"Once Upon a Time in the West" (1968) on Blu-ray -- How to Make a Horse Opera!

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"Once Upon a Time in the West" (1968), Blu-ray.  A Paramount release from 2011.

Original title, "C'era una volta il West". Re-released on Blu-ray in both 2013 and 2017.  This disc contains both the shortened, US Theatrical Release version of the film, and the longer, Restored (2003), International Release version.  (My comments refer to that Restored, International version.)

Color, 2.35 aspect ratio, 2 hours 46 minutes. DTS-HD MA 5.1 48 kHz audio. (A lossy, DD 2.0 "restored Mono" track is also included; the 5.1 sounds better in my opinion.) Subtitles available. Commentary available. No Resume Play. About an hour's worth of 480i Extras, most in 16:9.

Highly Recommended!


This is yet another film which has benefitted greatly from revisionist reviews. The ORIGINAL reviews, particularly in the US, were dismissive, if not downright scathing. Vincent Canby in the New York Times wrote along the theme, "If you can ignore the fact that this is a really bad movie, you will find it is both interesting to look at and fun." How's THAT for hedging your bets?

Since then, the film has gone on to achieve more than mere cult status, and now is viewed by critics as a seminal film, and possibly one of the BEST Westerns ever made! There's some good analysis of this arc in the Extras and Commentary. The film is now considered "ahead of its time" in that it was one of the first "films about films" -- a film which deliberately quotes elements from other key films of a genre.

The term "Operatic" is also used -- a LOT -- noting the exceedingly slow pacing of critical scenes, as in an opera, where no one can die before everyone sings about it for 15 minutes or so. One commentator goes so far as to suggest, "In this film, stares in close up serve the place of arias!"

Another modern writer says the film may also have been dismissed because it was shot in "Techniscope".

Wide screen, 35mm films were normally shot with anamorphic lenses which would optically stretch the image vertically to fill a single frame of 35mm film.

Techniscope, on the other hand, shot two successive wide screen frames WITHIN a single 35mm frame by dint of advancing the film only half a frame for each shot. This had the advantage only half as much film stock was used to shoot a film, and so Techniscope became associated with low-budget, wide screen productions.

Meanwhile, normal wide screen films were projected using anamorphic projection lenses which optical widened the image to restore the original, intended, wide aspect ratio. So Techniscope films had to be "anamorphosed" as a processing step, turning each wide screen frame from the negative (2 per 35mm frame of film) into its own, anamorphic, full 35mm frame for the print . Thus they could be projected using those same, anamorphic theater lenses.

But this process blew up the film grain, and, depending how it was done, also produced nasty "generation loss", such as loss of color saturation, which kind of defeated the purpose of shooting on Technicolor film stock in the first place.

Add to that, Techniscope films were made using cheaper, spherical camera lenses, instead of the new-fangled anamorphic lenses, and the whole idea left a bad taste in critic's mouths. In particular, they could not see why Paramount would produce a supposed, big budget, major, wide screen film using such "second rate" filming technology!

The REALITY was those spherical lenses were cheaper to design and make because they were simpler -- and thus, almost always of HIGHER quality -- than the anamorphic lenses of the era. In addition, the anamorphic lenses produced very visible distortion in elements which were out of focus, or during certain camera motions, and, in particular, in close-up shots.

Leone was enamored of close-ups, as well as shots requiring exceptional depth of field in focus. Thus for his style of filmmaking, those high quality, spherical lenses were CRUCIAL! Indeed, this particular film may be the BEST example of Techniscope used right!

As for generation loss, yep that was a real problem. But the cool thing is that for a transfer to Digital, Home Theater media, you can go back to the original, wide screen half frames and AVOID all that. Which means a restored Blu-ray transfer of a Techniscope film may very well look BETTER than the original (anamorphosed) Theatrical prints!

In 1966, Sergio Leone had completed his trio of "Dollars" Westerns and pretty much figured he was done with Westerns. He was actually working on a non-Western film ("Once Upon a Time in America", which he completed quite some time later) when he discovered the American studios didn't WANT to fund something different. They wanted another Western! Leone refused until Paramount came along with a big budget, a promise he could make his "America" film afterwards, and the services of Henry Fonda, an actor Leone dearly wanted to film.

And so he agreed. And proceeded to make a film deliberately designed to turn everything people expected from Westerns on its ear!

Early, limited release showings were badly received, and produced the bad reviews alluded to above. Sensing disaster, Paramount took out the butcher knife and slashed 20 minutes off the film, apparently figuring if it didn't make it any better it would at LEAST make it shorter (increasing the number of screenings per day). They put it out that way to wide distribution, and with minimal advertising. The result was just the disaster they had feared. The film flopped badly in the US and the UK.

Meanwhile, the original cut was doing GREAT business in the rest of Europe, particularly in France where it was a smash hit. Famously, one large theater in Paris ran the film continuously for 24 straight months!

TRIVIA:  When Leone visited that theater afterwards he was hailed as a Master -- except by the projectionist who'd gotten fed up showing that same film over and over again for 2 years!

The burgeoning cult status of the film came from bootleg copies which restored cut portions -- and even went further! One famous bootleg was 20 minutes LONGER than the "uncut" International Release. Evidently it included ALL the sweepings from the cutting room floor!

In 2003, the official, "Restored" version was produced, just slightly shorter than the original International Release. NOTE:  Comparing the timings on this stuff can be very confusing because PAL versions are played at the slightly faster PAL frame rate (25fps vs 24fps) resulting in shorter running times. This 2003, "Restored" version and the American "Theatrical" version, as originally trimmed by Paramount, are the two versions on this disc.

