Once Upon a Time in the West (Italian: C'era una volta il West, "Once upon a time (there was) the West") is a 1968 epic Spaghetti Western film directed by Sergio Leone, who co-wrote it with Sergio Donati based on a story by Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Leone. It stars Henry Fonda, cast against type as the villain, Charles Bronson as his nemesis, Jason Robards as a bandit, and Claudia Cardinale as a newly widowed homesteader. The widescreen cinematography was by Tonino Delli Colli, and the acclaimed film score was by Ennio Morricone.
After directing The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Leone decided to retire from Westerns and aimed to produce his film based on the novel The Hoods, which eventually became Once Upon a Time in America. However, Leone accepted an offer from Paramount Pictures providing Henry Fonda and a budget to produce another Western. He recruited Bertolucci and Argento to devise the plot of the film in 1966, researching other Western films in the process. After Clint Eastwood turned down an offer to play the movie's protagonist, Bronson was offered the role. During production, Leone recruited Donati to rewrite the script due to concerns over time limitations.
The original version by the director was 166 minutes when it was first released on 21 December 1968. This version was shown in European cinemas, and was a box-office success. For the US release on 28 May 1969, Once Upon a Time in the West was edited down to 145 minutes by Paramount and was a financial flop.
The film is the first installment in Leone's Once Upon a Time trilogy, followed by Duck, You Sucker! and Once Upon a Time in America, though the films do not share any characters in common.
In 2009, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". The film is regarded as one of the greatest westerns of all time and one of the greatest films of all time.
Plot - The "once upon a time" story develops around the Old West town of "Flagstone". A man arrives who wears a harmonica on a cord about his neck - and so is dubbed "Harmonica" after it - seeking revenge against the outlaw, Frank. Currently, Frank works as a hired gunman for the railroad tycoon, Morton, who is trying to acquire land owned by the Brett McBain family. A second outlaw, Cheyenne, becomes implicated in the killings that arise from this.
Harmonica kills three men who ambush him on his arrival at the train station. The dusters they wear lead him to believe they are Cheyenne's men. Meanwhile, Frank and his henchmen kill Brett McBain and his three children at their "Sweetwater" ranch and leave behind evidence to frame Cheyenne for the murders.
A woman named Jill arrives in Flagstone, on her way to Sweetwater for what is assumed to be her upcoming marriage to McBain. However, Jill, formerly a New Orleans prostitute, had actually married McBain one month earlier and is thus the sole heir to Sweetwater. As it will emerge, McBain knew the railroad would pass through Sweetwater one day, and he planned to build a watering station on his property, subject to a reverter that McBain would forfeit Sweetwater if the station was not built by the time the railroad reached that point. Morton had intended that Frank only intimidate McBain, but McBain's murder and Jill's inheritance put Morton and Frank at odds. Morton wants to make a deal with Jill, but Frank wants the land for himself.
Cheyenne denies that it was his men who tried to ambush Harmonica, and is infuriated when accused of the murder of the McBains as well. Harmonica and Cheyenne eventually realize that Frank was behind both the ambush and the murders. Harmonica rides out to the railway carriage, to which Morton is confined on crutches owing to his spinal tuberculosis. There he is captured by Frank's men as he discovers the connection between Frank and Morton. When Frank asks for Harmonica's name, he replies instead with names of men that Frank has killed in the past. While Frank is called away, Cheyenne rescues Harmonica and the two collaborate to help Jill save Sweetwater, using stockpiled materials to start building a station.
After a threatening sexual encounter with Frank, Jill is forced to auction the land while Frank's henchmen intimidate the bidders in order to keep the purchase price low. Suddenly, Harmonica appears with Cheyenne in tow and bids $5,000, which is the price on Cheyenne's head as a wanted fugitive, and gets the property himself. Meanwhile, Morton has bribed Frank's own men to kill him, but Harmonica intervenes to save Frank from being ambushed in the street. When Jill blames Harmonica for this, he replies that there is a difference between his action now and his plans for Frank in the future.
Cheyenne eventually escapes custody, and he and his gang engage Frank's remaining men in a gunfight at Morton's train. Except for Cheyenne, who heads to Sweetwater, everyone is killed, including Morton. When Frank sees the aftermath of the fight, he rides to Sweetwater too, where he finds Harmonica waiting. Cheyenne has arrived earlier, but he remains in the ranch house with Jill. Outside, Harmonica and Frank engage in a showdown; through a flashback, it is revealed that Frank had once hanged Harmonica's older brother, forcing the younger brother to support him on his shoulders. Just before the panting boy collapsed under the weight, Frank had forced a harmonica into his mouth, telling him to "Keep your lovin' brother happy". In the present, Harmonica beats Frank to the draw, fatally wounding him. As Frank lies dying, he again asks Harmonica's identity, and Harmonica's answer is to place the instrument in Frank's mouth as he breathes his last.
Harmonica and Cheyenne leave Sweetwater, but Cheyenne collapses and dies from a gut wound he received in the gunfight with Morton. As Harmonica departs carrying Cheyenne's body on a horse, Jill serves water to the railroad workers.