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OST 143

Artwork copyright (c) 1969 Sergio Leone Productions; review copyright (c) 2003 James Southall


Iconic score that deserves its place in film music folklore

Films don't come much more highly-regarded than Once Upon a Time in the West, Sergio Leone's western-to-end-all-westerns.  After his much-praised "Dollars" trilogy with Clint Eastwood - all brilliant, all better than the one before - Leone combined his Spaghetti Western style with a more authentic Hollywood-style story to deliver what may be the ultimate film in the genre.

The story essentially centres around a character played by Charles Bronson (wouldn't you guess it, in the film his character has no name - well, apart from his "Harmonica" nickname) who is hell-bent on killing local gunslinger Frank, played against type by Henry Fonda.  We don't know why he's so hellbent on killing him until a brutal flashback at the end of the film reveals that Frank killed Harmonica's brother when they were children.  Meanwhile, Frank has slaughtered a man and his three children in order to get hold of his land so he can make money from the railroad that's soon to pass over it - framing another local gunman, Cheyenne (Jason Robards) - but the dead man's brand new wife, Jill (Claudia Cardinale), has just arrived in town from New Orleans and is determined to settle there herself.  This is not an unfamiliar tale for fans of westerns, but what truly sets this film apart is Leone's Italian stylings that run through all of it.  The lengthy opening sequece is virtually 15 minutes of shots of someone sitting on a chair outside a railway station trying to get rid of an annoying fly - but Leone makes it so compelling with his use of sound effects, camera angles and occasional cuts to other, similarly banal, scenarios. 

Having pretty much rewritten the effect that music can have on a film with the Dollars trilogy, it was inevitable that Leone would turn to his high-school friend Ennio Morricone for the music once again.  Truly original, daring and brilliant, Morricone hit previously-unscaled heights with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, rarely looked upon as much of a serious score simply because of its non-traditional setting; but I can think of few better film scores.  Though one does spring readily to mind: Once Upon a Time in the West.  While it doesn't have the big, quirky opening sequence theme (in fact, the whole opening sequence is left unscored, a move so unexpected that it only adds to its brilliance), it more than makes up for it with the wealth of material on offer for the rest of the movie.

Three themes dominate; two must surely be considered absolute classics of film music.  The most famous is of course the main theme for orchestra and the wordless solo soprano of Edda dell'Orso, a device Morricone has used on numerous occasions but surely never to quite this effect.  Its most brilliant use in the film is when Jill first arrives at the train station and discovers that her new husband and his children are not there to meet her - the camera follows her through the door to the station, then pulls back, moves up and the moment it reveals what is beyond the station - the busy town - the music swells to its biggest proportions.  It's as stunning a use of music in film as you could find.

The second theme is for Bronson's character.  As you may imagine from his nickname, he plays the harmonica, and somewhat dissonant (if such thing is possible on the harmonica) strains open and close it; and in the middle is the most breathtaking section for choir and orchestra.  It's a moving, driving piece of music, littered throughout the film when Bronson does anything much worthwile.  (My favourite part of his is when he first appears - he is greeted by three hitmen who have been sent to kill him, and their three horses - he says "Haven't you brought a horse for me?" - they say "Looks like we brought one horse too few" - he replies "I'd say you brought two too many" and kills them all.)

The third major theme is for Cheyenne.  It's a sort of clip-clop theme featuring banjo and is probably the only aspect of the score to have dated - but it still sounds great.  Finally, and heard for the first time on RCA's expanded version of the score released in 1999, is a theme for Morton, a miniature gem of a piece, which plays as he crawls to his death.  Add to these themes the amount of non-thematic material and the amount of variation Morricone adds to his major themes (especially the main one, heard to stunning effect in both a strings-only version in "A Dimly-Lit Room" and most rapturously in the "Finale") and you get a score that can surely not fail to please.

Any student of filmmaking or film scoring who wanted to witness the pinnacle of what can be achieved in film through music should watch Once Upon a Time in the West.  Leone's operatic sense and the fact that much of the film was in fact choreographed to a pre-recorded score means that in many ways this is the ultimate film music fan's movie; the album is certainly deserving a of a place in any collection.

The original LP, with thirteen tracks, has been issued on CD on many occasions.  This review refers to the twenty-track version released by RCA Victor in Italy in 1999, which while including extra music, sadly cannot correct the audio flaws since they were inherent in the original recording.  Equally sadly, the expanded CD is difficult to come by in America, but look hard enough and you'll get there!


  1. Once Upon a Time in the West (3:35)
  2. As a Judgement (3:05)
  3. Cheyenne (1:15)
  4. The Transgression (4:37)
  5. Harmonica (2:25)
  6. The First Tavern (1:32)
  7. The Second Tavern (1:30)
  8. The Third Tavern (1:15)
  9. Jill (1:45)
  10. The Man with the Harmonica (3:25)
  11. A Dimly Lit Room (5:04)
  12. Frank (1:48)
  13. Bad Orchestra (2:20)
  14. Morton (1:34)
  15. Jill's America (2:45)
  16. The Man (1:00)
  17. Epilogue (1:12)
  18. Death Rattle (1:40)
  19. Farewell to Cheyenne (2:32)
  20. Finale (4:10)