Deconstructing the American West: Redefining Classic Movie Tropes

Right before school started, I decided to marathon the main filmography of acclaimed Italian director Sergio Leone. This means that I watched the films he has a sole director’s credit on, excluding films where he may have been an assistant director or a producer. 

Now, his main filmography is divided into two trilogies, and I’ll be talking about the film from his latter trilogy, “Once Upon a Time in the West.”

From the beginning of his career, Sergio Leone was a deconstructionist filmmaker. He looked at these myths of cowboys, revolutionaries and criminals, and examined their lives and the violence that came with it. A common theme in his work is sort of the nihilism that surrounds violence, pointing out how it destroys the lives of the victims, the perpetrator and those in the crossfire, reducing them to nothing. 

While I think all of his films explore themes around violence expertly, I think it’s done best in my favorite movie of his, “Once Upon a Time in the West” (OUATITW). Here, Leone deconstructs the Western to some of its most basic tropes and shows both the flaws and the beauty of the mythic American West.

The film centers around Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), a former prostitute and new bride who’s entire family has been massacred by ruthless gunslinger, Frank (Henry Fonda), in a bid to steal their land for a railroad company, owned by one Mr. Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti). Another gunslinger, Harmonica (Charles Bronson), only know by the instrument he carries, is seeking revenge against Frank, and recruits bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards) to not only end Frank’s violence, but protect Jill from the company and Frank.

The main thing OUATITW deconstructs is a lot of the premises that many Westerns base themselves on. The film features greedy railroad tycoons, rugged gunslingers out for revenge and mourning widows entangled in a romantic triangle despite losing their husbands so soon.

Yet, the film spins these usual narratives on their head. Mr. Morton, the tycoon, has a disability and can barley walk, and is actually averse to any collateral that his business may cause. His illness and his struggle to have the first transcontinental railroad is portrayed rather sympathetically. 

The gunslingers, for the most part, are rugged, but have plenty of depth to them. The villainous Frank is trying to fit into a more corporate, orderly world but keeps falling back to violence as a first resort. 

Harmonica, our hero, is incredibly stoic and single-minded in his quest for vengeance, to the point where it strains the relationship with those around him. Yet, there’s a method to his madness. When the ‘why’ of his quest is revealed, it frames his character in a new light, revealing a man broken by the violence of the West. 

Cheyenne is initially framed as nothing more than a womanizing, criminal brute, but he’s actually the most human of the gunslingers. He becomes a heroic, kinder figure over the course of the film.

Finally, there’s Jill herself, and she’s the human core of the movie. The movie set her up to be this naive city girl, but there is in fact plenty of grit to her. She takes sh*t from no one, and regularly challenges the advances and motivations of her male counterparts. She even weaponizes her sexuality in a bid to seduce Frank, but unfortunately, he outright threatens her. Additionally, while there is a little romantic tension between her, Harmonica and Cheyenne, all characters realize that violent gunslingers aren’t really suited for romance.

I can say a lot more about this film, in how it reduces action to its bare essentials, co-opts very specific plot elements from other Westerns to examine them and how the film utilizes its time to meditate on the rituals that occur before and after violence, but at that point I would be summarizing the film. It’s best to watch it for yourself and understand what makes this film a cinematic milestone.