Once Upon a Time in the West – 4K

by Glenn Erickson May 11, 2024

“Only at the point of dying.”   Hailed in Europe but ignored here, Sergio Leone’s most prestigious western transcends classic status. Its operatic gunfighter rituals become drama-sculptures of ‘genre destiny.’ Henry Fonda overturns his ethical, decent screen image with a supremely sadistic villain; Charles Bronson catapulted into European superstardom as this film’s ‘man with no name.’ Leone’s curious, dreamlike storytelling method hypnotizes, that’s for sure, as does Ennio Morricone’s superb music score. Paramount’s 4K looks sensational, although purists wish it were encoded with a higher bitrate.

Once Upon a Time in the West 4K
4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray
Paramount Presents
1968 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 166 144 min. / Street Date May 14, 2024 / C’era una volta il West / Available from Amazon / 39.99
Starring: Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson, Gabriele Ferzetti, Paolo Stoppa, Woody Strode, Jack Elam, Keenan Wynn, Frank Wolff, Lionel Stander, Al Mulock, John Frederick, Robert Hossein, Don Galloway, Claudio Mancini, Dino Mele, Ricardo Palacios, Aldo Sambrell, Conrado San Martin, Benito Stefanelli, Simonetta Stefanelli, Favio Testi, Luana Strode.
Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli
Art Director, Costumes: Carlo Simi
Film Editor: Nino Baragli
Original Music: Ennio Morricone
Screenplay by Sergio Donati, Sergio Leone story by Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci, Sergio Leone English dialogue script by Mickey Knox
Produced by Bino Cicogna, Fulvio Morsella
Directed by
Sergio Leone

There’s no longer any argument — Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West is a modern classic, a dreamlike valentine to the American western. It’s been described as sagebrush Kabuki, as Grand Opera and by detractors as Sergio Leone telling a 40-minute story in 160 minutes.

Few Spaghetti Westerns are outstanding movies, and few besides those of Sergio Leone approach anyone’s idea of Art. After the  Dollars trilogy, Il Maestro shifted from comedic cynicism to a serious posture that would be pretentious if not held aloft by all the magic that cinema can offer — wonderful faces, beautiful cinematography, rapturous music. Once Upon a Time In the West is an ode to the Hollywood western, made by an outsider who couldn’t speak English. If you’re a Leone convert, you’ve perhaps seen it too many times already. For those who haven’t seen it, it will either be a frustrating exercise in slow cinema, or an opportunity to experience a revelation.

Paramount’s new 4K Ultra HD / Blu-ray Combo edition has had fans excited for months. It is said to have been remastered from original elements in Italy.

The basic story setup — crediting Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento as contributors — is a grand epic extrapolated from Nicholas Ray’s  Johnny Guitar. Ex- New Orleans prostitute Jill (Claudia Cardinale) arrives in Flagstone, Arizona to announce her secret marriage to Brett McBain (Frank Wolff of  Beast from Haunted Cave), a landholder with water in the path of the oncoming railroad. But hired killer Frank (Henry Fonda) has already killed the entire McBain family, to insure a monopoly for railroad tycoon Morton (Gabrielle Ferzetti of  On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). Morton would simply have Frank ‘remove’ Jill as an obstruction to his plans, but interceding on her behalf are a pair of expert gunmen, the notorious bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and a mysterious, nameless gunman known only as Harmonica (Charles Bronson). An epic showdown is inevitable.

Is this a Zen western?

OUATITW departs from the half-joking rakishness of Sergio Leone’s first three Clint Eastwood pictures. Eastwood strolled through his pictures like a bulletproof bill collector, wiping out opponents with a wry sense of humor provided by screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni. This time we get a serious saga told with a delicacy one would expect in a Visconti film. Leone infuses the proceedings with his visual acumen and stretches to achieve different effects. The picture centers on a woman, and the gun-downs are more mythic and ritualized than ever before. There’s a touch of Alain Resnais self-consciousness — the cowboys and gunmen walk and move as if they were in a dream.

Star Henry Fonda goes all-out with his superb villain. He’d just previously played a bad guy in the minor  Firecreek but nothing prepared fans for Frank, a dastard as black-hearted as they come. Fonda never looked this severe — his blue eyes and crooked sneer are genuinely disturbing. Tall, dark, and sunburned, Frank moves carefully, calculating everything he says and does. He’s magnificent whether riding a horse or just holstering his gun.


In the film’s central flashback, Fonda is made to look not only younger but more feral, like Gian-Maria Volonté in the first two Dollars films. Leone seems to have chosen a set of makeup colors that provide a maximum contrast with Fonda’s sparkling blue eyes. This Henry Fonda is another animal entirely from the calm, almost angelic pioneer of  Drums Along the Mohawk or the soulful, resilient Tom Joad of  The Grapes of Wrath.

