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Once Upon a Time in the West…

June 3, 2013

To my father’s way of thinking “Once Upon a Time in the West” was a bullshit movie. When it was released (1968), it was for him, the day that hippie city-slickers took over the genre of the ‘western’ movie. Here was a movie that had taken the classic western and turned it into “fag-art”.

Film “realism” as we now understand it – as a period movement in Hollywood film that grew in popularity with the ‘60’s and ’70’s, was then just coming to the fore in Hollywood, and Once Upon a Time in the West was one of those quasi-realistic movies. On the surface, it looked like a classic western, but inside, it broke all the traditional rules.

It had the slow pace of a Utah afternoon, when the temperature hits 110 in the shade and the rattlers are too weak to move. Charles Bronson is the anti-hero. Henry Fonda is the tragic figure. Jason Robarts is the tender outlaw.

And, of course, who can forget Claudia Cardinale as the newly widowed Jill McBain? With the body of a Goddess, and the indomitable will of a woman who will not be broken, taken, or ever conquered. (Whatever happened to these female characters in Hollywood?)

Here was a western, made by an Italian (Sergio Leone). The music score – now a classic – created by the great Marcionne. This was all very strange to my father.

The movie broke so violently with the genre understood by my father that he could not relate to it on any level. He complained that the movie moved at the pace of a snail. There were no bar-room fist fights, no hillside shootouts, nor was there a man with the balls to give Jill McBain the ride of her life. (Which, he argued, she so richly deserved, and so secretly desired.)

In my father’s eyes these were pathetic men, in a pathetic place in time, in a pathetic moment on history. Pathetic both in the setting of the movie, and at the time in my dad’s life (1960’s).

Everywhere around him these types of men seemed to be taking over the world. Introverts, emotionally weak, spineless hustlers of money. Hollywood, Bay Street, and television now ran the world. The great wide open west had been tamed, fenced in, and Hollywood was re-making its history in its own eyes.

John Wayne was finished. Johnny Cash had been replaced by The Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Bob Dylan. My father often complained that it was getting nearly impossible to hear Jerry Lee Lewis, or Hank Williams on the radio anymore.

The times, they were a-changing, and my father thought it was all going to hell.  

My father did not like that the railway baron of the movie, a man named Morton, who was the classic land grabbing thug of a capitalist, is allowed to die on his own by the edge of mud puddle; he should have been shot, the way you’d shoot a rabid dog. Poetry and metaphor being completely lost on my father, who lived by a simpler, Old Testament moral code.

But film realism itself is all but dead now in Hollywood. No one wants to know the world of Taxi Driver, Network, or The Godfather anymore.

And what of the classic fantasy westerns of my father’s life? They now lie on the other side of the cinematic divide – that world before the ‘60’s. Before modern film, before Hollywood matured. Lost, like my father and the men he grew up around, to another time and another place.

Now largely forgotten…

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