Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST – Ennio Morricone


December 7, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Renowned Italian director Sergio Leone had achieved what many believed to be the pinnacle of success in 1966, following completion of the last film of his famous Dollars trilogy, “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly”. Despite receiving universal accolades, he decided that he had said everything he wanted to say, and would not be returning to the Western genre. Hollywood studios, however, had other ideas, and wanted to capitalize on his talent and record of success. United Artists offered him opportunity to make a new Western, and his choice of the leading actors of the day including Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas or Rock Hudson. Leone declined, but when Paramount made a very generous financial offer, which also included an opportunity to work with Henry Fonda, Leone’s favorite actor, he agreed. Fulvio Morsella was tasked with producing and a budget of $5 million was provided. Leone hired Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento to assist him in crafting a screenplay. Later in the project Italian screenwriter Sergio Donati was brought in to assist with editing the film’s length as well as fine tuning the script’s dialogue. A fine cast was assembled, which included Henry Fonda as Frank, Claudia Cardinale as Jill McBain, Jason Robards as Manuel “Cheyenne” Gutiérrez, Charles Bronson as “Harmonica”, Gabriele Ferzetti as Mr. Morton, Paolo Stoppa as Sam, and Frank Wolff as Brett McBain.

The film is set in Flagstaff Arizona in the late 19th century and entwines two stories; a land battle regarding the region’s only fresh water source, which is needed for a planned railroad line route to the Pacific Ocean, and a brother avenging the death of his older brother at the hands of a ruthless cold-blooded killer. The film’s narrative is convoluted and only becomes apparent during the final act when the two-story narratives converge. The film was a modest commercial success earning a profit of $322,000 over its production costs of $5 million. Critical reception was initially mixed, receiving no Academy Award nominations. However, over the years the film has grown significantly in stature, with many regarding it as the finest Western ever made. In 2009 the film was honored and selected for preservation in the United States Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone constituted one of the finest collaborative partnerships in the history of Cinema and there was never any doubt that he would be asked to score the film. He readily accepted Leone’s offer and on his specific instructions composed the score based solely on the screenplay prior to the start of filming.[5] Such faith did Leone have in Morricone’s gift, that he would adapt his filming to support the individual compositions. Morricone was well familiar with Leone’s sensibilities in the Western genre. While American directors used the vast vistas as a backdrop to their story-telling, for Leone the vistas, rugged terrain and desert colors were as much an actor in the film’s narrative as the actors themselves. As such throughout the film Morricone speaks to this often with Leone adapting his filming and cinematography to achieve a masterful confluence to the already recorded score.

For his soundscape Morricone composed three primary themes. Harmonica and Frank share a common theme in that their fates are intrinsically bound together. Late in the film during a flashback we discover that Frank murdered Harmonica’s older brother and ever since he has committed resolutely to a quest of vengeance. The theme is rendered in many forms, which include harmonica, electric guitar and strings. Harmonica’s renderings are exclusively carried by his signature harmonica, where Frank’s renderings are more menacing and carried by electric guitar or strings. Jill’s Theme offers the film’s only feminine construct, a well needed juxtaposition to the more violent and peculiar masculine identities. Composed with an ABAA construct, the initial wistful A Phrase is carried by harpsichord, vibraphone and cello, which is raised to the sublime when joined by the wordless vocal of soprano of Edda dell’Orso. The B Phrase offers an inspired horn empowered bridge, which launches the final A Phrases by full orchestra, choir, and soprano. The film’s most glorious moments are expositions of Jill’s Theme, with the cue “Once Upon A Time In The West” earning the Maestro, immortality. Cheyenne’s Theme is emoted by banjo, wood block, harp and at times whistling. The melody is folksy, plodding with a happy go lucky nonchalance. There is one secondary theme, the Pacific Theme, which is attached to Mr. Morton, the railroad magnate and his life long quest to build track that crosses the country and reaches the Pacific Ocean. The music is aspirational and emotes with a sparkling, ethereal construct born on woodwinds pastorale, vibraphone and the sound of waves crashing on the shore. Lastly, I do not have the complete version of the score, only the RCA album, which contains thirteen cues, which are not sequenced in film scene order. As is my normal practice, I reviewed the entire score while watching the film, which includes music not found on the album.

