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PLEASE NOTE: Michael D's is currently in READ ONLY MODE. Anything submitted will simply not be written to the database.
Lots of stuff is still broken, but at least reviews can now be looked up and read.
Once Upon a Time in the West (C'era una volta il West) (1968)

Once Upon a Time in the West (C'era una volta il West) (1968)

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Released 12-Nov-2003

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Western Main Menu Introduction
Main Menu Audio & Animation
Audio Commentary-Directors, Film Historians, Cast And Crew
Featurette-An Opera Of Violence
Featurette-The Wages Of Sin
Featurette-Something To Do With Death
Featurette-Railroad: Revolutionising The West
Gallery-Locations: Then And Now
Gallery-Production Stills
Theatrical Trailer
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 1968
Running Time 158:32
RSDL / Flipper Dual Layered
Dual Disc Set
Cast & Crew
Start Up Language Select Then Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Sergio Leone

Paramount Home Entertainment
Starring Henry Fonda
Claudia Cardinale
Jason Robards
Charles Bronson
Gabriele Ferzetti
Paolo Stoppa
Woody Strode
Jack Elam
Keenan Wynn
Frank Wolff
Lionel Stander
Case ?
RPI $24.95 Music Ennio Morricone

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 5.1 (384Kb/s)
German Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
French Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English
English for the Hearing Impaired
German Audio Commentary
English Audio Commentary
Spanish Audio Commentary
French Audio Commentary
Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    Once Upon a Time in the West is regarded as the Italian master Sergio Leone's masterwork. Whether viewed as the apotheosis of the 'spaghetti Western', so-called for those who don't know because of their largely Italian roots, a grandiose elegy for a lost era or as the first film in Il Maestro's American trilogy, which includes A Fistful of Dynamite (1972) and his last work, Once Upon a Time in America (1984), apparently the film Leone always wanted to make, one thing is certain - films like this are just not made anymore. The opening sequence would no doubt have studio executives writhing in agony. It is slow, almost wordless, expansive, and so idiosyncratically shot, with Leone's trademark 'face as landscape' close-ups and deliberate camera moves, it almost beggars belief. There is no score. In fact, as we learn from the detailed supplementary materials, Leone's musical collaborator, the great Ennio Morricone, originally wrote music but a decision was made to design a symphony of everyday sounds, including a central contribution from a creaking windmill. It is one of the most amazing examples of sound design I have ever experienced in film. From that point, the pace refuses to quicken and the idiosyncrasies don't subside as the operatic saga unfolds, drawing the four major characters into a 'dance of death'.

    Concocted by the so-called 'unholy trinity' of Italian cinema: Leone, Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci (whose The Last Emperor swept the 1987 Oscars, winning Best Picture and Best Director amongst seven other gongs), the story has all the hallmarks of the traditional western, but is a distinctly European take on American 'progress' during the building of the transcontinental railroad. Greed, lust, murder, love, duels, revenge - you name it, Once Upon a Time in the West has it all. The beautiful and luminously filmed Claudia Cardinale plays Jill McBain (although her inflected English required dubbing), the beautiful new bride of Brett McBain, who is trying to establish a railroad town. Jill arrives to begin her new life at Sweetwater, only to discover her family brutally murdered. Frank (Henry Fonda) and his men, working for the railroad baron Mr. Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) are responsible for the McBain family's massacre, Mr. Morton intent on claiming McBain's land for himself to profit from the advancing railroad. Fonda plays against type here, using his famously blue eyes to create an unexpected but chilling villain. Rounding out the leads are the ever-staring, ever-silent Charles Bronson as Harmonica, whose motives for involvement with Sweetwater and Mr. Morton's thugs remain unclear until a wonderfully arch-Western moment near the end of the film, and Jason Robards as Cheyenne, originally written for a Mexican actor but played as a tramp philosopher with great relish by Robards and accompanied by a memorably quaint musical motif from the pen of Morricone. Jill wants answers for the death of her family, and with the help of Cheyenne and Harmonica begins her search, slowly unearthing the many mysteries that surround each character. It should be noted that an attempt to describe the plot, which is at times impenetrable, any further than this would miss the point of the film. Critics of the film say it is a forty minute story told in one hundred and sixty minutes. It is true that at times it seems even the filmmakers didn't know what each character was meant to be doing, or even where they were from scene to scene, but if you take the film each visually stunning and inventive scene at a time, there is much to admire.

    I myself found the film to be that rare breed - a one-off. Whilst there is an inevitability to the Western, Leone makes the journey, however long, fascinating, beguiling, sometimes maddening, but ultimately rewarding. I seem to be watching Westerns in the wrong chronological order. Having seen Open Range, Unforgiven and Wyatt Earp I find myself now looking back to the films that inspired those more recent additions to the genre. Once Upon a Time in the West also pays tribute to earlier Westerns. There are almost innumerable references by Leone to the work of the great American director John Ford (winner of four Best Director Oscars). Fans of either director, or the Western genre should not hesitate to immerse themselves in this extraordinary film.

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Transfer Quality


    Visually this film is stunning, and thankfully Paramount's special edition has done it justice by providing us with an excellent, though not perfect transfer, presented at the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, with 16x9 enhancement.

    Sharpness is excellent, and shadow detail is commendable. Most of the film takes place in well lit surrounds, much under the omnipresent desert sun, which assists in a pleasing level of clarity. Claudia Cardinale is shot in a much softer focus than anyone or anything else and looks almost inhumanly beautiful because of it. Some may be unhappy with this choice of the director's but for me it was simply yet another distinctive Leone trait.

