It’s been used to start a story since the 1300s, so this podcast is centuries in the making, as we look at some of the many films telling us what happened “Once Upon a Time” in the West, America, China, Mexico, Anatolia, and Hollywood. Cynics have cynically suggested this is a pretty weak theme to join together a bunch of films we fancied watching, to which I reply “yes”. But aren’t they all? Anyhoo, we gots your action films, your martial arts films, your gangster opera films, your western films and your driving around a desert films to get through, so let’s get crackin’.
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Once Upon A Time in the West
Released in the UK almost exactly 70 years ago, C’era una volta il West, or Once Upon a Time in the West, came at a time when legendary Italian director Sergio Leone was ready to be done with Westerns but Paramount offered him a bunch of money and Henry Fonda, to which he presumably replied with whatever the Italian is for, “aye, awright then, yeh’ve twisted ma arm”. While clearly a Leone film, it is markedly different from the more action-heavy Dollars trilogy, and shows a greater interest in the build-up to violence than the violence itself. In another departure, though it’s arguable how well it was achieved, the story is a woman’s, even if she has limited agency.
In case you couldn’t glean it from my clearly exceptional introduction, I suppose I better give you a fuller plot recap. The West is entering its final decades, embodied here by the progress of the transcontinental railway. Knowing that this transformative technology will eventually be headed his way, farmer Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) has purchased a plot of land called Sweetwater, the only source of water for miles around, that he knows the railway will have to pass through in order to replenish the trains.
This makes Sweetwater valuable property, but his contract with the railway company expires if he hasn’t built a station by the time it arrives, something unscrupulous railroad tycoon Mr. Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) is determined to ensure. To this end he employs Henry Fonda’s Frank, an amoral, cold-blooded killer, and his gang to scare McBain off. Being ever the expedient chap, Frank kills him and his family instead. But unbeknownst to him Frank had a widow, Jill (Claudia Cardinale), to whom the property passed. Frank then turns his “attentions” to this unforeseen complication.
Two other figures loom large in the story: Jason Robards’ Cheyenne (in the script his full name is Manuel Gutiérrez but this was dropped from the film because, well, Jason Robards), a sort of bandit with a heart of gold, or at least tarnished bronze; and Charles Bronson’s “Harmonica”, a mysterious gunman who has been seeking Frank. Cheyenne and Harmonica, who both have reasons to want revenge on Frank, band together, after a fashion, to help Jill and to bring down Frank.
Once Upon a Time in the West has probably my favourite opening in all of cinema, almost entirely free of dialogue (between viewings I actually tend to erase the few lines spoken by the hapless, dangerously oblivious station agent) as Stony, Snaky and Knuckles wait in the parched town for the arrival of Harmonica, time marked only by the drip of water, buzzing of flies and the squeaking of a metal windmill. It sets the structure for much of the rest of the film: slow, empty, hot, dry, until a sudden burst of violence punctuates the stillness.
There’s a minimum of dialogue, Leone preferring to tell his story with sounds, landscape, action and faces. Especially with eyes. The eyes! The eyes have it, right enough, and Bronson’s are particularly expressive. And eyes also afford the film one of its most memorable moments, when the leader of the gang that has just murdered the McBain family is revealed to be Henry Fonda, his blue eyes striking against his weathered skin, before he murders a child, a real casting against type for the habitual good guy.
There are many to choose from, of course, but this may also be the great Ennio Morricone’s finest score, generating incredible mood and tension while not being anything like as overbearing or prescriptive as in, for instance, Once Upon a Time in America.
Shot in Arizona and Utah in the US and Sonora in Mexico, as well as Leone’s traditional haunt of Spain, and at the legendary Studi di Cinecittà in Rome, the film looks glorious, in no small part due to Tonino Delli Colli’s fantastic photography. Many of the striking landscapes he has captured, though, aren’t of the West but of the face, with seemingly every wrinkle and pore visible on Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda’s faces, telling a story all by themselves. And talking of the actors, Fonda’s brilliance is a given, but Charles Bronson, while not of Fonda’s calibre, is perfectly cast and has never been better, and shames his later turns in that Michael Winner pap.
Once Upon a Time in the West is a master filmmaker’s masterpiece, and remains one of my favourite films of all time, so unsurprisingly I’d encourage anyone unfamiliar with it to check it out at your earliest convenience.
Once Upon A Time in America
This film, at least in the versions commonly found today, is not renowned for its brevity, so I trust you’ll forgive a less than completely detailed recap. This film charts, over the course of a lifetime, the friendship of Robert De Niro’s Noodles and James Woods’ Max, from their initial meeting as street kids in 1918 (played as young un’s by Scott Tiler and Rusty Jacobs), where they form a gang alongside their friends Patrick “Patsy” Goldberg, Philip “Cockeye” Stein and Dominic, hustling away for local petty crime boss Bugsy.
However, they get ideas of moving up in the world, bringing them into conflict with Bugsy, leaving Dominic dead and, after Noodles takes revenge, Bugsy following, with Noodles locked away. Released in the prohibition era, Noodles rejoins the gang, now successful bootleggers, and rekindles a relationship with Max’s sister, Elizabeth McGovern’s Deborah. However things are complicated, with the worlds of organised crime and politics colliding and back rubbing in various ways with tragic ends.