“The Train Station” offers the film’s extended opening scene at the railroad station. It was originally scored by Morricone, but Leone made the creative decision to discard it, believing that it was not a good fit for what he envisioned. Instead he chose to provide a soundscape based on ambient sounds such as bird sounds, the wind, fly buzzing, and a squeaking windmill. Interestingly enough these sounds assist in building tension as Frank’s three henchmen wait to ambush Harmonica. His arrival is supported by a diegetic rendering of his theme by a harmonica he is playing, with a surprising degree of nonchalance. After posturing statements by both sides, he succeeds in taking out all three while suffering only a flesh wound to his left arm. “As A Judgment” reveals the McBain family preparing a feast for the arrival of Brett’s new bride. They are brutally murdered except the youngest Timmy by Frank and his henchmen in an ambush. As Timmy comes out of the house to find his family dead, Frank approaches him empowered by a truly horrific iteration of his theme by menacing electric guitar. An interlude of indecision commences at 1:25 as he decides the young boy’s fate. Frank’s Theme transforms to a dirge led by trumpets of doom, which informs us of the boy fate as we see Frank gun him down in cold blood.

“Bad Orchestra” supports the arrival of Jill’s train in Flagstaff. Morricone supports the scene with a carnivalesque tune played on slide-whistle, tuba, banjo and violin. She is full of happiness, which slowly descends into disappointment when she realizes no one is there to greet her. In “Arrival at the Station”, as Jill looks at the station clock displaying 7:55 a.m., a plaintive rendering of her theme unfolds on harpsichord, vibraphone and cello. As she departs soprano Edda dell’Orso wordless vocals join for a molto tragico rendering of Jill’s Theme. “Jill,‘s America” offers a wondrous score highlight. As Jill departs for the McBain ranch in a carriage, we are graced by an expansive rendering of her theme, which unfolds in a sumptuous cinematic choral moment. Amidst the dirty, dust filled streets of Flagstaff Jill’s Theme offers a sublime beauty fully realized in Morricone’s composition. As they drive through the Redstone monuments swept by cloudscapes, we achieve a breath-taking cinematic confluence of exquisite beauty.

In “The First Tavern” they stop for refreshments at a tavern, where the men leer at her beauty. Multiple gunshots accompany the arrival of someone yet unseen and Morricone sow tension as all eyes turn toward the front door. Cheyenne enters carried menacingly by his banjo plucked theme. Each new statement of his theme rises in register with a growing menace. As he orders a jug and begins drinking, we segue into “Man with the Harmonica” as Harmonica’s Theme sounds diegetically. We see him playing his harmonica in an isolated section of the tavern, joined by a harsh electric guitar, which amplifies the menace of his theme as Cheyenne walks to him. We segue into “The Second Tavern” where Cheyenne tries to taunt him, but Harmonica does not indulge. Their two themes interplay as the interact with Harmonica’s shifting to woodwinds and Cheyenne’s amplified with menacing Metallica. Cheyenne is soon joined by his men and they depart as Harmonica resumes playing his harmonica with complete indifference.

“Jill’s Arrival” reveals her arriving at the McBain ranch greeted by guests all dressed in black and the horrific sight of Brett, Maureen, Patrick and Timmy all laid dead on the dinner tables. Morricone supports her anguish with a heart-wrenching exposition of her theme carried by Edda dell’Orso haunting wordless vocal. Violins and ethereal chorus take up the melody as we segue into the burial. As the town folk depart Jill resolves to stay supported by elegiac French horns. “A Dimly Lit Room” offers an evocative score highlight, which offers a soliloquy by Jill’s Theme. It reveals Jill searching through the cabinet drawers of the master bedroom, and not finding what she was looking for. Morricone supports the pathos of despair as she looks around the room with a plaintive rendering of her theme, which abounds with heartache and regret. “Jill Alone” reveals her going through memorabilia supported by her theme rendered as a threnody. A plaintive music box version of her theme takes up the melodic line as she gazes at family photos. The moment is shattered as Harmonica’s Theme sounds on harmonica. She grabs a rifle, opens a window and demands to know who is there? She fires into the black night when a match is lit, but the harmonica continues to play. The next day woodwinds doloroso resume her theme as she contemplates her fate.