Cast against type, Jason Robards is supposed to be Mexican in the script but comes off as an Irish bandit-philosopher. He’s easily the most talkative of the bunch, but much of his speechifying doesn’t seem to be addressed exactly to the person he’s talking to – they’re dream words as well.

As the patented Leone Man With No Name character, Charles Bronson would seem an expressionless brick — until his green-eyed gaze soaks in. His dry, squinting face looks like an unfinished clay sculpture, a Golem in a cowboy hat. Relatively short in height, Bronson nonetheless convinces as tougher than the rest of the cast put together. His Harmonica is the least talkative character in the Leone canon — he’ll stare for thirty seconds before returning a three-syllable answer.


Ritualized motions rehearsed since the beginning of time.

Traditional Hollywood action movies emphasize pace, if only to stave off audience boredom, doing their best to fill every moment with action and ‘activity.’ With this film Leone began staging even minor actions as drawn-out, ritualized set pieces. Just the act of handing a person a gun, and that person placing the gun on a table, becomes a careful 30-second event that’s given emphasis far beyond stage business. The style focuses on close-ups of faces and eyes that tell stories of their own. It’s a different kind of storytelling.

A full twelve minutes is afforded an amusing title sequence that exists for its own sake, a static observance of gunslingers waiting in ‘High Noon’ mode for Bronson to arrive at Cattle Corner. Leone cast recognizable American stars Woody Strode and Jack Elam to get gunned down, and for bad luck gave them a third henchman, Al Mulock, the fool that Eli Wallach blasts from his bathtub in  The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Dialogue parts are all covered by stars. Noted Italian names Paolo Stoppa and Gabrielle Ferzetti are on hand. Ferzetti’s central character is a powerful man who grows physically weaker as he grows richer.

When his shows increased to three hours in length, subsequent cuts tore holes in their continuity. Even at full length, OUATITW displays what at first seem to be puzzling story gaps. Leone will let his actors stare at one another for what seem minutes at a time, but other scene changes appear to skip big clumps of action. Frank takes Jill to a Navaho cliff dwelling, and then returns her to town for a phony rigged land auction, but Leone reduces all that action to an isolated sex scene. It took maybe five viewings to realize that Frank and Jill get together at the cliff dwelling, not the ranch. Is she inside the cave when Frank talks to Morton?  These giant elisions made us wonder if scenes were out of order.

A great deal of seemingly important action happens off screen. Jason Robards is constantly being caught and liberated, but we see almost none of it. Some of this adds up to excellent storytelling. When Frank discovers the remains of a couple dozen gunmen scattered around Morton’s idle train, we quickly surmise that Cheyenne’s men had a battle with Morton’s gunfighters. Was everyone killed, down to the last man?  But the time sequence becomes muddled when Cheyenne escapes from his train ride to Yuma, organizes the attack on the train, and then, seriously wounded, rides back to the McBain homestead. That’s a lot of content to be skipped over. First-time viewers can’t be expected to follow some of these compressed events.

Jason Robards clocks in good character time but he’s been shortchanged for action scenes. The only time he ever shoots a gun may be in the train-roof gag. Skipping the train battle isn’t a bad thing, as the reveal of Frank discovering the aftermath is classic content. But Robards is robbed of a standoff all his own, for us to see how he measures up to the other, more stoic gunfighter heroes. Is he just a talker?  At the end when Cheyenne prepares to draw his gun, not knowing whether Frank or Harmonica will come through the door, we assume that he’s no match for either of them.


Once Upon a Time In the West works best in the present tense, with men set in the landscape like gods in a ritualized pageant. Bronson and especially Fonda move and gesture with great economy. Leone’s Western Cool combines Hollywood myth with Milanese design. The final showdown is one of the purest in film; it might as well be something out of a Japanese Noh play. With Frank no longer on the Morton payroll, he’s reduced once again to the level of an honest samurai-like gunfighter. He and Bronson meet as equals, following through on a pact carved in stone.

It’s a movie and a music concert.

The pace is set by Ennio Morricone’s glorious music score, which cues movements and moods with sweep and majesty. The film is like Opera in that the music drives the visuals. The music score was recorded first, and was even played on the set to influence the actors. For Morricone fans, this is like dying and going to heaven. One legit complaint is that each character’s theme is repeated at least two times too many. The Paramount butchers that chopped out Jason Robards’ last scenes — and their surprise revelation — surely sought to eliminate yet another replay of the Cheyenne theme.

