Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Once Upon A Time in the West (1968, It.) (aka C'era una Volta il West)

In Sergio Leone's western masterpiece with a great musical score (and harmonica melody) by Ennio Morricone, about the coming of the railroad and the struggle between various groups for monopolistic control - with numerous instances of homage to earlier traditional Hollywood westerns:

  • the detailed, almost wordless presentation of hired killers in the widescreen opening sequence - the Cattle Corner train station arrival scene - with ambient sounds (a dry dusty wind, a creaking rocking chair, door and windmill, the cracking of knuckles, a dripping water leak from a tower, a noisy telegraph machine, and a pesky buzzing fly) in the deliberately-slow credit sequence as a trio of hired outlaw assassins waited impatiently at a small-town's train station; the outlaws were in the employ of hired gun Frank (Henry Fonda), who was being manipulated by crippled, corrupt and ruthless railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), aka "Mr. Choo Choo"
  • the sudden reveal shot - of an unnamed, mysterious avenging gunman, known as "Harmonica" (Charles Bronson), who was in pursuit of Frank; he stepped off the train and appeared in the middle of the screen when the train pulled away, flanked by the three men who were there to kill him; the killers, sent by villainous Frank, included Snaky (Jack Elam), Stony (Woody Strode), and Knuckles (Al Mulock)
  • the classic verbal conversation (before the shoot-out) between Harmonica and Snaky, about how there were too many horses - Harmonica: "Did you bring a horse for me?" Snaky: "Well, looks like we're, looks like we're shy one horse" Harmonica: "You brought two too many"; after the brief shoot-out, Harmonica stood as the sole survivor
  • the violent scene of Frank and his four men's cold-blooded and merciless ambush and murder of Irish landowner Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) and two of his three children (elder son Patrick (Stefano Imparato), and teen daughter Maureen (Simonetta Santaniello)) at their homestead; McBain had bought the land known as Sweetwater - a key location where trains crossing the continent would have to stop for water: ("Them steam engines can't roll without water, and the only water for fifty miles west of Flagstone is right here, under this land")
The Massacre of the Entire McBain Family by Frank and His Gang
  • the first startling appearance of the long-duster-coated gang of five emerging from the brush, including their leader -- black-hatted, blue-eyed, sadistic killer Frank (portrayed uncharacteristically against type by Henry Fonda), who was first seen in a circling profile; he strode up to sole-surviving nine-year-old red-headed son Timmy (Enzo Santaniello); after one of the gang members (Michael Harvey) asked: "What are we going to do with this one, Frank?", Frank spit out a brown gob of tobacco juice into the ground and responded: "Now that you've called me by name" - then drew his gun and fired on the boy; the McBain murders were set up to blame honorable yet grizzled escaped con and half-breed scoundrel Cheyenne (Jason Robards)
  • the transitional sound of a train's screeching whistle at the Flagstone station signaling the arrival in the stark Arizona desert of smoky-eyed, reformed prostitute Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) from New Orleans, the widowed wife of Brett McBain; she arranged for a buckboard wagon at the station, and then at the start of her journey (seen from her POV) toward Sweetwater, she passed the laid-out corpses of the entire McBain family before proceeding through Monument Valley
  • Jill's relationship with a very protective and likeable Cheyenne - at one point, she boldly told him: "If you want to, you can lay me over the table and amuse yourself. And even call in your men. Well. No woman ever died from that. When you're finished, all I'll need will be a tub of boiling water, and I'll be exactly what I was before - with just another filthy memory"; however, he seemed to take more interest in her coffee - he responded: "You make good coffee, at least" - [Note: in a later scene, he also told her: "Did you make coffee?...Hot, strong and good"]
Jill to Cheyenne: "If you want to, you can lay me over the table and amuse yourself. And even call in your men. Well. No woman ever died from that. When you're finished, all I'll need will be a tub of boiling water, and I'll be exactly what I was before - with just another filthy memory"
  • the scene of Frank talking 'business' with corrupt RR tycoon Morton ("Mr. Choo Choo") about the disastrous McBain killings, that he considered "a stupid massacre": Morton: "Tell me, was it necessary that you kill all of them? I only told you to scare 'em" - Frank: "People scare better when they're dyin'"
  • Cheyenne's discussion with Jill about how she reminded him of his whoring mother: "You know, Jill, you remind me of my mother. She was the biggest whore in Alameda and the finest woman that ever lived. Whoever my father was, for an hour or for a month, he must have been a happy man"
Cheyenne to Jill: "You remind me of my mother"
  • the sequence of Frank's brutal love-making rape of the seductive ex-whore Jill, when he told her while on top of her: "I think, yeah. I'm beginning to think I might be a little sorry killin' you. You like being alive, hmm? You also like to feel a man's hands all over you. You like it? Even if they're the hands of the man who killed your husband. What a - what a little tramp. Is there anything in the world you wouldn't do to save your skin?" - he knew about her background as a popular whore in New Orleans: "Now I understand why they miss you so much down there in New Orleans. Great invention, the telegraph" - he used her bare back as a telegraph key to send a message: "'Jill? The brunette? The customers of the most elegant whorehouse on Bourbon Street have been weeping ever since she left'" - and then he proposed marrying her to acquire her land: "I could marry ya. And the land would become mine. And maybe you'd make a perfect wife. It would be me who wouldn't be any good as a husband. Too bad. We'll have to think of another solution. Simpler, quicker"