In “Cheyenne and Jill Part 1” Jill sees no point in remaining, grabs her suitcase and prepares to leave. She opens the door and is startled to find Cheyenne standing there. His banjo theme emotes with repeating statements of menace. He orders her to make him coffee and then tries to figure out why he is being framed for the murders. She serves him coffee and we end with a reprise of his theme. An intervening scene is unscored. Frank meets with his benefactor railroad magnate Mr. Morton who states that he is displeased with the murder of the McBain family. In “Cheyenne and Jill Part 2” Jill relates how she was willing to give up her life in New Orleans in hope of finding happiness and a family in the country with a good man. A wistful rendering of her theme carries the conversation. He asks her if there is any money, and she states that he can keep whatever he can find, as she is departing for New Orleans. We close sadly with a reprise of her theme as Cheyenne departs.

“Jill and Harmonica” reveals her preparing to step aboard her carriage in the barn when a harmonica sounds and Harmonica joins her. His theme is menacing and high-pitched screeching amplifies his terror as he forces her out of the carriage, begins stalking her and then begins to rip off her dress. Yet he stops and orders her to fetch him water from the well. Two of Cheyenne’s men approach on horseback, and as they cock their guns Harmonica shoots both down before they can fire. We close atop a confident Cheyenne’s Theme as he looks on and remarks that not only can Harmonica play, he can also shoot. In “Frank” Harmonica climbs atop Morton’s private train car but his shadow is spotted by Frank. As he climbs down Frank’s revolver points at his mouth. He is captured and interrogated, with Frank demanding to know his identity and Harmonica responding with insulting taunts. The confrontation brings out a pensive rendering of their theme by a solo English horn doloroso and aching strings as their destinies again intersect. Franks orders him held as he rides off to settle affairs with Jill.

In “On The Roof of The Train” Cheyenne has also stowed away and climbed atop the roof. Systematically he takes out the three men guarding Harmonica, leaving Morton now defenseless. A playful rendering of Cheyenne’s Theme carries the scene. “Frank and Jill” reveals a menacing Frank surprising Jill at the ranch. In a scene change Harmonica, Cheyenne and his gang resolve to build a railroad station so they can claim the land deed for Jill. The scene is unscored. We return to Jill and find Frank on top of her in bed, undressing her clothes as a vibraphone emotes her theme. She is not resisting, and when he kisses her the melody shifts to strings, but its articulation is not ardent, but instead plaintive as she admits to him, she will do anything to live. He contemplates marriage to obtain the land, pauses and then states with menace that he needs a quicker way.

In “The Auction” the sheriff is conducting an auction and a paltry $200 is the only bid. We shift to Morton’s railway car where we see him gazing into a painting of the Pacific Ocean. He is dying painfully of Tuberculosis of the bones and fears he will not live to achieve his dream of reaching the Pacific Ocean. To support the pathos, Morricone introduces his Pacific Ocean Theme, a sparkling ethereal construct born on woodwinds pastorale, vibraphone and the sound of waves crashing on the shore. Later, we shift scenes to Cheyenne and his thugs playing cards in Morton’s railway car. Morton approaches the table and his request to join the game is granted. Back at the auction a bid of $500 by an agent of Frank’s is blocked when Harmonica offers $5,000. As a man descends the stairs at gunpoint from the second floor, Harmonica’s harmonica emoted theme carries his progress until we see his face. It is Cheyenne and his banjo emoted theme carries his arrival. In “Cheyenne In Custody” the sheriff escorts him to the train, which will take him to a heavily fortified and guarded jail in Yuma. A confident banjo carried theme supports his progress as we see his men buying train tickets so they can free him.

