BrandonHabes’s review published on Letterboxd:
Before the dawn of civilization, the myth of the American Old West was a place of guns, cowboys and savage lawlessness. Fugitives run amok, bandits killed for no reason, and the land was deeply mysterious, if not a sprawling epic plunder of murder, robbery, gold and endless adventure. A frontier myth was needed to subdue the edge of civilization with a higher promise, one filled with unlimited opportunity, development, and access to undiscovered lands for anyone strong enough to seize and settle the West through their own sheer ambition. Somewhere during this period of expansion, Old West mythology conflated "savagery" and "civilization" in ways that distorted the history and methods for attaining wealth. The pursuit of colonizing and industrializing land, while thought of as bringing stability to an unstable frontier, was paradoxically filled with violent conquests, acts of imperialism, and government ordained ethnic cleansing. Frontier myths were constructed to fit the needs of a developing civilization. They served the purpose of romanticizing the historical reality with the belief that land was as free and open as the American settlers imagined it to be, when in reality it often meant violently trading one myth for another.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST not only understands the frontier myth really well, it knows the messy relation between "myth" and "history" and the confusion those terms present as it relates to representations of "savagery" and "civilization" in the American Western. Isn’t colonization always more history/savage than myth/civilized? Kinda ironic given how the story debunks the Wild West and romanticizes it at the same time, showing how the "savage" myth of the Old West was slowly dying out and being replaced by the "civilized" myth of capitalism and technology. Leone visualizes this period of transition as a railroad stretching across the harsh, untamed country, a symbol that promised to bring commerce, modernization and civilization to an otherwise nihilistic frontier.
Most compelling, Leone distorts the meaning of this new myth by asking what impact the arrival of the railroad had upon the old cultures of the West. A pocket of this wilderness is now being transformed into a civilized city, but at what cost?
The tension between cutthroat capitalism (symbolized in Mr. Morton, the transcontinental railroad tycoon) and private individualism (symbolized in the McBain family, a pioneer stock rooted on sacred land) becomes the lynchpin to answering that question. Every major player in the film (Frank, Harmonica, Cheyenne, Morton, and Jill) is brought together after the brutal murder of the McBain family, but it's Jill McBain, the widowed survivor, who everyone tap dances around as a means of protecting or preying after the precious spot of real estate she's now inherited.
What is the frontier myth about again? Land acquisition. It's about the desire to cultivate wild land in the name of progress, commerce and so-called civilization. Everyone in the story has their own motives and methods for coming together or breaking apart from the myth, with Morton and his railroad at the center placing a new spin on the West and its relation to the Old World.
The line between the Old and New World is actually quite thin. The power and corruption of guns is simply replaced by the power and corruption of money. Checkbooks, not pistols, are the new weapons of the West. Morton asks Frank, "How does it feel sitting behind that desk, Frank?" Frank, sensing a new world order on the horizon, replies, "It's almost like holding a gun. Except much more powerful." Morton's ruthless pursuit of land and resources doesn't feel all that different from the violent gunslingers of the past, of which Frank, Harmonica, and Cheyenne belong.
These cowboys are being displaced by the progress of the corporate fat cat, becoming myths themselves before the flicker of capitalist greed. Morton's new school imperialism, marshaled by Frank's old school shoot-to-kill method, merely signals the end of the Old West, transitioning the world into a more disguised evil. The irony is never lost on Leone. The modern world aims to bring civilization to the savagery of the West, but capitalism is shown to be just as savage and uncivilized as the outlaws of the past.
One rotten myth has replaced another rotten myth.
Everything is dying out in this film. The gun, the cowboy, the stereotypical characters and settings. The need for Hollywood heroes. The traditional casting seen in the reversal of Fonda-as-villain (mega cool, btw). The railroad itself as the omen of modernization eats away at the mythic frontier of the land by preparing it for civilization. The central focus on Jill is important, too, as it sets up the role that women will play in the New World for domesticating and killing off the masculine chaos of the Old World. Everything is changing and fading away. Leone stated that "the rhythm of the film was intended to create the sensation of the last gasps that a person takes just before dying." Even the romanticized desperados in Leone's previous work are dying, symbolized here as Frank. He knows his era is coming to a close, just like Rick and Cliff know they're falling out of fashion portraying people like Frank, Harmonica and Cheyenne (I see what you did there QT). The knowledge of Frank's irrelevance in the New World compels him to thirst after Morton's money, power and influence, which are the only tools that'll allow him to change costumes and survive in the modern world to come.
Does Frank become a venture capitalist in the New World? A businessman who replaces Morton in a long line of powerful industrialists? Does this pattern continue on and on forever? Is this how capitalism's notion of "dog eat dog" was born? Not if Harmonica has anything to say about it — the most badass cowboy in any Leone film.
Bronson oozes mythological coolness as the harmonica-weilding gangster of violence and vengeance. Not only does he possess the raddest theme song, he's like an onscreen ghost who's always somehow present yet invisible, living at the margins of the frame just before making an eerie entrance. He doesn't just live beyond the frame either. He lives beyond the law, naturally, but he also lives beyond the physics of time and space itself. He's the ultimate embodiment of Leone's mythic cowboy figure, someone who exists as an homage to the genre and a deadly indictment against the profiteers and opportunists of modernity. His revenge scheme is not only a more fully realized version of Van Cleef's reprisal in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, it's also a moving gesture of how it takes a genre figure to kill off the old world genre trappings of the classic Western.
What else is there to say about Leone's sweeping, epically operatic meditation on the American frontier myth? It's more insightful, more moving, more stylistic and substantive than any previous film he made, and certainly his most majestic and beautifully-constructed. A loving eulogy for a bygone era and a bygone genre, forged in a feeling of melancholy and new era ambition.
Tim Willsmer says it "would not just be another Western —this would be the last Western, summing up all his thoughts and passions on the death of the West, paying homage to the genre even as he gave it the Last Rites." It's both the end of something and the beginning of something. A work that envisions death and rebirth as part of the same cinematic spectrum. Is OUATITW the best metaphor for the spaghetti western itself?