic western bored many in 1968.
“Tedium in the tumbleweed,” snarked Time. “Snip,” sniffed the studio, hacking 20 minutes off.
Forty-plus years on, its scope seems due reflection of Leone’s ambition: to skewer America’s foremost genre and its attendant myths, while forging his own in ravishing style. The definitive horse opera? It’s close.
French thinker Jean Baudrillard called Leone’s mammoth oater the first postmodern film, and it plays in part like a pre-Quentin Tarantino anthology picture. After his leaner Dollars trilogy, Leone joined Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento – imagine being a fly on that wall – to develop it by analysing genre peaks: Shane, High Noon, The Searchers.
The result savours the potency of John Ford-style myth-making, while recoiling from a world where sitting at a businessman’s desk feels like holding a gun, “only much more powerful”.
Killer casting reflects that generic spin, signalled as John Ford star Woody Strode cocks a gun in the opening. Foremost among its star-persona reversals, though, is against-type “Fordian hero” Henry Fonda. Shark-pool eyes shining, Fonda here becomes capitalism’s psychotic frontman, hired “to remove small obstacles from the tracks”.
He’s the focus for the plot’s surprisingly tight riffs on water rights and revenge, with Charles Bronson’s watchful Harmonica, Claudia Cardinale’s whore Jill and Jason Robards’ bandit Cheyenne all having beefs with the blue-eyed bastard.
Leone wanted Eastwood but you couldn’t imagine the cast otherwise: each character is indelible despite Leone’s potentially overpowering feats of directorial orchestration. Of which, wow. The 13-minute opening sets the reverent mood with a buzzing fly, a wind wheel’s creak and the wind itself converging hypnotically.
The patient pacing magnetises, too: there’s pleasure in its stealthy measure and tension in the overwhelming sense that when Leone stops whittlin’, something’s gonna happen...
This reissue doesn’t come with extras to match its scope; the talk-track and documentaries are DVD hold-overs, but the transfer impresses, the film’s faces blazing like sun-dried landscapes.
There isn’t much to choose between the two cuts (theatrical/restored), but neither’s a second too long.