One of the greatest westerns of all time, Sergio Leone's spaghetti masterpiece is the epic tale of a notorious outlaw (Jason Robards) and a harmonica-playing gunslinger (Charles Bronson) who join forces to save comely widow Claudia Cardinale from a ruthless railroad tycoon and his hired guns. In a casting masterstroke, perennial good guy Henry Fonda is a convincing candidate for the most cold-blooded killer in film history.
Sergio Leone came to international fame through his Italy-based "spaghetti" westerns and the mammoth success of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly provided him the opportunity shoot Once Upon A Time In The West in the real American West.
With Monument Valley providing a stunning backdrop Leone's hymn to the genre he loved is an epic in the biggest sense of the word.
The story centres around three gunmen, Fonda, Bronson and Robards, their relationship with ex-prostitute Cardinale, and the building of the railroad that will bring civilization to the West.
But, nation building doesn't come easy, so Fonda is hired as muscle to ensure local interests do not interfere with big business.
Robards and Bronson protect Cardinale, one of those local interests due to some newly inherited land, yet Bronson also carries a hidden agenda for facing off with Fonda.
In its full length version Once Upon A Time In The West moves at an unhurried pace, but is filmmaking of the highest calibre.
Leone boldly took Henry Fonda, that paragon of virtue from so many John Ford horse operas, and cast him as a cold-hearted assassin. Legend has it that there were near-riots in cinemas as shocked audiences watched Fonda gun down a family.
This is just one of many set-pieces that bejewel the film, others being the famed opening ten minute credit sequence in which gunmen await Charles Bronson's Harmonica Man arrival by train, and a desert hanging.
Leone shoots with virtuoso widescreen compositions and Ennio Morricone's classic score (each of the four main players has their own theme) is the perfect accompianment to the on-screen action.
Criticizing a classic is dangerous, but the only major flaw with Once Upon A Time In The West is Charles Bronson: he's not iconic enough to credibly take on Henry Fonda; imagine Clint Eastwood in the role and two giants of the genre shooting it out.
But, Leone's film, authentic yet hyper-stylised, complete with the coolest cowboy fashion (gunslingers in long coats has never been bettered), mainstreet shootouts and raw, memorable characters, is a tough, leathery, sun-dried masterpiece.