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Once Upon A Time In The West (Blu-ray Review)

With the summer heat fast approaching, and in some cases, already here, what better way to cool off than with some westerns on Blu-ray.  Once Upon A Time In The West is Sergio Leone’s epic western starring Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, and Claudia Cardinale.  Paramount Pictures has gone to the vaults and meticulously restored the prints.  This Blu-ray includes the 166 minute Unrated version and the 165 PG-13 version.   One minute separate both versions, but this review, for the most part, will cover the Unrated version.  I’ll try not to tip over with too much excitement, so let’s get to the meat and potatoes of Once Upon A Time In The West!

Film  

Once Upon A Time In The West is Sergio Leone’s masterpiece of the “spaghetti western” genre, but holds the spaghetti off to the side.  I say that, because only on a few instances (very few in fact) does Once Upon A Time In The West even come off as a traditional spaghetti western.  Once Upon A Time In The West is the story of a brutal murder of an entire  family by the evil hitman Frank (Fonda) who was hired by a powerful railroad magnet to take them out.

Cheyenne (Robards) is the man who has been framed for the murders.  It doesn’t help that his character is supposed to be Mexican either.  A lone and mysterious gunfighter arrives into town who goes by the name of “Harmonica,” because he carries one with him where ever he goes.  He plays it pretty well, too.  Harmonica (or according to some of the press materials I received also goes by the name of The Man) joins up with Cheyenne to clear his name and to settle a score.

Jill McBain (Cardinale) is the widow of the head of the family that was gunned down by Frank.  She too, will have a score to settle.  Once Upon A Time In The West is a very methodical slow burn of a movie.  You will be sucked into this world filled with danger, bullets, and gold, but not at a rapid fire pace.  Sergio Leone is a genius in that regard, because he doesn’t compromise.  The opening intro to the film lasts almost ten minutes and only a few words are spoken in all of that time.  During that exposition you are treated to the heat of the wild west and to the sweat of men on their brow until it is suddenly shattered by gunfire. 

Dialogue is quick, sharp, and snide.  Harmonica has some great lines as does Cheyenne.  Frank is positively brutal as portrayed by Henry Fonda in his darkest role ever.  Those eyes.  Cardinale is gorgeous and a true sex symbol of the time period.  I should know, I had to look her up.  To die for.  In watching Once Upon A Time In The West I noticed several glaring scenes of where now famous directors, obviously inspired by Leone, had used some of the same techniques on their own films. These directors would be John Carpenter and Quentin Tarantino.  I’d tell you which scenes, but then that would really spoil the film since they involve important plot points.

I grew up watching Charles Bronson as a kid on Spanish televison then later on regular televison when certain networks would show “Charles Bronson Week” with five films that included his later works.  He was always a “dangerous” character to mess with which is why he’s perfect as “The Man” (Harmonica).  There’s nothing more to say.  The Man is the ultimate badass!

I will warn those that have not seen the film that it is a slow draw of a film and that there really isn’t that much dialogue.  It’s mostly conveyed in the eyes, a Leone trademark.  If you want a high speed action western then I would suggest moving on, because Once Upon A Time In The West is not that type of film.  Personally, I would recommend the UNRATED cut, because at just over one minute longer than the theatrical, it fills many gaps in the story including some important events towards the end.  The UNRATED cut is my preferred version.

There’s a funny anecdote, whether it’s true or not is anyone’s guess, but during pre-production of Once Upon A Time In The West Leone had asked Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach to be in the film in a reunion of sorts.  When the boys were told that they would be killed off in the first five minute they all passed on the roles.  Leone was awesome!

