First, let’s set the stage a bit…
Like almost every teenaged boy in middle America in the late Sixties, I was blown away by the “Dollars” movies (Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), then also known as “The Man With No Name movies” or just “those Clint Eastwood flicks.” The films themselves took an interesting path getting released in the United States that I won’t really get into. Basically, due to lawsuits, they weren’t released here as they were made over the course of three years, but came out within a few months of one another, increasing their impact. It was sort of like getting all the Harry Potter films in a year and half.
The theme music from FAFDM and GBU (covered by Hugo Montenegro) hit the radio play lists before the movies came to my mid-sized mid-western town. I liked the music, bought the records (not really understanding that they weren’t the actual soundtracks). In addition, the posters and publicity stills for the movies, with their somewhat crude images and the unshaven, cigar-chomping hero (Rowdy Yates from the TV show Rawhide? Huh?) were very unlike any western movie that had come along before. I was eager to see them.
So in the spring of 1968, just two weeks before we graduated from high school, a gym-class buddy asked me if I wanted to go to the drive-in to see “Clint’s movie” (FAFDM). I sort of wondered if my new pal was making a pass, but I did want to see the movie, so what the heck?
For whatever deep, weird psychological reason, FAFDM hit me right between the eyes. I went absolutely nuts. Despite Sergio Leone’s (the director of the three films) rather cool and detached Eastwood anti-hero, the Dollars films are spectacularly, operatically emotional. Through that summer, taking every opportunity to go to the movies became a great release. We saw all three of the Leone movies at least twice (drive-in triple-features were what we had instead of cable back then).
1968 was a weird, very disturbing year for everyone worldwide. In addition to the general tumult (assassinations, riots, virulent election politics, Tet offensive, etc.), I was also dealing with my father’s death a year before (long, slow, agonizing cancer), and I had spent the previous nine months working as an orderly in an Emergency Room, experiencing first hand some of life’s good, bad, and ugly moments.
I just barely graduated from high school that year (bottom one-fourth academically of the 680+ person class), had already spent some time in the local jail (vandalism), and was suicidally in love with a nurse at work (unrequited of course – she was ten years older). So my emotional state was probably not optimal, but amazingly receptive to Leone’s fatalistic, but super-cool vision.
The Next Step
Given all that, what else could I do but enlist in the Marine Corps? So in April 1969, I marched off to war. Well, I rode a bus, but you get the point.
The whole Marine Corps thing is worth another callus-inducing bout of typing, but let me say that it was tough, really tough. I was stretched beyond breaking both physically and mentally.
In Boot Camp, from April through July, I was only allowed two things to read: the Bible and in some weeks, a Sunday L.A. Times. I’m addicted to reading, so I polished off the King James twice and I love movies, so I immediately turned to the Calendar (showbiz) section of the L.A. Times every chance I got.
And there it was: “Sergio Leone, the director who brought you the Man With No Name, is proud to present his greatest epic yet – Once Upon A Time In The West.”
It’s playing up in Hollywood! Just two hours away from Camp Pendleton! Should I desert to go see it? Hey, what’s a little jail time and a dishonorable discharge compared to the opportunity to see what simply has to be the greatest film of all time? Right? Many times I gave it serious thought, but luckily I was just smart enough (chicken enough) to resist the temptation. Truly, it was a close call.
But over Labor Day weekend, I was granted a four-day pass. Yup, I never got off base from April 1st until Labor Day. Long haul.
I had spoken with lots of guys who knew L.A., and had determined that the best way to spend my first four-day liberty was to literally go to Hollywood. Along Hollywood Blvd. were many first- and second-run theaters, and lots of giant used bookstores. Perfect!
So, Thursday night I walked through the base gates and bought a bus ticket to Hollywood. I arrived at the Vine Street bus station several blocks south of Hollywood Blvd at about 11:30 pm. I had to ask directions to get to the famous Hollywood and Vine intersection. I had no idea where else to go and just trusted in luck. One thing that you get by having just completed five months of USMC training is the ability to go anywhere and not be too worried about your safety.
Just one building shy of the famous intersection was a flea-bag hotel. Rooms $15. I had made it! I was in Hollywood.
The next four days were heaven on earth. I hadn’t been in a room by myself since I left home…and this room had a TV! Not to mention the dozen movie theaters within easy walking distance and a half-dozen of the best book stores possible!
