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HISTORY

An 11 Oct 1967 Var news item announced that Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone, known for his “spaghetti western” films set in the U.S. but shot in Europe, would make his American motion picture debut with two back-to-back productions, Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America (1984, see entry). The former was scheduled to begin shooting in Mar 1968, with James Coburn, Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, and Claudia Cardinale in leading roles. As an Italian co-production, it was said to be Italy’s biggest film since The Bible…In the Beginning (1966, see entry).
       A 31 Dec 1967 NYT brief gave an amended start date of Apr 1968, and noted that Paramount Pictures would fund the entire production. A conflicting report in the 10 Jan 1968 Var stated that the picture was “totally financed in Italy,” although Paramount had recently alleviated the Italians’ financial risk by purchasing worldwide distribution rights (with the exception of Italy). According to a later article in the 6 May 1968 LAT, the project was initiated by Paramount, who convinced Leone to make it, despite his desire to quit the Western genre, by offering him a $5-million budget, and “the right to hire the stars and write the script.” Conflicting information arose in yet another item in the 5 Jul 1968 DV, which listed Paramount’s financial contribution as $2.5 million in exchange for distribution rights outside Italy. After committing to Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone was quoted in a 7 Apr 1968 LAT article, saying that he ... More Less

An 11 Oct 1967 Var news item announced that Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone, known for his “spaghetti western” films set in the U.S. but shot in Europe, would make his American motion picture debut with two back-to-back productions, Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America (1984, see entry). The former was scheduled to begin shooting in Mar 1968, with James Coburn, Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, and Claudia Cardinale in leading roles. As an Italian co-production, it was said to be Italy’s biggest film since The Bible…In the Beginning (1966, see entry).
       A 31 Dec 1967 NYT brief gave an amended start date of Apr 1968, and noted that Paramount Pictures would fund the entire production. A conflicting report in the 10 Jan 1968 Var stated that the picture was “totally financed in Italy,” although Paramount had recently alleviated the Italians’ financial risk by purchasing worldwide distribution rights (with the exception of Italy). According to a later article in the 6 May 1968 LAT, the project was initiated by Paramount, who convinced Leone to make it, despite his desire to quit the Western genre, by offering him a $5-million budget, and “the right to hire the stars and write the script.” Conflicting information arose in yet another item in the 5 Jul 1968 DV, which listed Paramount’s financial contribution as $2.5 million in exchange for distribution rights outside Italy. After committing to Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone was quoted in a 7 Apr 1968 LAT article, saying that he hoped it would be his last Western. However, he went on to write and direct Duck, You Sucker! (1972, see entry), which was also a Western.
       Henry Fonda initially turned down the role of “Frank” after reading a script that was poorly translated into English from Italian, according to a 29 Oct 1968 DV article. Fonda then conferred with fellow actor Eli Wallach, who had worked with Leone on The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966, see entry), and Wallach persuaded him to take the part as a chance to work with Leone, who did not speak English but considered the language barrier no impediment to his process, according to the 2 Apr 1969 Var.
       Despite Charles Bronson’s starring role, it was noted in the 10 Jan 1968 Var that he would receive below-the-title billing. An item in the 2 Apr 1968 DV explained that Bronson had declined above-the-title billing in fourth-position after Fonda, Robards, and Cardinale, and instead negotiated for “special billing” that read, “Starring Charles Bronson as ‘The Man.’”
       Items in the 10 Jan 1968 and 10 Apr 1968 Var listed the following actors as cast members: Enrico Maria Salerno; Robert Hossein; Robert Ryan; and Eduardo De Filippo. Al Mulock was named as a cast member in a 7 Aug 2005 LAT article, which reviewed an exhibit dedicated to Leone’s Westerns that included “four life-sized plaster statues of the quartet of desperadoes” in the opening sequence, played by Bronson, Mulock, Woody Strode, and Jack Elam.