“The Man” reveals Harmonica and Jill having a final drink together to celebrate his gaining of her ranch, and her $5,000, more than enough to carry her back to New Orleans to start a new life. The moment is shattered ominously by the entry of Frank into the saloon carried by a menacing rendering of his theme. Jill departs to take a bath and Frank sits down, demanding to know Harmonica’s identity. He answers Jim Cooper, to which Frank asserts is dead. Frank then offers him $6,000 for the land supported by a twisted harmonica rendering of his theme. He sees that Frank has posted men to block any exit, turns down the offer, and ascends the stairs leaving a stewing Frank behind. In “The Transgression” Morricone offers a brilliant example of sowing palpable tension using amorphous, ambient, ever-changing percussive textures infused with sinister auras of occult menace. Frank exits the saloon surveys the streets as Harmonica breaks into Jill’s room and surveys the streets and focuses on a lone saddled horse. A vibraphone ostinato and metallic accents add a sense of dire urgency. Suddenly Harmonica takes out a rooftop sniper and then Frank takes out two of Harmonica’s men. Surprisingly the two men lock eyes, and Harmonica alerts Frank of a sniper above him, which he takes out. They both lower their guns, and a now trusting Frank departs on horseback.

“Morton” reveals Frank riding in the countryside towards Morton’s train, which is stopped in the distance. A plaintive lyrical rendering of his theme carries his approach and arrival. He finds all his men dead on the ground and enters the train to find more dead men and Morton missing. As he exits, he sees a pathetic Morton crawling toward a stream and a sad final rendering of the Pacific Theme reprises, as he dies face down in its waters, a crushed man unable despite his great wealth to realize his ambition. “Cheyenne’s Return 1” reveals Harmonica watching the tracks being laid by the Sweetwater ranch as Cheyenne rides by carried by a happy go lucky banjo rendering of his theme. They lock eyes, and he passes on by, informing us that his incarceration by Harmonica was a hoax to obtain the $5,000 reward money. He arrives at the ranch, with he and Jill entering the cabin simultaneously from opposing doors. She is friendly and acknowledges that she has made coffee. In “Frank Arrives” rhythmic portentous strings and wordless chorus support Frank’s purposeful gallop into the railroad camp. A solitary trumpet joins and fortifies the galloping motif with their theme as Harmonica takes notice of Frank’s approach. The meeting is tense with Frank demanding to know what he wants from him. He departs saying “Only at the Point of Dying”.[6] “Cheyenne’s Return 2” continues their conversation supported by his plucky theme as he sees the approach of Harmonica and Frank through the window. He asks her to go out and give water to the workers.

“The Reckoning” reveals Frank and Harmonica walking carefully opposed and about 50 feet apart. A harsh electric guitar rendering of their theme supports the growing tension. As Frank takes off his jacket the melody shifts to strings and wordless chorus, intensifying as Frank circles. A crescendo on the theme builds, yet never climaxes, instead diminishing as Harmonica smiles and walks towards Frank. He stops 12 feet apart; the music dies and the men stare at each other in a showdown with only the wind heard. We segue into “Death Rattle” atop a grotesque harmonica carried rendering of their theme as we see in a flashback a young Frank walking towards us and pulling a harmonica out of his pocket. Returning to real time, the camera zooms in on Harmonica’s eyes and we segue into “Flashback”. We see the young Frank stick a harmonica into a young boy’s mouth with the advice to take care of your brother who we see noosed and standing on the younger brother’s shoulders. Strings carry their theme molto tragico, a dramatic exposition buttressed by wordless chorus, which ends with tolling bells as the younger brother falls sealing the older brother’s fate. We segue into “Vengeance At Last” as Harmonica and Frank draw, and Frank is mortally wounded. With his dying breaths he asks Harmonica who is he, which elicits him to pull out his harmonica. The Harmonica Theme resounds as he shoves it into Frank’s mouth, with a revelation of devastation seen in his eyes as he falls dead.