This is still one of my favorite life experiences. I saw tons of flicks, bought box loads of books to send home, and just basically breathed some free air. But this story is about me and Once Upon A Time In The West: So finally, there I was, standing under the marquee of the theater, grinning like an idiot. Heart in throat I bought a ticket, got the mandatory popcorn, and sat down. The lights dimmed. The screen lit up…
Two hours later I had to physically uncurl my lip. What the hell was that? Dull, boring, incomprehensible, WTF? Some nice music, I guess, but why was everybody in the movie just standing around, not even talking, but just looking at each other? Plot? What plot? O.k., so Henry Fonda was a truly chilling villain, but who cares? This was no Clint Eastwood flick; this was no rollicking adventure. This was a tremendous, tedious, disappointing let down.
But, on the other hand, it was just a movie and the weekend was still wonderful. It would be very interesting to go back with what I understand now about the times and all those freaky people I met on the street. This was Labor Day weekend 1969, about three weeks after the Tate/LaBianca murders. No one, at this time, knew who had done it. All hippies were suspect. Heroin was rampant on Hollywood Blvd. I was pretty oblivious to all this. To me it was just a big, crowded street in a big, unfamiliar city and I didn’t give it much thought. I have a feeling I missed some interesting moments as I strolled from bookstore to movie theater. My only other desire was to run into Candace Bergen, on whom I had a giant crush. Hey, it was Hollywood, right? Anything might happen! I know now that she was reputedly in Manson’s crosshairs and had fled to Europe, but back then I had hope.
Anyway, back to base. Great weekend. Sorry the movie was a drag, but so what? Life goes on, and a Marine in 1969 had more to worry about than slow-moving Italian Westerns.
Over the next few months, while getting more training at Camp Pendleton and preparing for a long trip to Southeast Asia, Once Upon A Time In The West started making the rounds of base theaters. Not a very tempting “night at the theater,” but on several occasions my choices for the evening were 1) hang around the barracks, or 2) go to the flicks, have some popcorn, and watch a movie that I didn’t like at all. Through several viewings, I came to like the music quite a bit (thank you Ennio Morricone – composer of the gods!), but the movie left me cold every time.
Life in the USMC and a Glimmer of Things To Come
Then I went overseas and the movie drifted into the past.
But an odd thing happened. Some time early in 1970, Armed Forces radio started playing “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” by the Hollies. The song had a wailing harmonica solo that was very reminiscent of the threatening, off-key harmonica notes in the soundtrack of Once Upon A Time In The West. And danged if recalling the music didn’t make me sort of want to see the movie again.
What can I say? Things over there were stressful at best, and devastating at worst. Again with the emotional upheaval. Something about the film, if only the music, was taking hold.
Let me make two things clear:
One – no complaints from me about my time in the USMC and Southeast Asia. I had all the luck in the world. I had it easier than almost anyone I have ever heard of who was exposed to some of the things that I was exposed to. I saw some action, some of it rather intense, but I survived, largely unpunctured, as my golden boy luck held throughout. Three lifetimes worth of luck all packed into a single year. And, keep in mind, I had enlisted. I had asked for it. Mea culpa.
Two – everyone deals with these traumatic situations in their own way. I feel a deep, abiding, and undying sense of guilt and shame for my participation in the whole Viet Nam disaster. I don’t expect anyone to agree, and I won’t be getting into it too deeply, but we were wrong. I was wrong. The whole damned thing was wrong. And I participated. I volunteered. Please don’t thank me for my service. I did you no service at all.
So, back to our narrative: things happened and I found myself stationed on the island of Okinawa in the middle of 1970. Lots of race riots, but nobody actually shooting at me. And the base theater was not a crappy, dank hole, but an actual building with air conditioning and padded seats. Cool. So I went to the flicks as often as I could.
At one point the theater started showing previews of the upcoming feature: Once Upon A Time In The West. And, weirdly enough, I started going to movies that I didn’t particularly want to see just so I could see the preview and hear snippets of the music. (Ticket price was 25 cents, so money was no problem). And the choice now was 1) lay around the barracks, 2) go into town to get drunk and hang around the brothels, or 3) go to the flicks. 1) sucked. 2) happened every once in a while. 3) happened quite a bit.
So the movie finally arrived and I went to see it. I liked it better, but it still kinda sucked. I was way into the music, but geez, what a slow-ass, dull movie.