       Principal photography began 8 Apr 1968 at Cinecitta Studios in Rome, Italy, as noted in the 10 Apr 1968 Var. The picture marked Cinecitta’s 500th production to be filmed on the studio lot. Two months of location filming was slated to take place at the “Flagstone, Arizona” set built in Gaudix, Spain, which entailed a 350-yard main street, a railway station, and several buildings that were “built for occupancy.” Leone was due to retain ownership of the $500,000 set for a ten-year lease period in which he planned to produce other pictures there. Location shooting also took place in Almeria, Spain, as noted in the 29 Oct 1968 DV. The 31 Jul 1968 DV reported that Henry Fonda had recently returned from Spain to Los Angeles, CA, where he would spend a couple days before production resumed in Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah border. There, four weeks of exteriors were scheduled. Finally, a return to Cinecitta was planned for the remainder of interior shooting.
       While in Spain, Leone recruited American, British, and Scandinavian background actors to represent frontiersman. As stated in the 5 Jul 1968 DV, the extras were paid $14 per day.
       Once Upon a Time in the West opened in Italy in late Dec 1968. Within three weeks of release there, it grossed $1.35 million, according to a 28 Jan 1969 DV brief. In the U.S., the picture received an “M” rating (suggested for mature audiences) from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), as stated in a 21 May 1969 DV item. It opened in New York City on 28 May 1969, with a running time of 165 minutes. Perhaps due to some early criticism of its length – described as “heavy going” in the 26 May 1969 DV review – it was edited down to 135 minutes by the time it debuted in Los Angeles, CA, on 23 Jul 1969. Overall, critical reception was mixed, and the film took in only $2.1 million in domestic rentals in 1969, the 7 Jan 1970 Var noted. It enjoyed popularity overseas, however, especially in Italy, and in Paris, France, where it grossed $935,000 in its first run, as stated in the 16 Dec 1969 DV.
       The film won Best Picture at Italy’s David Di Donatello Awards, in a tie with Mario Monicelli’s The Girl with the Pistol, as announced in the 5 Jun 1969 DV. In the decades following its release, it came to be regarded as one of Leone’s greatest pictures, and as a classic Western. It was named as one of Time magazine’s “All-Time 100” greatest films ever made, and in 2009, it was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. A 16 Nov 2006 LAT article announced that Once Upon a Time in the West was chosen as the first film to be restored under a three-year project organized by the Rome Film Festival and avid film preservationist Martin Scorsese.
       The 18 Dec 1968 Var stated that Italian filmmaker Italo Zingarelli planned to make a parody of Once Upon a Time in the West called Once Upon a Time in the South. More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Daily Variety
2 Apr 1968
p. 2.
Daily Variety
19 Apr 1968
p. 16.
Daily Variety
5 Jul 1968
p. 1, 14.
Daily Variety
31 Jul 1968
p. 2.
Daily Variety
29 Oct 1968
p. 26, 28, 152.
Daily Variety
8 Jan 1969
p. 3.
Daily Variety
28 Jan 1969
p. 10.
Daily Variety
21 May 1969
p. 16.
Daily Variety
26 May 1969
p. 3.
Daily Variety
5 Jun 1969
p. 3.
Daily Variety
16 Dec 1969
p. 8.
Los Angeles Times
5 Jan 1968
Section C, p. 13.
Los Angeles Times
7 Apr 1968
Section D, p. 24.
Los Angeles Times
6 May 1968
Section D, p. 30.
Los Angeles Times
20 Jul 1969.
---
Los Angeles Times
23 Jul 1969
Section C, p. 14.
Los Angeles Times
17 Aug 1969
Section O, p. 8.
Los Angeles Times
7 Aug 2005
Section E, p. 8.
Los Angeles Times
16 Nov 2006.
---
New York Times
31 Dec 1967
p. 57.
New York Times
29 May 1969
p. 43.
Time
14 Jan 2010.
---
Variety
11 Oct 1967
p. 30.
Variety
11 Oct 1967
p. 68.
Variety
3 Jan 1968
p. 11, 32.
Variety
10 Jan 1968
p. 7.
Variety
24 Jan 1968
p. 10.
Variety
10 Apr 1968
p. 27.
Variety
8 May 1968
p. 48.
Variety
18 Dec 1968
p. 29.
Variety
2 Apr 1969
p. 4.
