A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Once Upon a Time in the West is a classic of the Western genre, technically a "Spaghetti Western" (i.e., filmed in Italy), but featuring many American and international stars. It's a masterpiece and essential viewing for anyone interested in the genre and/or movie history, but it contains mature material and is recommended only for those over 13. There are plenty of guns and shooting and dead bodies, even if blood spurts are rare. Children are killed and dead bodies are shown. In one scene, a man lies with a woman in bed, kisses and caresses her, although she's an unwilling participant; this could be construed somewhat as rape, but also could be called "sexual threat." The scene is not violent. Language is sporadic and includes a couple uses of "s--t," "bastard," and "whore." Characters sometimes smoke cigars and cigarettes and drink whisky.
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What's the story?
In ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, three men in long duster coats wait at a train station. The train arrives, and the man they are sent to kill, simply known as Harmonica (Charles Bronson), instead dispatches them. Meanwhile, Jill (Claudia Cardinale), a newly married woman in a black dress, heads to the small settlement of Sweetwater to join her new husband, Brett McBain, and his children. Unfortunately, the vicious gunman Frank (Henry Fonda) has arrived first and gunned down the entire McBain family, leaving Jill a widow. Frank has also left evidence to frame the bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards). It turns out that the McBain land is valuable, a prime spot to build a depot for the coming railroad, and that a terminally ill railroad magnate (Gabriele Ferzetti) wishes to get his hands on it. All the players attempt to outsmart one another in the name of the land. In the end, Harmonica has a personal score to settle with Frank.
Is it any good?
This epic Western, with its wide spaces, striking close-ups, and extraordinary music, is considered by many to be Sergio Leone's best movie, and one of the greatest Westerns of all time. The premier master of the Spaghetti Western, Leone also made Clint Eastwood's so-called "Man with No Name" trilogy -- culminating in another masterpiece, The Good, the Bad & the Ugly -- as well as the gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America. Unlike any other filmmaker, he worked in extremes, using huge, empty frames smashed together with shocking close-ups, dark frames punctured by squares of light, and silence broken by squeals of astonishing music.
This movie's nearly wordless, 12-minute opening sequence (featuring Western legends Woody Strode and Jack Elam) is arguably Leone's finest moment, and a moment that all filmmakers could benefit from studying. Ennio Morricone's music score is still the stuff of legend, beautiful, startling, and haunting. Additionally, Once Upon a Time in the West is one of the genre's pinnacles, exploring -- along with Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch -- the bitter end of the Wild West and the onset of civilization. This theme was so effective that it led to many declaring the end of the Western as a movie genre. Once Upon a Time in the West is still a bit convoluted in the plot department (it features a story by Leone and future filmmakers Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci), but every frame of it offers pure energized excellence.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Once Upon a Time in the West's violence. Does it feel very intense, even without much blood shown? How so?
When Frank and Jill are in bed together, why is the moment uncomfortable? Is this a sexy scene? Is it a violent scene?
What is (or was) the appeal of the Western genre? What kinds of things does it have to say about us?
Why are these characters interesting to watch, even if few (or none) of them have any admirable characteristics?
- In theaters: July 4, 1969
- On DVD or streaming: September 28, 2010
- Cast: Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale
- Director: Sergio Leone
- Studio: Paramount Pictures
- Genre: Western
- Topics: Trains
- Run time: 165 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: western violence and brief sensuality
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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