The Henry Fonda And Charles Bronson Western That Gave Us The Genre’S Most Iconic Twist


Sergio Leone certainly didn’t create the western, as filmmakers like John Ford, John Huston, and George Stevens had already created foundational works within the genre by the time Leone changed the game with his innovative western A Fistful of Dollars in 1964. However, the recurring hallmarks of the Italian filmmaker “The Man With No Name” trilogy, which also include For A Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, epitomized the stylistic hallmarks that led to the popularization of the “spaghetti western” in the 1960s. While “The Man With No Name” trilogy was highly influential and made an international star out of Clint Eastwood, Leone took on a more ambitious genre exercise with his 1968 spaghetti western epic Once Upon a Time in the West. A timeless exploration of the dynamic between economy and greed, Once Upon A Time In The West warps the audience’s perspective of heroes and villains with its iconic twist.

‘Once Upon a Time in the West’s Twist Changed Everything

Once Upon a Time in the West is set during the last months of America’s “frontier era,” as the creation of a transnational railroad system threatens to make the work of the nation’s cowboys entirely irrelevant. The film’s title refers to the mythologization of Western archetypes, as Leone presents a story about the enduring legacy that the era had, and how it came to a sharp, violent conclusion. The film centers on an enigmatic hero known only as “Harmonica” (Charles Bronson) because of the instrument he carries with him;. At the same time, Harmonica is not verbose, he has a talent for delivering a tune shortly before dispatching with his enemies. Harmonica’s ruthless skills as a gunslinger are established in Once Upon a Time in the West’s now iconic opening scene, in which he defeats three bounty hunters determined to hunt him down.

Like many Western heroes, Harmonica plays by his own rules and does not ascribe any sense of higher morality. However, Harmonica does know the difference between right and wrong; this puts him in conflict with the film’s main villain, Frank, played by Henry Fonda in a brilliant piece of subversive casting. Frank is a remorseless outlaw who leads an assault on the land owned by the rancher Brett McBain (Frank Wolff), who sends his fiancée Jill (Claudia Cardinale) to flee the property. While Jill hires Harmonica to protect her family, she doesn’t realize his motivation for taking a stand against Frank is far more personal. Harmonica seeks revenge on Frank for the murder of his brother many years ago.

The twist is revealed within a brilliant flashback sequence that utilizes the sharp music contrast, lengthy shots, and quick bursts of violence that Leone epitomized within the similarly iconic ending of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Frank brutally hangs Harmonica’s older brother to death, leaving the young boy to fend for himself as he attempts to survive within the brutal landscape of America’s frontier. While it’s not explicitly stated how many years have passed between this initial faceoff and the reunion between the two mortal enemies, it’s evident that Harmonica has been holding on to this knowledge for quite some time. While revenge isn’t his only motivating factor, as he seems to show genuine empathy for Jill and her children, Harmonica is keen to take the opportunity to face off with the man who stole his innocence.


Why That ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ Twist Is So Important

While the sequence is painstakingly crafted to be as exhilarating as possible, it’s not simply another action sequence that Leone randomly inserted within the film, which runs nearly three hours long. It’s an integral piece of the story, as the twist in Once Upon a Time in the West personifies the differences between Frank and Harmonica. Despite his seemingly enigmatic nature, Harmonica was forced into this lifestyle due to tragic events in his past; his selfless sincerity makes him very different from the other characters that Bronson has played. Comparatively, Frank simply enjoys violence for its own sake; he didn’t specifically target Harmonica and his brother, but they paid the price for standing in his way.

The brilliance of this scene is that the Once Upon a Time in the West scene implies a greater history for the characters. This gave the film a greater sense of history than even the best spaghetti westerns of all time had aimed for. It’s unclear how exactly Harmonica became a gunslinger, but if the flashback is any indication, he became hardened and cynical as a result of the extreme violence he experienced at such a young age. Once Upon a Time in the West is already a violent film, so imagining a child having to grow up within these circumstances is even more heartbreaking. Comparatively, the idea that Frank doesn’t remember this encounter makes him somehow even more ruthless; Frank has committed so much violence within his lifetime that he doesn’t even recognize the moment that changed Harmonica’s life forever.

What Once Upon a Time in the West’s Twist Says About the Characters

The sequence is also important as it evokes more sympathy for Harmonica ahead of the film’s climax. Harmonica is a unique Western hero because he isn’t Eastwood; he lacks any real sense of charisma, avoids interpersonal relationships, and fails to deliver any of the quippy one-liners that Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” was known for using. While this could have made him a potentially dull protagonist, the twist explains why Harmonica is such an isolated, lonely person. The only person he truly cared for was his brother, and he spent his life recovering from the pain of his loss.

Although it features compelling characters with intriguing backstories, Once Upon a Time in the West’s story is a metaphor for the end of America’s “Wild West.” While the railroad that is so central to the film’s story forces the nation to change its economy forever, the film suggests that the frontier itself was always steeped in violence; perhaps, the end to this era is not a bad thing. The best westerns of all-time are about to synthesize great characters with a deeper message, and Leone pulls off both tasks with his greatest masterpiece.

Once Upon a Time in the West is streaming on Pluto TV.