Once Upon a Time in the West has grown to become one of the finest Westerns ever made. Here are some behind-the-scenes facts about the movie.
Spaghetti Westerns dominated the 1960s, and they were led by Sergio Leone’s iconic Dollars trilogy. Consisting of A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the Dollars trilogy changed the face of Westerns forever and made Clint Eastwood a star.
10/10, Leone Was Retiring From Westerns
Despite being widely known for his Westerns, Sergio Leone was retiring from the genre. He did all he wanted to do with the genre, and he was hoping to move on to other material. His passion project would eventually become Once Upon a Time in America, a four-hour epic starring Robert De Niro, James Woods, and Joe Pesci.
However, it would be decades before this vision materialized (the movie wouldn’t release until 1984). Paramount had a lot of convincing to do. Luckily, they had just the thing …
9/10, Leone Made The Movie Because He Wanted To Work With Henry Fonda
… and that thing was beloved American actor, Henry Fonda. Fonda had long established himself as an American icon, appearing in dozens of beloved films and earning two Oscar nominations for The Grapes of Wrath (Best Actor) and 12 Angry Men (Best Picture, having co-produced the film with Reginald Rose).
Sergio Leone was a huge fan of Fonda and had long wanted to work with him, but was never given the opportunity. Paramount offered Leone Fonda and a hefty budget, and Leone couldn’t say no.
8/10, Fonda Was Convinced To Do The Film By Eli Wallach
Frank is now one of Henry Fonda’s most iconic roles. That’s for two primary reasons. The first is that the performance is obviously excellent. But the second is because Fonda was widely known for his heroic roles, and Once Upon a Time in the West subverted that idea by making him the villain.
Despite Leone’s enthusiasm, Fonda was hesitant in taking the role. It wasn’t until he consulted with Eli Wallach (who played Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) that Fonda accepted, as Wallach had sung the praises of Leone.
7/10, Harmonica Was Originally Offered To Clint Eastwood
Despite the newfound maturity and somber tone, Once Upon a Time in the West was a Sergio Leone Western, and fans were expecting Clint Eastwood. Who they got instead was Charles Bronson. Eastwood had been working with Leone for years, starring as The Man with No Name in his iconic Dollars trilogy.
Leone had offered the role of Harmonica to Eastwood, but Eastwood turned it down, wishing to avoid being typecast as “the silent Western guy.”
6/10, Henry Fonda Wanted Frank To Have A Different Look
Perhaps to distance himself from the villainous role of Frank, or maybe to help viewers disassociate “Henry Fonda” from Frank, Fonda tried having a different look. For his first day on set, Fonda appeared sporting a beard and wearing brown contact lenses.
Leone was incensed, as he wanted the near-mythical “Henry Fonda” and to provide 1960s audiences with the shock of seeing Fonda as a villain. He forced Fonda to shave and take out the contacts, so Frank appears in the movie clean-shaven and with Fonda’s signature blue eyes.
5/10, Actor Mickey Knox Helped Write The Dialogue
Fans of Leone’s Dollars trilogy will likely take note of the dialogue found in Once Upon a Time in the West. Whereas those three movies were peppered with unassuming, borderline comical dialogue, Once Upon a Time in the West was far more poetic, offering beautiful lines of dialogue with undercurrents of metaphor and mythical grandeur.
That’s because actor Mickey Knox served as the movie’s English translator/adapter, and he helped Leone pen some of the movie’s more iconic and poetic lines of dialogue.
4/10, Most Of The Movie Was Shot In Spain
It’s amazing how much Spain passes for the American West. Like many of Leone’s older Westerns, a good chunk of Once Upon a Time in the West was shot throughout Spain. These sequences include the opening train station shootout, the scenes involving Flagstone, and Sweetwater Ranch.
The exceptions include all the interior shots (which were filmed on a soundstage in Rome) and the scenes taking place in Monument Valley.
3/10, The Score Was Completed Before The Movie
In an odd and unconventional reversal from the norm, Ennio Morricone’s iconic score was actually completed before the movie itself. Typically, music is scored in post-production, with the composer working directly with the finished footage.
In this case, the music was the first thing completed. That’s because Leone wanted to play the music during filming in the hopes of inspiring performance, mood, and atmosphere.
2/10, Leone Consulted Many Classic Westerns
Leone’s intent with Once Upon a Time in the West was to turn the Western genre on its head and subvert most of its tropes. To conduct research, Leone and his creative consulted dozens of “classic” Western films, and the movie contains many overt references.
For example, the McBain funeral is taken directly from the 1953 classic, Shane. The ending, and the massacre at the McBain farm, mirror John Wayne’s The Searchers. The auction scene and Cheyenne’s dusters were meant to reference The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Those are but a few of the dozens of references.
1/10, One Of The Three Cowboys Ended His Life In Costume
Unfortunately, the making of Once Upon a Time in the West comes with a tragic story. Actor Al Mulock stars in the movie’s opening train station sequence, playing one of Frank’s hitmen. Shortly after filming his scenes, Mulock jumped out of his hotel window wearing his cowboy costume. He survived the fall itself but died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
The reasons for taking his own life are unknown. However, Mickey Knox (the English script translator) claimed in his book, The Good, the Bad and the Dolce Vita, that Mulock was a heavy drug user and was unable to acquire drugs while filming in Spain, resulting in his death by suicide out of despair and torment.