Variety
7 Jan 1970
p. 15.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXT
A Rafran-San Marco Production
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
PRODUCERS
Assoc prod
Exec prod
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
1st asst cam
2d asst cam
ART DIRECTORS
Art dir
Asst art dir
FILM EDITOR
Film ed
SET DECORATOR
Set dec
COSTUMES
Cost
MUSIC
Mus comp & dir
MAKEUP
Hairdresser
PRODUCTION MISC
Unit mgr
Prod mgr
Asst prod mgr
Prod secy
Stills
DETAILS
Alternate Titles:
C'era una volta il West
Once Upon a Time...In the West
Release Date:
28 May 1969
Premiere Information:
Rome, Italy, opening: late December 1968
New York opening: 28 May 1969
Los Angeles opening: 23 July 1969
Production Date:
began 8 April 1968
Copyright Claimant:
Paramount Pictures Corporation
Copyright Date:
20 December 1968
Copyright Number:
LF34
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Technicolor
Widescreen/ratio
Techniscope
Duration(in mins):
165
Countries:
Italy, United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
21956
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

In the West during the 1870's, Frank, a ruthless killer, sends three of his henchmen to a remote railway depot to wait for The Man, an impassive gunman whose trademark is playing sad songs on a harmonica. The Man guesses their murderous intent when they refuse to answer a question about Frank, and he kills them before they can reach for their guns. Meanwhile, rancher Brett McBain and his three motherless children await the arrival of Jill, a New Orleans prostitute whom Brett has recently married. Suddenly, Frank and his gang appear and gun down Brett and the children. They plant evidence implicating Cheyenne, a notorious half-breed. Arriving at the ranch, Jill finds a burial service being conducted and learns that McBain's promise of wealth was for the future when his property, through which a new railroad must pass, would become the center of a thriving community. Too frightened to remain in the area, Jill is forced to auction off her property. Frank, who is employed by Morton, a crippled railroad executive, tries to fix the sale, but The Man appears with Cheyenne in tow and buys the land for $5,000--the exact amount of the reward money for capturing Cheyenne. The Man then returns the land rights to Jill but refuses to explain his actions. A short time later, he rescues Frank from an ambush by his own men who had sold their loyalty to the double-crossing Morton. The Man still refuses to explain his motives or reveal his true identity to Frank, but he returns to the ranch to help Jill with the work and to protect her from Frank. Cheyenne, who is now on friendly terms with ... +


In the West during the 1870's, Frank, a ruthless killer, sends three of his henchmen to a remote railway depot to wait for The Man, an impassive gunman whose trademark is playing sad songs on a harmonica. The Man guesses their murderous intent when they refuse to answer a question about Frank, and he kills them before they can reach for their guns. Meanwhile, rancher Brett McBain and his three motherless children await the arrival of Jill, a New Orleans prostitute whom Brett has recently married. Suddenly, Frank and his gang appear and gun down Brett and the children. They plant evidence implicating Cheyenne, a notorious half-breed. Arriving at the ranch, Jill finds a burial service being conducted and learns that McBain's promise of wealth was for the future when his property, through which a new railroad must pass, would become the center of a thriving community. Too frightened to remain in the area, Jill is forced to auction off her property. Frank, who is employed by Morton, a crippled railroad executive, tries to fix the sale, but The Man appears with Cheyenne in tow and buys the land for $5,000--the exact amount of the reward money for capturing Cheyenne. The Man then returns the land rights to Jill but refuses to explain his actions. A short time later, he rescues Frank from an ambush by his own men who had sold their loyalty to the double-crossing Morton. The Man still refuses to explain his motives or reveal his true identity to Frank, but he returns to the ranch to help Jill with the work and to protect her from Frank. Cheyenne, who is now on friendly terms with The Man, also arrives after being cleared of the McBains' murders. He has been wounded in a gunfight with Morton's men. Frank eventually shows up to face The Man in a gun duel, and he is shot before he has time to draw his gun. Before Frank dies, The Man explains to him the reason for the vendetta: when The Man was fifteen years old, Frank forced him to play the harmonica while his older brother was tortured and hanged. With his mission accomplished, The Man says goodbye to Jill and rides off with the mortally wounded Cheyenne. Alone at the ranch, Jill distributes water to the men who are helping to build the new railroad town. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.