We saw Once Upon a Time In the West in the summer of 1969. The fact that it was screened on the bottom half of a double bill with  The Green Slime indicates how much respect it got from distributors. I can’t claim to have been one of the enlightened few that appreciated it on first sight. It was slow and confusing. We had no way of knowing that it was 21 minutes shorter than what had premiered in New York back at the end of May. It didn’t perform and after three weeks was gone. Paramount then dropped entire scenes, including the introduction and exit of a major character. The same thing happened with The Wild Bunch — most of us had no idea that Warners chopped it down by a reel just a week or so after its premiere.


Once Upon a Time In the West’s epic approach to pulp fiction has had a lot of influence. 1970s Japanese samurai films (especially the Lone Wolf and Cub series) seem touched by Leone, even if we remember that Leone’s architecturally stoic standoffs were originally inspired by Kurosawa. At Cannon Films we groaned when Albert Pyun ripped off entire scenes and dialogue from this movie for his sci-fi action film Cyborg. Quentin Tarantino may be the only filmmaker to keep his footing while recreating Leone’s stoic ritualization for genre works like his Kill Bill.

Leone was not one to push boundaries for sex and nudity. We see Jill’s bare back, and the roughest things get is when Cheyenne pats her behind ‘with feeling.’ The relaxing of censorship that occurred between this show and Leone’s next allowed him to be more vulgar, for  Giù la Testa indulges a string of relative crudities. Ants are urinated on in the first shot, as if commenting on the beginning of  The Wild Bunch. Leone’s final feature film  Once Upon a Time in America alternates beautiful scenes with directorial excess, almost as off-putting as the rougher content in films by Paul Verhoeven. In France Leone’s three post-Dollars films were marketed as another trilogy, with the second installment Giù la Testa titled  Il était une fois… la révolution  (Once Upon a Time… The Revolution).



Paramount Presents’ 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray of Once Upon a Time in the West will be a major experience for western fans that haven’t taken the Sergio Leone plunge past the Clint Eastwood Dollars films. A new generation of Leone-Morricone fans comes along every seven years or so.

Reportedly scanned directly from the Techniscope negative, the new transfer definitely takes advantage of the 4K Ultra HD format’s greater sharpness and clarity; a wider range of colors and a greatly improved contrasts. We like the full widescreen framing, the absence of dirt and other schmutz. The stable image doesn’t jump at splice points.

Even as their films broke box office records, Leone and Tonino Delli Colli stayed with Techniscope, the half-frame format created by Technicolor Rome to attract low-budget producers. Thanks to the superior optics of flat lenses and the Technicolor printing process, the Dollars films still looked terrific enlarged and squeezed to 35mm anamorphic. Some Techniscope movies looked excessively grainy, but Leone’s artists obtained excellent results, taking advantage of the improved depth of field and absence of anamorphic distortion, even with the zoom lens. Every deep red-brown face is a landscape of wrinkles, perspiration and grime.

We don’t remember the 35mm Tech prints of this film being quite this spotless, quite so nearly grain-free. Some online comments worry that the image is TOO CLEAN, and blame the use of digital video noise reduction. I’m no longer an expert judge of video, but I don’t see the telltale clues of too much digital cooking: there is no ‘ringing’ around contrasty objects or notable blurring of fine detail. A couple of trusted experts have written that the problem is not DVNR, but a low bitrate. Pointing to readouts, they conclude that the movie has been given a ‘good enough’ encoding rather than the more generous bitrate that Kino Lorber afforded their 4Ks of the Dollars films.

Our subjective take is that the image is still much improved over the older Blu-rays.  It’s the best I’ve seen it, no contest. On the large monitor, I personally prefer it over the 4K of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly , just because Kino made that one a little too contrasty, with really heavy black values.


Paramount does make with a wider range of audio options — a 5.1 track (remixed for the 2004 DVD) that people seem to like and 2.0 mono mixes in German, Spanish, French, and Japanese. Subtitles can be accessed in the same languages. There is no Italian track, however, which doesn’t allow us to compare the versions. 20 years ago, I got to spend an afternoon with actor/dubbing expert Mickey Knox, and he told me all about his trials writing English dialogue to fit Italian-spoken lip movements. Knox is given a solo credit for the English language script. Since all four leads appear to be speaking English, we wonder if Mickey should have been included with the other screenwriters.

Also useful to note is that the Blu-ray encoding is of the new transfer. Other companies that shall remain unnamed, have occasionally slipped in an older Blu-ray from an earlier transfer.