“Once Upon a Time in the West” offers an immortal cue, a timeless score highlight, and one of the finest compositions in the Maestro’s canon. Harmonica returns and joins Jill and Cheyenne in the cabin. She smiles as he enters and her happiness is carried by a harpsichord led rendering of her theme. At 0:51 soprano Edda dell’Orso’s wordless vocals enter and we bear witness to a magnificent sumptuous full exposition of Jill’s Theme where the score reaches its emotional apogee. As Harmonica departs, Jill expresses hope that he will return some day. In “Farewell to Cheyenne” the music subsides as Cheyenne also departs and joins Harmonica carried by his rhythmic bouncy banjo theme, which belies his unfolding death from a mortal wound he suffered fighting Frank’s men. He dismounts, sits on the ground and informs Harmonica he cannot continue as he is dying from a festering bowel wound. The men realize this is the parting of the ways, which Morricone supports with an extended exposition of Cheyenne’s Theme. The forced stop at 2:24 supports his death as Harmonica looks on. We conclude with “Finale” as Harmonica turns and witnesses the arrival of the first train at Sweetwater Station. Morricone supports the imagery with a heartfelt romanticized rendering of Jill’s Theme, which culminates on Edda dell’Orso’s sterling wordless vocals as we see Jill taking water out the thirsty dry-mouthed men. “End Credits” are supported by an extended rendering of Cheyenne’s Theme, which is augmented with whistling.

I believe that as good as “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly” was, Leone and Morricone surpassed themselves and created what may be the greatest Western movie ever made. Morricone intrinsically understood Leone’s sensibilities as a director and played to those strengths creating a stunning cinematic confluence. There is great tension throughout the film and in scene after scene Morricone empowered and enhanced Leone’s narrative. Frank and Harmonica were bound by a shared fate and Morricone’s conception to support this with a shared theme was brilliant in its conception. The folksy banjo carried theme for Cheyenne perfectly captured his persona, reinforcing his outstanding acting performance. However, it is with Jill’s theme that the score reaches the zenith of its expression, with the cue “Once Upon a Time in the West” earning the Maestro immortality, and proudly taking its place in the hallowed halls of the Pantheon of great film music cues. We share a passion for film score art, and what could be a greater testament to the power of music than a legendary director crafting his film to conform to an already written film score. I cannot overstate the significance of this rare achievement and thank Sergio Leone for his decision. I believe this score to be in the upper echelon of Morricone’s canon, a gem of the Silver Age, and what may be one of the finest scores for a Western ever written. I highly recommend you add this outstanding film score to your collection, but to also watch the film to experience the genius of Leone and Morricone’s accomplishment.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the Morricone’s immortal cue “Once Upon A Time In The West”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSaKBCfJnIM

Buy the Once Upon A Time In The West soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Once Upon a Time in the West (3:46)
  • As A Judgment (3:08)
  • Farewell to Cheyenne (2:40)
  • The Transgression (4:43)
  • The First Tavern (1:41)
  • The Second Tavern (1:34)
  • Man with the Harmonica (3:31)
  • A Dimly Lit Room (5:09)
  • Bad Orchestra (2:25)
  • The Man (1:03)
  • Jill ‘s America (2:48)
  • Death Rattle (1:45)
  • Finale (4:10)

Running Time: 38 minutes 16 seconds

BMG Music 4736-2-R (1969/1972)

Music composed and conducted by Ennio Morricone. Orchestrations by Ennio Morricone. Special vocal performances by Edda dell’Orso. Recorded and mixed by Sergio Marcotulli. Score produced by Ennio Morricone. Album produced by Chick Crumpacker.

  1. Susanne
    February 28, 2022 at 3:59 pm

    A stunning soundtrack. The final track hurts my heart because Harmonica resists the love in Jill’s eyes and departs, leaving her to fulfill what she arrived in Sweetwater to do, although unwittingly.

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