Frank's Lovemaking Rape of Jill
  • afterwards, the scene of a land auction after Mrs. McBain was forced to sell her land - the high bidder was Harmonica at $5,000, who successfully disrupted Frank's plan (with his bullying gang members) to intimidate other buyers into not bidding in order to keep the price remaining low at the opening bid of $200; Harmonica held Cheyenne at gunpoint, announcing that he would use the expected bounty money for the wanted Cheyenne as his payment; Cheyenne was put on a train bound for the Yuma prison in Arizona for a 20 year sentence (although he would soon be rescued)
  • the scene of the planned ambush of Frank by other hired men, as Jill took a hot bath; Harmonica alerted Frank to the assassins' whereabouts (in order to shoot them dead) when he realized that Frank's own men had double-crossed him: "They must have found somebody who pays better"; as Jill jumped out of her bath, she expressed her anger at Harmonica for saving Frank: ("And you - you saved his life"); Harmonica defended his killing of the men: "I didn't let them kill him, and that's not the same thing"; immediately afterwards, Frank rode to Morton's train (finding evidence of Cheyenne's rescue), and insured the death of Morton
  • the classic confrontational ending - a showdown duel between Harmonica and Frank (whose faces were seen in extreme close-up as they circled each other); Frank spoke first: "The future don't matter to us. Nothing matters now - not the land, not the money, not the woman. I came here to see you. 'Cause I know that now, you'll tell me what you're after"; Harmonica replied: "Only at the point of dyin'"
  • the fateful flashback/revelatory moment when brooding loner "Harmonica" (The Man) remembered the cold-hearted, steely blue-eyed, mean badman Frank's cruel jest when he was younger: "Keep your lovin' brother happy" (in the chilling flashback, Frank held up a harmonica, and stuffed it into the mouth of a young "Harmonica" (Dino Mele); the boy was forced to support his elder brother (Claudio Mancini) (with a noose around his neck) on his shoulders and to play a harmonica until he weakened and collapsed into the dust - and thereby killed his brother who was left to hang above him)
The Chilling Flashback:
Young 'Harmonica' Remembered Frank's Long-Ago Cruelty
  • during the duel, Frank was shot and lethally wounded by Harmonica; after Frank slowly staggered to his knees and then fell to the ground, he asked a final question: "Who are you?" - and then finally remembered about Harmonica (as a young boy) after a harmonica was placed in his mouth - he promptly fell over dead
  • in the final scene, Jill was with mortally-wounded Cheyenne, who urged her to offer water to the train workers: "You know what? If I was you, I'd go down there and give those boys a drink. Can't imagine how happy it makes a man to see a woman like you. Just to look at her. And if one of them should pat your behind, just make believe it's nothing. They earned it"; she complimented him: ("You're sort of a handsome man") but he declined her interest; he then stated: ("It would be nice to see this town grow"); they were interrupted when a stoic-faced Harmonica entered and told Jill - as Cheyenne had predicted: ("Now I gotta go. Gonna be a beautiful town, Sweetwater"); she replied: "I hope you come back some day", and he simply said: "Some day"
  • she watched as Harmonica rode away with Cheyenne following; out of Jill's view, Cheyenne spoke his last words to Harmonica about his dying (he had been shot in the abdomen earlier during the rescue) - it was the film's final line of dialogue when he explained how he had been seriously wounded: "I ran into Mr. Choo-Choo. I didn't count on that half-man from the train. He got scared. Hey, Harmonica. When they do you in, pray it's somebody who knows where to shoot. Go away. Go away. Go away. I don't want you to see me die"; after Cheyenne expired, Harmonica continued riding away, with another tracking shot (as a second horse carried the slumped-over corpse of Cheyenne)
Final Goodbyes with Jill
Cheyenne as He Was Dying: "Sorry, Harmonica. I gotta stay here...Go away! I don't want you to see me die"
Death of Cheyenne
Departure of Harmonica
  • in the final operatic conclusion to the epic western, with magnificent camera-work - beginning with the arrival of a train carrying railroad workers (with a crane shot, POV, pan and tracking shot), Jill confidently strode down to the Sweetwater railway station after a steam-powered train engine pulled into view, where in a zoom and tracking shot, she offered water to the laborers and track-laying crews, before the end credits began to roll
The Operatic Conclusion

The Opening Train Station Shoot-Out

Widowed Jill McBain's Arrival - The Many Corpses of Her Murdered Family Members

Morton to Frank: "Was it necessary that you kill all of them? I only told you to scare 'em"

Frank to RR Tycoon Morton: "People Scare Better When They're Dyin'"

The Land Auction - Harmonica's Bid of $5,000

Harmonica Spotting an Ambush of Frank

Jill's Outrage at Harmonica For Saving Frank: "You saved his life"

Frank Insuring the Death of Double-Crossing Morton

Cheyenne with Jill: "Did you make coffee?... Hot, strong, and good"

Harmonica vs. Frank Showdown Duel and Frank's Death


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