TRIVIA: The opening credit sequence is some 10 minutes long, displayed over music-less action -- an iconic sequence which sets the tone for the entire film. DESPITE that length, the actual TITLE of the film isn't displayed until all the way at the very end of the film.

Sound is also a challenge in these Leone films. First off, all dialog was re-recorded. ALL of it! One of the Commentators points out Leone didn't even boom-mic the actors, which proved a benefit since he could do certain types of action and camera moves without worrying about repositioning the booms or keeping them out of frame.

Doing re-recorded dialog for an entire film -- and maintaing lip sync -- is a challenge in and of itself. Apparently Jason Robards (who was primarily a stage actor prior to this film) was particularly good at it, but others were not. So even when you had the actors speaking English when filmed (not always the case for Leone's international casts), the re-recorded English dialog might not match in lip sync.

And for a restoration/transfer process, there's the added challenge that in some cases, the "best" re-recording takes simply haven't survived, meaning you either have to go with sound dupped from an existing film print, or resort to sound from a lower quality, re-recording take.

Next you've got all the sound effects audio. Modern ears -- trained to expect the hyper-realistic sounds of modern films -- cringe at what Leone used for gun shots, horse gallops, face slaps, etc. Some of the sound effects are almost laughably bad by modern standards. And a high quality, lossless track just makes them more so. But some of this stuff was done with artistic intent, and some of the sound effects have outstanding artistic value even today. The "breathing" of the idling steam locomotives is one great example.

Lastly there's the music. In this film, Leone at long last managed to pull off what he'd tried to do earlier -- to get his music not only written, but RECORDED prior to filming, so he could both film (with recorded music playing on location) and edit scenes to MATCH the music. This produced some interesting results (e.g., horse gallops which actually align with the beat of the music), but also some bizarre results where the script was changed AFTER the music was recorded, so now Leone had to twist the action a bit to try and get them back together again.

In sum, you've got a long, slow (yes, "Operatic") film, with all those technically difficult close ups (showing off those Spherical lenses!), shot in brightest sunlight so he could stop the lenses way down for added depth of field, all those "artistically" chosen sound effects, actors trying to recreate emotions of the moment when re-recording dialog, and a musical score which actually drove the filming even in the face of script changes.

What could possibly go wrong?

Darn little, actually. This is one, amazing piece of film-making!

And this Blu-ray transfer does it full justice.

The PQ is outstanding across the board. Wonderful detail, rock solid colors (no generation loss here!), and great dynamic range. No blown up film grain. Those signature, Leone close ups are immaculate. What looks like a little bit of light level pulsing in sun flares and such is, I suspect, actually due to slight vibration in the camera mount/tripod. The dynamic range is something to behold. Leone was FRYING these actors with light, and yet the transfer never blows out the high brightness end. And still, Blacks remain suitably inky, without crush. I spotted no technical issues in the PQ.

Of course with imagery of this quality, you also see ALL the defects in the original. For example, it is more than usually obvious some of the scenes were filmed in red-tinged Arizona and others in olive-tinged Spain. Jill McBain (Claudio Cardinale) starts a horse cart journey in Spain and ends up in Arizona -- with background colors changing abruptly at the cut! The fly which gets trapped using a gun barrel is a fake fly (of course), but with the detail in this transfer it is obvious it isn't walking up the wood surface in its close up. It's being pulled up on a string!

TRIVIA: Leone was keenly aware of the color palette differences between the shooting locations in Arizona and in Spain. For one scene shot in Spain, henchmen are supposed to come inside from a dust storm outdoors, appearing through the doorway out of a cloud of blown dust. Leone actually had red dust from Arizona shipped to Spain so it could be tossed in through the door as the actors entered.

The AQ in the 5.1 lossless mix is equally good, understanding of course Paramount weren't trying to undo any of the strangeness of the original. And of course the original audio was only Mono. The mix in the transfer is properly, front-stage biased with only modest recourse to the Surrounds -- a light touch and done well. But all of the odd-ball characteristics of the original film audio are there, complete with lip sync issues. Try not to laugh when you hear the face slaps.... Just keep repeating: "Artistic intent. Artistic intent." Dialog is nice and clean, the musical score is well rendered (given the recording technology of the time), and volume is well balanced. For a 1968 recording, the frequency range and dynamic range are better than I had expected.

The Extras on this disc are uniformly outstanding. I presume all of the 480i Extras came from the prior SD-DVD. The quality of the discussion is first rate.

The Commentary track is cobbled together from separate interviews, recorded at different times. Usually I don't like that sort of Commentary, but this one is shockingly good. Definitely worth a listen! The only clunker in it is the few segments recorded by John Carpenter, where he pretty much whines HE would have filmed this stuff better!

TRIVIA: Film buffs have identified literally HUNDREDS of examples where the film "quotes" from some previous Western. Some of them are blatant -- e.g., the opening scene of 3 gunmen waiting for a train, as in "High Noon" -- but many are so subtle you have to wonder whether they are real, much less intentional. It is known Leone and his co-writers spent an astounding amount of time viewing all the Westerns they could get their hands on prior to making this film. Leone was known for his "film memory", and on a location trip through Monument Valley in Arizona he would frequently stop to point out where such and so Director MUST have placed his camera to film such and so shot of the landscape.

BAD PUN:  Sergio Leone, evidently emulating his Charles Bronson character, Harmonica, proves not only can he "play"; he can "shoot" -- ahem -- a film....

Highly recommended!