Once Upon a Time in the West (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Bill Hunt
  • Review Date: May 18, 2011
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Once Upon a Time in the West (Blu-ray Review)


Sergio Leone

Release Date(s)

1968 (May 31, 2011)


  • Film/Program Grade: A+
  • Video Grade: B+
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: A

Once Upon a Time in the West (Blu-ray Disc)



"People scare better when they're dying..."

In the history of cinema, there are films that define who we are. There are films that define the careers of the people who made them. And there are films that purely and unabashedly define the genres they rest in. Very few films ever achieve all three of the above. But then again, very few films are as glorious as Once Upon a Time in the West.

Sergio Leone has always a fan favorite filmmaker, but with this work he became a film legend. If you're not familiar with Once Upon a Time in the West, we only have one piece of advice for you: Stop what you're doing, go get this Blu-ray and watch it right away. Yes, this film is that good.

Once Upon a Time in the West isn't a wholly original film. The story has been told before (most notably in the cult western Johnny Guitar). But it's never been told this well, which is why Once Upon a Time in the West ends up being THE definitive Western. The story, such as it is, goes like this: A power hungry railroad baron named Morton wants the land of Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) for his empire. Morton's hired a henchman named Frank (Henry Fonda, as one of cinema's definitive villains) for just this sort of occasion. In comes "Harmonica," a.k.a. The Man with No Name (played by Charles Bronson). Harmonica's got a not so secret desire for revenge against Frank, and therefore a willingness to help Jill in her plight. He's soon joined by a competent but rough around the edges gunslinger named Cheyenne (Jason Robards), who's also been wronged by Frank. Together, they work to protect Jill and foil Frank and Morton's plans. Though that plot is hardly original, this film's quality is all about the execution. Extreme close-ups, sweeping camera moves, incredible use of the full widescreen image, and the casting of unlikely actors as some of the best characters in any Western ever - these are just a few of the reasons this picture works on so many different levels.

As much as we love the film, our fears were that it was unlikely to reach Blu-ray anytime soon. Paramount has been cautious with their classics, and Once Upon a Time in the West didn't seem the most likely candidate for catalog release in HD. Fortunately, someone at the studio championed this title and took a risk, so a Blu-ray is now in hand. (And from all of us at The Bits, a BIG thank you!) Even more remarkably, the film looks and sounds EVERY bit as good as we would have hoped.

Flat out, this film looks as good as we've ever seen it, even in the best theatrical projections. Paramount has just done beautiful remastering work on this title. These are some of the deepest, most rock-solid blacks we've ever seen, with abundant shadow detailing. Textures are nuanced and gritty, with just the right amount of print grain visible to preserve the film's original look. Leone's direction is such that you're often seeing extreme close-ups of the actors - every wrinkle, blemish and bit of stubble is accentuated - and you'll miss none of it in this transfer. Colors are accurate and warm, as originally intended. This Blu-ray just offers a big, glorious, ultra-widescreen film image that's sublimely easy to get lost in.

If the Blu-ray's picture is good, the English 5.1 DTS-HD MA audio mix is even better. (Note that you also get restored English, French and Spanish mono in Dolby Digital format, along with English, English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles.) The soundfield is big and wide, matching every inch of the on-screen vistas, and the clarity is exceptional. The mix is subtle and atmospheric in quiet scenes, easily rendering the squeak of a windmill and or whispering wind, and absolutely thunderous during moments of explosive gun-play. Just as critically, composer Ennio Morricone iconic score is perfectly layered in the mix.

You should know, at this point, that the Blu-ray includes BOTH the original, 165-minute American theatrical release AND the restored, 166-minute Italian cut of the film. The former cut alone was included on the previous DVD release in the States, so the Italian cut is new here. For those who haven't seen it before, it features an added scene where we're first introduced to the character of Cheyenne at a way-side livery and inn, along with a brief scene at the end of the film involving the same character.

Paramount went the extra mile with the supplements on the original special collector's edition DVD. Thankfully, ALL of that content has carried over to the Blu-ray. The original SD features are here in anamorphic widescreen and the film's theatrical trailer has been upgraded to full HD. The extras begins with a very good audio commentary with film historians (Sir Christopher Frayling and Dr. Sheldon Hall), a trio of directors who admire Leone (including John Carpenter, John Milius and Alex Cox), actress Claudia Cardinale and other select members of the cast and crew. The track begins with Frayling, the author of the biography Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death. It's got a scholarly feel, but is very easy to listen to. He'll give you a ton of anecdotes about the making of Once Upon a Time in the West, and lots of interesting historical information, including comments on the many intentional references to classic Hollywood Westerns in this film. The other participants appear at selected moments to make their own contributions. Each was recorded separately and edited together for this commentary. The result could be distancing or disjointed, but is instead a fascinating listening experience, despite occasional pauses in the track. These people know Leone and this film well, and their love of both is obvious.

Next up, a trio of documentaries features many of the same participants. An Opera of Violence, The Wages of Sin and Something to Do with Death are basically three parts of a whole, which in total runs for a little over an hour. Combining interview clips with historical photos and footage, we learn about Sergio Leone's origins as a filmmaker, the conception of Once Upon a Time in the West arising from his love (and disdain) of Hollywood Westerns, the development of the production (including the casting of American Western film regulars in roles completely opposite to what they'd played previously), the actual filming itself, the ultimate reaction to the film, and its eventual place in cinema history. There are fascinating moments with Bernardo Bertolucci talking about the unlikely way he became involved in the writing of the film (along with fellow writer and filmmaker Dario Argento), and Leone admirers Carpenter, Milius and Cox talking about their reactions of the film. Cardinale reminisces about her experiences on the film, as do actor Gabriele Ferzetti and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli. There's even an amusing moment of archival footage featuring Henry Fonda talking about his having been cast in the film as a bad guy, and trying to figure out how to approach the role. It's all great stuff for fans of this film, and well worth your time.

The Railroad: Revolutionizing the West featurette is a strange piece of work, but it's no less interesting for this fact. The short features relevant film clips and historical photos in a window in the upper right portion of the frame, along with the entire narrator-spoken text at the bottom. It cuts away to interview clips occasionally, featuring the participants talking about how the subject relates to the film. Again, also includes is the film's original theatrical trailer (now in HD), as well as video galleries of location photos (seen then and now) and production photos set to music from the film. Now as much as when it was first released on DVD, it's a great package of special edition material to support the film.

In crafting his homage to the great Hollywood Westerns, Sergio Leone honored those films while also turning the conventions of the genre on end. At a time when Westerns were considered passe, Leone not only made them cool again, he managed to create what is arguably the best Western ever. Fans will be thrilled to know that Paramount's new Blu-ray is worthy of the film's achievement. As we said of the DVD before it, this is one of those discs we live for here at The Bits. Once Upon a Time in the West - now in stunning HD - is absolutely not to be missed.

- Bill Hunt (with Todd Doogan)

Additional Notes