After the commercial success of The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, Italian maestro Sergio Leone bade farewell to his Dollars trilogy and came up with this most gloriously operatic of Westerns, which he described as "a fresco on the birth of a great nation". Vandalised by its distributor when released in America, it's showing at the BFI in its uncut 168-minute version.
Unlike the majority of oaters, Once Upon A Time isn't based on famous historical incidents or mythologised heroes. Rather, the quartet of central characters - - prostitute Jill (Cardinale), avenger Harmonica (Bronson), bandit Cheyenne (Robards) and killer Frank (Fonda) - - archetypes, whose existences are profoundly affected by the remorseless progress of capitalist technology, represented by the railroad.
Beginning with an audacious pre-credits showdown, this story about a struggle for water rights slowly unwinds as a series of flamboyantly choreographed set-piece confrontations. While characterisation suffers slightly under the weight of the visual theatrics, there are plenty of unforgettable moments, such as that sublime crane shot over the new settlement of Flagstone, accompanied by Ennio Morricone's achingly romantic music.
And the importance of the score should not be under-estimated. With every character treated to their own theme (Harmonica's was famously sampled by The Orb on their ambient anthem, Little Fluffy Clouds), it's Morricone's work, above all else, which makes the film so memorable.