High Spain Drifter: Once Upon a Time in the West

               “Every country gets the circus it deserves. Spain gets bullfights.
Italy gets the Catholic Church. America gets Hollywood”.

                                                                                                     Erica Jong 
The summit of the Calar Alto
Not far to the east of the Calar Alto was the Desierto de Tabernas. The only true semi-desert on the European continent, this bleak and inhospitable wilderness has provided the backdrop for some of the most iconic Hollywood movies ever produced. Scenes from films such as El Cid, Lawrence of Arabia, Cleopatra and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, owe many of their widescreen panoramas to this austere location in the southeastern corner of Spain. 

The Tabernas Desert also became the favoured setting for some of Italian director Sergio Leone’s most widely recognised Spaghetti Westerns. Arguably his most renowned was the epic Once Upon a Time in the West. Released in 1968, it ran for the better part of three hours. Looking more like a meandering parody of the western genre for half its length, and a mystifying quest for revenge for the other, you could at first be forgiven for thinking that much of the film should have been left on the cutting room floor. But if you’re willing to ignore the ungainly lip synchs of its characters, you’ll soon discover that there’s more to this epic tale than meets the eye. 

Like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Leone’s classic is a nostalgic portrayal of the dying west and the last days of the gunfighter. Set in the burgeoning ‘town’ of Sweetwater, an unscrupulous railroad tycoon, determined to procure prime real estate at any cost, hires a band of killers to do his dirty work. 

Their leader is the malevolent Frank, played by a clean-shaven Henry Fonda, whose evilness is every bit as pure as his empathy as Juror 8 in the film 12 Angry Men. No sooner does he appear on screen than he callously guns down property owner Brett McBain and, without a hint of remorse, his three children. Using a sustained close-up of  Fonda’s flint blue eyes and sadistic smile, Leone reveals more than enough to convince the audience that at least for the next two and a bit hours, Fonda’s Frank is unashamedly from the dark side.    

Depicting a romantic view of the western, Leone makes it obvious from the very opening scene that the film is an unhurried spectacle. Somewhere out west, three outlaws, wearing greatcoats and armed with rifles and handguns, wait uneasily at a railway station for a train to arrive. Onboard is the film’s protagonist, the inscrutable no-name character played by rising star Charles Bronson. 

The Tabernas Desert
Reminiscent of the final scenes from Leone’s earlier classic, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the sustained close-ups on the three antagonists’ stubbly and perspiring faces are a clear indication that something bad is about to happen. And in typical Leone fashion the audience is made to wait, long and excruciatingly, for the violent confrontation to take place. 

Meanwhile, the monotony of the surrounding landscape becomes magnified. A windmill incessantly whines, and a telegraph reel click-clacks until smashed in frustration. One of the gunmen is irritated by a fly persistently buzzing around his face, while another waits patiently beneath a slowly dripping water tank, each drop smacking the brim of his hat with the steadiness of a metronome. 

In due course, the train arrives. As the three hired guns gather on the station platform, Bronson’s no-name character stands opposite, playing a harmonica. A haunting tune, frequently heard throughout the film, it’s as mysterious as the person who plays it.

More than just an opening scene, Leone’s preamble is, in essence, a metaphor for what the film is truly about. Isolated in an environment that is no longer his own, the outlaw will soon be replaced by the new-world corruption of the robber barons, who, like the dreamers and idealists, follow the tracks into the vast open spaces of the American West.

Tantamount to an opera, largely due to the poetic score of Leone’s long-time friend Ennio Morricone, the lives of the four main characters (which also include Claudia Cardinale as Jill McBain and Jason Robards’ as the weary outlaw Cheyenne) nonchalantly intertwine, all the way to the film’s climax. While the audience soon senses that a final shootout between the two protagonists, Frank and Harmonica, awaits, it’s the revelation of what happened in the past that makes the ending so compelling. Close-ups of the combatants’ faces, coupled with unnerving flashbacks and Morricone’s menacing music, leave an indelible impression long after the final credits have rolled. 
Books by Mark Krieger:

‘High Spain Drifter’ is available on Amazon , Barnes and Noble, Booktopia  and other online bookstores. 

‘Lycra, Lattes and the Long Way Round’ is available on Amazon, Book Depository, Barnes and Noble, Kobo Books

Both books are also available at local bookshops on the Mornington Peninsula: @ Rosebud Bookbarn and @ La Brocante

“I still must abide by the rules of the road, of biking, of gravity. But I am mentally far away from civilization.”

                    US author and poet Diane Ackerman

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