    The film was shot in Europe and the United States which provided some problems for the director in terms of consistency of colour. The rusty soils of Monument Valley were not easily replicated. and there are moments when one becomes aware of where particular scenes were shot. The presentation of colour is however consistently good. Whilst not as rich or electric as more recent films, the palette is perfectly suited to the film. Skin tones were of a fine standard.

    There were no detectable moments of grain and MPEG related artefacts were fairly scarce and certainly not a major detraction from the transfer. Aliasing was the biggest problem, with significant shimmering marring an otherwise excellent transfer throughout.

    Thankfully film artefacts were minimal. For a film approaching forty years of age the print was wonderfully clean, with only a few instances of dirt being visible.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    There are a choice of four audio tracks on this release: an English 5.1 Dolby Digital track, and three Dolby 2.0 tracks in French, Spanish and German. I listened to the English track in its entirety.

    As I previously mentioned the sound design of the film is something quite extraordinary. Leone himself said that a film was 40% sound and this new 5.1 track does it full justice.

    Dialogue, even from the mumbling Charles Bronson, is easy to understand. Unfortunately audio sync is not the best, although considering the heavy dubbing involved in the film, this is hardly surprising. I found it a little distracting initially, but considering that most of the film is told in gesture and camera movements it isn't of tremendous concern.

    Ennio Morricone's score was composed in its entirety before the film was even shot, which allowed the composer to write without the significant hindrance of 'fitting' it to the on-screen action. Steven Spielberg gave John Williams a similar, though more limited degree of freedom in composing the closing music for E.T. allowing the music to build of its own accord for greater emotional effect. Once Upon a Time in the West is operatic in tone and the music of Morricone is magnificent - particularly the haunting theme that accompanies Jill McBain throughout. It is well served by the track, and the surrounds are put to good use in conveying its beauty and majesty.

    The surrounds are also put to good work creating some nice ambience. Whilst not entirely immersive this is a fine effort. The subwoofer is also well served by the track.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


    I'm normally not one for getting excited about menus, but on this particular release they are fantastic, and perfectly complement the film, both in tone and style.

Audio commentary

    An inconsistent but nonetheless intriguing commentary that features contributions from film historians and directors, including Sir Christopher Frayling, John Carpenter, Alex Cox and John Milius, as well as Claudia Cardinale. There are a few moments of silence and some speakers spend too much time detailing the on-screen action (Frayling) when it is perfectly obvious, whilst others (Cardinale) don't speak about the film at all.

Documentaries - An Opera of Violence (28:48), The Wages of Sin (19:35), Something to do with Death (18:15)

    These three documentaries could very easily have been played as one, as they feature the same participating interviewees and detail different aspects of the filmmaking process. The film historians, who in the commentary seemed a little dry, are better served in these features. There are some fascinating interviews with Cardinale, Bertolucci and archival footage of Leone himself that is especially interesting. In total these documentaries provide fascinating insight into the genesis of the project, Leone as a filmmaker, and the history of the Western as a filmmaking phenomenon.

Railroad: Revolutionising the West (6:20)

    A fantastically presented documentary that nonetheless feels arbitrarily included. The link the film historians try to make between the railroad, the implications it had for America and the influence over the story of Once Upon a Time in the West is interesting but I must confess I wasn't entirely convinced by the argument.

Locations: Then and Now

    A fascinating feature, unlike any I've ever seen, that juxtaposes photos of locations during filming with those taken today. It gives you an idea of the scope of Leone's vision and the sheer magnitude of certain aspects of the production. What is equally interesting is how many of the locations look as though nothing ever took place there, let alone the filming of a major film.

Production: Stills Gallery

    Accompanied by Morricone's score, this montage of excellently presented behind the scenes and on location photographs is presented in dedication to the memory of Sergio Leone.

Cast Profiles

    Fairly standard but nonetheless interesting profiles of the five major actors: Cardinale, Fonda, Bronson, Robards and Ferzetti.

Original Trailer

    An interesting trailer that shows its age somewhat more than the film. Still worth a look, if only to see how film advertising has changed in the subsequent decades.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    From what I can gather the only differences between the Region 1 and Region 4 releases concern audio tracks.

    The Region 4 misses out on:

    The Region 1 misses out on:

    So, for my money, our local product is a winner!


    Once Upon a Time in the West is likely to polarise viewers. Some will find it gloriously strange and wonderful (as I did) whilst others will bemoan its seemingly inordinate length and the very slow pacing (which I also did, to a lesser extent). It is undeniably the work of a great cinematic figure, who purely and simply loved film. Highly recommended.

    The video transfer is excellent, marred only by some annoying aliasing.

    The audio transfer is of an equally high standard.

    The extras are extensive.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Scott Murray (Dont read my bio - it's terrible.)
Tuesday, August 17, 2004
Review Equipment
DVDYamaha DVR-S100, using Component output
DisplaySony 76cm Widescreen Trinitron TV. Calibrated with THX Optimizer. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to DVD Player, Dolby Digital and DTS. Calibrated with THX Optimizer.
AmplificationYamaha DVR-S100 (built in)
SpeakersYamaha NX-S100S 5 speakers, Yamaha SW-S100 160W subwoofer

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