The Big Turn-Around
And then one night I was standing in line to see it for what must have been about my 12th time (I know – I’m a goof) and the guy in front of me was talking to his buddy:
SPOILER ALERT FROM HERE ON
“No,” he said. “Look at the clothes of the dead guy draped across the horse as Bronson rides off in the distance. That’s not Frank. Frank was wearing black. That was Cheyenne. He was wearing brown. Cheyenne dies in the end. They just don’t show it.”
I’m getting goosebumps as I type this. Even at that moment, waiting in line, I knew the guy was right. I’d seen the end of that stupid movie a dozen times. I knew exactly what was in the shot. Bronson, having taken care of business, rides away into the distance as the gorgeous end credits music plays. It’s a very wide shot and he’s nearly to the horizon, and there is no reason to look at the clothing of the body on the second horse clear over there. But by god, the guy was right! It’s a tan vest! Not a black shirt! Jesus! That’s Cheyenne draped over the saddle!
Man, I watched the movie closely that night, particularly the whole sequence at the end where Cheyenne (Jason Robards, Jr.) and Jill (Claudia Cardinale) are waiting for the outcome of the duel between the good guy Harmonica (Charles Bronson) and the murderous Frank (Henry Fonda) outside the ranch house.
My god! When Cheyenne rides up to the house and has a moment with Bronson, he’s hunched over his saddle, he can barely breathe. And when he’s in the house with Jill, he winces in pain but hides it from her! He’s been shot! He’s dying! You don’t see any wound or blood, but his performance tells all, if you know what to look for.
That opened the whole movie up for me. Having seen it so many times I had a head start on myself. I could analyze the whole structure and see what Leone had done. Half the damn story doesn’t happen on screen. Leone never uses dissolves, so there is no hint as to how much time has passed between scenes, other than context. But once you realize that the thing is an expert jigsaw puzzle, you find that all the pieces fit perfectly.
Movies use dissolves to let you know that some time has passed. It’s like an author writing “Later…” Leone just plain doesn’t use dissolves. But he shows the stack of lumber at the train station and then about two scenes later shows the stack of lumber out at the ranch, which has been established as a long ride from town. It’s days later and Leone trusts you to figure that out.
Oh! Okay! I can work a puzzle. I don’t know why he did it. I don’t have any idea if that ploy would work with many people in the audience, particularly folks like me looking for another “Dollars” movie. But now I could see how the movie worked and I got into it. I had a couple of showings where I was piecing it together and having a ball doing it.
Holy Crap! I Love This Movie!
And then more weird stuff happened. Walking down the street of a little Okinawan village I was stunned to see that the movie was playing at a local Japanese theater. Well, I’m up for that.
So for a month I followed the movie from theater to theater in little out of the way villages on the fascinating ancient isle of Okinawa. There were different prints, because there were different languages dubbed in and subtitles in Asian characters running down the sides. Many combinations. I bargained with theater owners, trying to buy their cool poster of the film. No shared language; no luck on the purchase. The theaters that sold popcorn were kind of cool, because in those places, semi-tame rats would come right up to you and beg for snacks. I always fed them.
And even more importantly, I found that the film I had been watching in American theaters had at least 20 minutes cut from it, and they were important scenes. Such as, the death of Cheyenne. That’s a terrific and heartbreaking scene totally lopped out of the American release. A scene before Frank’s rape of Jill where he and his bad guy boss have a huge confrontation that sets up a good bit of the climax. A vitally important confrontation between Cheyenne and Harmonica (Bronson) near the beginning of the film.
But even with those additions, the movie is still a puzzle piece, still constructed in an odd, challenging way.
Two subsequent viewings that are fun to note:
I got hired as a sort of security guard for midnight shipments of something or other down the unpopulated east coast of Taiwan. I knew a guy who knew a guy who was a mercenary and they needed a couple of guys to look intimidating. Long story. But, although I did the job, they had trouble coming up with my money, so they gave me a woman. Yeah, I know. It sounds pretty creepy. But the funny thing is that the lady in question and I sort of hit it off and even though there was no money involved she invited me to live with her and two other families in a tiny apartment in Taipei. Made some friends. Had a couple of other job offers that were quite interesting. But it turned out Wu Shah Ling was also a fan of westerns – or maybe she got a kick out of the knee-high buckskin boots I had specially made – and we went to see Once Upon A Time In The West at a fancy theater on Enterprise Street. Dubbed in French, German subtitles on the bottom, Chinese characters down one side, and Korean down the other. That was fun.
