Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Once Upon a Time in the West is a film of faces. While the sprawling dusty landscapes of the West comprise many of the shots of the film, the film is more fascinated with the human landscape of the face. The face can be rough with many crevices and the signs of age, or smooth with youth and beauty. Emotions and expressions bring the face to life.

The first face is that of the weathered Conductor. His face is rough, but his eyes are wide and kind. This is juxtaposed against the face of the gang member that bursts into the room. He has narrow eyes and a lecherous face. The conductor is friendly, but met with scorn by the gang member. Of the two, he has the more hardened and cruel face and he makes his cruelty known.

Along with his two friends the gang member waits for a face. The face contains a pair of lips and between the pair of lips is a harmonica. Therefore, the man is called Harmonica (Charles Bronson). It’s a fitting name as he lets his harmonic do most of his talking for him. His face does most of the rest. His narrow eyes convey his resolve, the edges around his mouth convey a sternness in tone. And his darker skin demonstrates his life out in the hard sun.

Harmonica’s target is Frank (Henry Fonda), a man with a much different kind of face. His eyes are open and inviting, his lips contain a silvery tongue and the lines of his face are smoother and his skin fairer. He has a nice face. But the niceness is a mask for a man who’s built his life around being cruel, mean and unfair. It does not look it, but it is the face of a violent man.

And while these masculine faces wage war, they’re brought to nothing in the presence of the face of Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale). Her fair, smooth skin and caring eyes are just two signs that she is not a woman of the West. She’s more gentle and nourishing. But her face too is a sort of mask, a mask for the pain and grief broiling beneath her. The West hardens her some, but not that much by the end.

The oddball face of the lot belongs to a man named Cheyenne (Jason Robards). He’s the only one of the bunch with a beard, one graying at the tips, showing his age. He’s also got accentuated cheeks, a sign that he likes to laugh. And his playful eyes have a penchant to roam when they shouldn’t.

Each face is its own tapestry, a story told by wear and age. And the west blows a harsh wind. Each groove is a lesson, every line another narrative. The face is a history book being opened, but one that hides as much as it tells. It’s the only thing bigger and bolder than the sprawling vistas of the West. For in the face one finds the drama of human life.

A look, a smile, a grimace, a glare. Any of these convey just as much as words. As Cheyenne puts it when talking about Harmonica: “Instead of talking, he plays. And when he better play, he talks.” Not all talking is speaking, and sometimes the right face at the right moment conveys all that needs to be said.

© 2016 James Blake Ewing

  • Truly one of the greatest westerns…. ever. The reveal of Henry Fonda’s character is definitely one of the most shocking moments in film.