Once Upon a Time in the West and its use of genre convention

The movie, Once Upon the Time in the West, is quite certainly a fine example of the Western. It begins with a group of men, obvious thugs, waiting for the train. Whether they are attempting to ride it, rob it, pick up a package, or waiting for someone coming in on the train, the movie does not immediately tell us. To one familiar with Westerns, though, the answer should be obvious: they are waiting for someone either their boss or the hero.

As soon as Harmonica comes off the train we can be almost certain he is the hero due to his choice of clothes, the somewhat dirtied white shirt confirms him to us. If that was not enough on its own, the ensuing dialogue leaves no doubt; the thugs have come for his head and he will have to fight them. Why Harmonica has arrived is always without a doubt, in true genre convention he must be out for revenge, but the reason for his revenge is clouded throughout almost the entire movie. It is not, as one would expect from the beginning, and westerns in general, a two-sided vengeance; Frank, his true target, barely knows he exists a third party arranged the meeting and the trap is sprung from Frank’s paranoia.

The other hero of the story, Cheyenne is much less clearly heroic. He is dressed in brown, an outlaw with a golden heart. While his illicit past is hinted at, we only see him act heroically to protect the heroine Jill McBane. Initially framed for murder, the audience is allowed to know the murderer’s true name, Frank, and let in that Cheyenne despite his reputation is not villainous through a single simple method of music. Cheyenne’s leitmotif, which plays almost every time he shows up, is an uplifting little tune. This use of music to key in the viewer of a character’s role is not at all uncommon in Westerns, we see leitmotifs in other famous works such as For a Few Dollars More and its sequels.

The third heroic character, the heroine Jill McBane, is yet another common Western archetype. She is the wealthy, young, and beautiful widow; the love interest of the hero and often, as is the case in this film, the villain. Again, though, the movie does not quite follow the standard format changing this time in making the widow a former prostitute who had eloped with McBane and whose actual wedding was supposed to be at the start of the film.

Having gathered our heroic cast, the western staples of the man with no name, the outlaw with the heart of gold, and in one character both the rich widow and the prostitute with the heart of gold, the only one missing is the sheriff who is incompatible as a hero with the man with no name. The man with no name must come into the lawless frontier and impose a sort of personal justice, protecting the weak not because of the law but because of some inner goodness or desire for revenge. The sheriff is the force of the law and honor protecting the weak against those who would destroy them and though both guard the weak their methods are opposed.

Turning from the heroic cast we look at the villains. There are two main villains. These are in many ways more interesting. Frank is your traditional villain, immediately distinguishable due to his black garb and willingness to kill children. At the same time his actor, Henry Fonda, was well known or even type-cast as the western hero so his child-killing role was a sudden switch. He deviates as well in that he is both the hired gun and main villain. While in other films, such as Shane, the main villain is a corrupt man who relies on wealth and hired guns, and they hire an elite mercenary but it is not normal for the mercenary to be the main antagonist. Frank, though, is clearly the primary villain eventually staging a rebellion and killing his former boss who, except for his advanced infirmness, is your common corrupt business man of Westerns.

Through the characterization and the way Once Upon a Time in the West uses the various archetypes associated with Westerns it creates a unique and entertaining film. The characters are unique but recognizable as those belonging to a Western. In this way Once Upon a Time in the West gives us a unique and interesting view of a Western.


Harmonica Arrives: Time Stamp 4:28


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