Several years later my first wife, a French teacher, and I went to see the movie at a Denfert-Rochereau area theater in Paris (across from the entrance to the Catacombs), and saw a version dubbed into French. My bilingual wife was continually leaning over and asking, “What did he say?” The French was getting past her, but I, by this time, basically had the dialog memorized so I could help her decode. That was cool.
One More Element – The Stricken Heartbeat
Now, let’s go back in time to the first month I was in boot camp. I knew from Second #1 that I had made a drastic error in my strategy and the USMC was probably the worst mistake I would ever make in my whole life. When they let us start writing letters, I sent one to a friend (not the movie guy mentioned above) and asked him to ask any friends he had who were willing to write me letters. Please, I need to keep my sanity if I can!
His girlfriend, whom I had met, but barely knew, wrote me and we commenced a really spectacular correspondence. She – a sweet college kid with a wonderfully positive attitude toward life and its possibilities. Me – wanting that feeling very much and not at all sure I would survive to achieve it.
A few months later, she amicably split from my pal, and our letters got more and more serious and finally became declarations of love. I barely remembered what she looked like. She sent me a picture, but it was a long shot taken with an Instamatic at the Grand Canyon. O.k., there was a pretty blonde standing clear over there by the scenery, but that wasn’t important. We connected on a wonderful level and soon it became apparent that I had a love affair all set up for me when I got out of the service. Total loser in high school, had never even held a girl’s hand. Wow. It was wonderful.
It was also tough, because suddenly I really had something to live for, and if there’s one thing you learn in times like that, having something to live for puts everything right on the line. Suddenly life was really valuable, and I didn’t want to lose it before I had really figured anything out.
One of the best moments in Once Upon A Time In The West is the final showdown. The gunfight between Stalwart Hero and Evil Villain is majestic, but it’s what is happening inside the house that really resonated with me.
Inside, Cheyenne (who is dying and is, of course, in love with the beautiful Jill) recognizes that she is in love with the good guy outside. Cheyenne says he understands that he (Cheyenne) is not the man for her and then goes on to say: “And neither is he. There’s something about a man like that. Something to do with death.”
Thinking of where I was and what I was doing, that line cut deep.
And then the good guy enters the house, and she wants him stay so badly, but in the way of any good story, the hero’s victory is laden with a heavy cost. Another great western phrased it thus: “There’s no going back from a killing.”
This western has him look out the door where civilization, in the form of the railroad and its workers, is building a whole town right outside.
“Sweetwater,” he says. “It’s going to be a nice town.”
She swallows tears and tries to smile. “I hope you’ll come back and see it, someday.”
He looks at her with infinite sadness, dark despair in his eyes, and almost whispering, says, “Someday.” And leaves.
Yeah, yeah, I know. Melodramatic clap trap. Old timey movies wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Pseudo-macho tough guy tragedy. Western hero rides off into the sunset. Music flares. Blah blah. I get that.
But it hit me hard and dead center. It was plain to me, at the time, wearing green, overseas doing what I was doing, that I was truly not good enough for the woman who was waiting for me. That if I had any honor, any courage, I wouldn’t push something like me into her life. It was just wrong.
O.k., so a lot of that is and was emotional posturing, trying to take some of the melodrama from a favorite film and attach it to my life. But it was all very true as well. I felt all of that deeply and sincerely. Again with the emotional content sweeping over all logic.
And, just to relieve all suspense, I did of course come home and fall into the arms of that lovely lady and we had decades of love and friendship. She brought me home and made it possible for me to stay.
I’ve probably seen the film well over a hundred times at this point. I still find new things in it. Something in the background, the implication of a line or action. I think it is the most complete film I’ve ever seen. There is a massive amount of thought in every frame. Very few accidents. I never recommend it to anyone, because although it looks like a Western, wears clothes like a Western, pays deep homage to tons of Western tropes, it is an oddly constructed, strangely delivered film, even if you don’t notice that at first.
I watched it that first dozen times and never saw past the fact that it looked like a Western, and deemed it a failure because it was kind of a dull crappy Western. O.k., there’s hats, horses, and six-guns. It’s a Western. But it’s nothing like any other Western I’ve ever seen. Or even other movies that I’ve seen. Maybe if a person sees it for the first time with all the deleted scenes in place (as they are on all current releases) it’s an easier movie to de-code. I don’t know.
It only wormed its way into my life through a series of fortuitous circumstances. When I watch it I see and feel a map of some of my journeys, good and bad. We had a hell of a twisted trip together, that movie and I.
“Fan” is short for “fanatic.” It took a long, strange trip to get me there, but yeah, I’m a fan.