The film Once Upon a Time in 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 and Charles Bronson as his nemesis.
After directing The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Leone decided to retire from Westerns and aimed to produce his film based on The Hoods, which eventually became Once Upon a Time in the West. 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.” Filmmaker John Boorman commented about the film “The Western went into decline when writers and directors became self-conscious and introduced psychological elements … Leone’s ‘Spaghetti’ Westerns revitalized the form because he consciously reverted to mythic stories, making the texture and detail real, but ruthlessly shearing away the recent accretions of the ‘real’ West and its psychological motivations. Unfortunately this was not understood in Hollywood. In Once Upon a Time in the West, the Western reaches its apotheosis. Leone’s title is a declaration of intent and also his gift to America of its lost fairy stories. This is the kind of masterpiece that can only occur outside trends and fashion. It is both the greatest and the last western.”
It’s appropriate that what many consider the greatest Western ever made ends with the greatest gunfight ever filmed.
Henry Fonda on set of Once Upon a Time in the West