Video 

Once Upon A Time In The West is presented in 1080p widescreen 2.35:1 techniscope.  Once Upon A Time In The West is a feast for the eyes!  Pores and sweat beads can be seen on every close up of the actors; no DNR was applied without reason.  The picture rarely strays into soft territory unless it has something to do with the story.  This print was restored by the wizards over at Paramount Pictured and they spared no expense.  Shot in 1968? This looks like it was released in 2008!  For a 40+ year old film it has reference written all over it.  Grain is ever present and it shows.  It has a natural grittiness to it that it almost reminded me of working on a scratch board surface.  As the image is carved away through the carbon little bits of black remain on the surface of the image.  The little bits of black are the grain.  I hope my analogy came through there.  🙂

Once Upon A Time In The West looks spectacular and needs to be seen to be believed!

Audio 

Once Upon A Time In The West is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1.  There is also a restored mono soundtrack for the purists out there, but I went ahead and only reviewed the lossless track.  Here’s another audio presentation that could have almost scored a perfect rating if it weren’t for its age.  Let me explain.  Sergio Leone shot this film in English and Italian.  The Italian was dubbed in English with state of the art 1968 technology.  In restoring the Blu-ray not everything can be tweaked to current time frame specifications, so some of the “looping” and “foley” will suffer.  The good news is that it doesn’t suffer by much, but enough to knock it down just half a star. 

The real winner in the Once Upon A Time In The West sound field has to be the gunfire.  The LFE kicks in harshly, but smoothly when ever guns are used.  You feel those gun shots right in the guts!  Dialogue sounds clean and clear.  The center channel handles the job nicely when it comes to voices and the majority of onscreen action.  The rear surrounds are alive with ambient effects.  Windmills, screaming, gunshot echoes, and railroad steam engines all come through with stunning clarity.  The audio on this Blu-ray is a real treat. 

Special Features 

It’s been a LONG time since I had the pleasure of reviewing a Blu-ray with some special features worthy of note, but the Blu-ray Gods have not let me down with the special features on Once Upon A Time In The West. This Blu-ray has commentaries by several famous directors which include: John Carpenter, John Milius, Alex Cox, Bernardo Bertolluci, and more.  The commentaries are epic as are  the making-of featurettes.  The supplemental features found on this Blu-ray are ports from the 2003 special edition DVD set.  There is a theatrical trailer available in HD.  Remember, this is a quality over quantity special features package and to see and hear John Carpenter and John Milius talk about westerns is worth the price of admission alone.

  • Commentary with Contributions from Directors John Carpenter, John Milius & Alex Cox, Film Historians Sir Christopher Frayling & Dr. Sheldon Hall, and Cast & Crew
  • An Opera of Violence
  • The Wages of Sin
  • Something To Do With Death
  • Railroad: Revolutionising The West
  • Locations Then & Now
  • Production Gallery
  • Theatrical Trailer – HD

 

Final Thoughts 

Once Upon A Time In The West is a masterpiece of a film.  It deserves its place as one of the greatest western films of all time.  Every scene, shot, and performance is amazing and filled with power.  I know Father’s Day is coming up, so all of you wondering what you should get pops need not stop anywhere else.  Even if you’re a casual observer of westerns or film itself should give Once Upon A Time In The West a shot. I’m certain that you will find something new each and every time you watch it.  I know I did.

Harmonica: I saw three of these dusters a short time ago, they were waiting for a train. Inside the dusters, there were three men.
Cheyenne: So?
Harmonica: Inside the men, there were three bullets.

 

Order Once Upon A Time In The West on Blu-ray!

 


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Gerard Iribe is a writer/reviewer for Why So Blu?. He has also reviewed for other sites like DVD Talk, Project-Blu, and CHUD, but Why So Blu? is where the heart is. You can follow his incoherency on Twitter: @giribe

3 Responses to “Once Upon A Time In The West (Blu-ray Review)”


  1. Aaron Neuwirth

    Picked this up yesterday. I put Good, Bad, Ugly over it, but it’s still very very good.

  2. Sean Ferguson

    Good review. I’ve only seen a little of this and it’s been on my list for a long time. I’ll have to watch this on Blu-ray for sure.

  3. Jiminy Critic

    Very good flick… Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson rock!