Vincent Canby’s tepid New York Times review listed OUATITW at 165 minutes for its premiere. What we saw later in the summer had been cut down by two full reels, to 144 minutes. I remember seeing friends in the UCLA dorms watching a 1971 network TV broadcast, and one of them was convinced that it was much longer. In 1973 the non-theatrical distributor Films Incorporated offered a 16mm version they said was restored to full length. FI’s manager Walter Calmette (the name just popped out of my memory banks) took me to lunch to get me to rent it for UCLA.

The kind of article that made Video Watchdog essential reading.

Unlike Peckinpah’s films, I didn’t learn the full story of the versions of OUATITW until much later, in Steven Lloyd’s excellent 2004 article for Video Watchdog (#110). Accompanying the movie’s first DVD release, Lloyd’s essay documents a full five versions of the picture. The shortest version dropped the cantina scene that introduced the Cheyenne character, and showed that Harmonica had survived the Cattle Corner gun-down with a shoulder wound. Most importantly, the article details the utter mangling of the film’s finale. Among other issues, the reprise of Cheyenne’s theme is wrongly placed: it is supposed to be Exit Music that plays over a black screen after the film has finished. The jumbled finale has never been fixed. The actual final music cue can now only be heard on the movie’s soundtrack albums.

For more documentation & comparison with European versions, there’s always the film’s entry at, a page that isn’t always easy to understand. The bottom line is that this new 4K remaster of OUATITW sticks to the same cut seen on earlier Blu-rays, for what Paramount has seemingly finalized as its standard International Cut.


For extras Paramount Presents has produced some new items, including a second new commentary. Recorded in 2003, Leone expert Sir Christopher Frayling is joined by a prestigious gallery of celebrities — Bernardo Bertolucci, Claudia Cardinale, John Carpenter, Alex Cox, and John Milius. Frayling’s expert track contains plenty of authoritative input, although he sometimes just describes what we’re seeing on screen. Alex Cox’s keen comments had me at rapt attention, detailing cut scenes and pointing out oddball bits of continuity.

Frayling’s theories come into better focus in three featurettes.  *  He offers an economical sketch of Sergio Leone’s life and conditions in the Italian film industry. The docu also has great interviews with actors Gabrielle Ferzetti and Claudia Cardinale, who in 2003 were the film’s only surviving stars. Each offers pleasant reminiscences, as do cameraman Tonino Delli Colli and writer/director Bernardo Bertolucci. Directors Carpenter, Cox and Milius have plenty of praise for Leone. Carpenter’s memory for details is hazy, but he’s not afraid to call things as he sees them. Milius sticks to lofty generalizations. He lights and smokes a cigar during his interview, ‘doing his Hemingway thing,’ as Sean Connery once said in promotional film for  The Wind and the Lion.

The lively new audio commentary is by Jay Jennings and Tom Betts, genuine experts on everything to do with Italo westerns. Together they host the  Spaghetti Westerns Podcast. We personally will always be grateful for Tom’s generous contributions to our Dollars special editions twenty years ago. Jennings and Betts are never at a loss for astute observations. They believe that several shots at Cattle Corner use a double for actor Al Mulock, who committed suicide during the filming, apparently while wearing his costume. They also touch on some interesting interpretations, such as ‘Harmonica’s character possibly being a quasi-ghost. We’re open to that theory — it’s the only way that Harmonica’s rejection of Claudia Cardinale can possibly make sense.

To our astonishment, each audio commentary has its own dedicated subtitle track in multiple languages. For its commitment to hearing-impaired movie fans, this disc ought to be given a special award.

Leonard Maltin contributes a very good ‘Film Focus’ introduction, light but not superficial. But we still recommend seeing the show first.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Once Upon a Time in the West 4K
4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
New Leonard Maltin intro piece
New commentary by Jay Jennings and Tom Betts
Composite commentary with directors John Carpenter, John Milius, Bernardo Bertolucci & Alex Cox, film historian Sir Christopher Frayling, Dr. Sheldon Hall, actors Claudia Cardinale & Gabrielle Ferzetti, cameraman Tonino Delli Colli, hosted by Lancelot Narayan
Three-part documentary: An Opera of Violence, The Wages of Sin, Something To Do With Death with personalities from the audio commentary
Railroad: Revolutionizing the West
Locations Then & Now
Production Gallery
Theatrical Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
May 8, 2024

*  Having worked for Paramount Home Video at this time, I can say that their attorneys insisted that longer documentaries be broken up for tax reporting reasons, so as not to resemble full ‘productions’ instead of marketing fluff.CINESAVANT

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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Anthony Zagata

Great review! Very detailed. I only wish they would have put this fine classic on 2 discs for bitrate sake.

Jerry Kibbe

Without doubt my all time favorite western

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