The framing device linking all of this is 1968’s older Noodles, long in hiding after the events of the thirties, getting a message along the lines of “we know where you are, and you need to do one last job”, with the intrigue of who knows, and what that job is, pulling us through the three and three quarter hours-ish the cut I watched unfolds over.
It’s epic in scope and ambition, and there’s a lot of subtlety and nuance, as well as a lot of not at all subtle and nuanced events I’m skipping over there. It’s not a pleasant film, for the most part, at least in the events and characters it portrays. Given the talent behind the camera, Leone and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, is frequently looks really good, often providing a counterpoint to the ugliness of the actions and ambitions of the lead characters.
It really is the perfect role for James Woods, as he is, by nature, an odious prick, so that’s top drawer casting from real life right there. It’s an exceptional De Niro performance, of course, and with an extraordinary character that at first seems to be drawing from an honour amongst thieves canard before moving to a much more compromised position, to put it mildly.
I’m not too sure how much I need to tell you about this – despite bombing at the box office on release, almost certainly due to studio meddling with drastically shortened cuts, in the past few decades it’s most often spoken about in the same sentence as The Godfather in terms of being a genre defining crime movie, and, well, for once I don’t have a contrary position to take.
It’s a long film, to be sure, but like …the West one that needs all of that space to breath, and doesn’t feel like it drags at any point. Exceedingly competent in all of the technical aspects and in all of the performances, and very satisfying character arcs. If I’m going to pick a flaw, the revelation, of sorts, in the final act is, well, silly, but even if that isn’t quite truthy enough narratively speaking, it has undeniable emotional heft.
So, yes, watch it if you haven’t already done so.
Once Upon A Time in China
Once Upon a Time in China, or Jeez-o, martial artists’ furniture bills must be eye-watering, is the first of a six film series based on the not at all enhanced and augmented stories of 19th century Cantonese folk hero Wong Fei Hung (Jet Li), which I believe roughly translates as “Chinese Fighting Jesus”. Wong is the head of the local militia in Foshan at some point during the Qing dynasty, and as well as being a legendary martial arts instructor is also a pharmacist. You know, that classic combination.
The film begins with a lion dance aboard a ship, during which French soldiers aboard a nearby boat mistake firecrackers for gunfire, and begin shooting at the Chinese. One of the lion dancers is injured, perhaps killed, but this is apparently inconsequential as for some reason completing the dance is more important (and, indeed, the injured man is not seen again), and Jet Li, a guest on board at the time, is the man to ensure the dance is completed. Not the man to check the victim is OK, though. You know, despite his training in Chinese medicine and whatnot. Sucks to be that guy, I guess.
The high heid yin (note for foreigners: despite the sound that’s not Chinese but Scots, meaning boss) aboard the boat gives Wong a fan on which are written the “unequal treaties” China has signed with foreign powers, and tries to give the object some sort of importance it clearly does not merit, and Wong an ill-defined instruction to… something? Or maybe something else? Look, plot is not this film’s strong point. There’s a triad gang involved in labour and sex slavery shipping Chinese to the USA, who develop a beef with Wong, and a wandering martial arts master who develops a beef with Wong, and corrupt Westerners who develop… I think you get the point. And all of these beefs (beeves?) must be settled by kickfighting.
It had been a long, long time since I had seen Once Upon a Time in China and I had either forgotten or, more likely, never realised before, what absolute garbage it is. At times entertaining garbage, to be sure, but garbage nonetheless, with a lot of unclear and largely, if not wholly, unimportant and poorly explained scenes taking place simply to link the (far too greatly spaced) fight scenes together.
And it wastes no time in being confusing, dumb or inconsequential, with the French soldiers in the opening scene realising their mistake within about a minute, ceasing fire and going back to whatever they were idly doing before, with no apparent consequence, especially since Master Wong took care of the really important thing, finishing the lion dance.
While many Western films have been criticised, and rightly, for inaccurate and anachronistic depictions of other cultures, that very much goes both ways. While I can’t speak to the veracity of the Chinese dress and buildings, I know that British soldiers in the mid to late 19th century were unlikely to look like Beau Geste with a palette swap, and dressing the Americans to look like they could have been palling around with Thomas Jefferson and George Washington was an odd choice to be sure.
Early on in the film Jet Li seems inordinately miffed at the official’s fan being burned, as if it is somehow anything more than the equivalent of the napkin he wrote some notes on. The fan and the official are, however, never spoken of or seen again, so maybe they didn’t really matter? And then there’s the needlessly belligerent Master Yim, who exists in this story simply to give Master Wong someone to fight at the end.
Of course the point of a film like this is the fight scenes, and it was certainly pretty popular, being credited with much of the impetus for the popularity of wushu and other martial arts films in the nineties. Some of the fights are entertaining and well-choreographed, but it’s hard for me to care about anything when almost everyone who isn’t Jet Li is either a pantomime-level villain or a buffoon. Indeed, any scene not featuring Jet Li, and there are far too many of those, is barely worth watching. And barely watchable, come to think of it, especially the slapstick “comedy”.
Once Upon a Time in China is a reasonably entertaining if confusing martial arts film, but it pales in comparison to the far superior and far more entertaining Fong Sai-yuk series, so watch those instead.
Once Upon A Time in Mexico
The third of Robert Rodriguez’s Mexican bullet ballets sees.. well, to be honest a lot of things happening at once with loose relation to each other, more on which later, but that means it doesn’t lend itself to neat, succinct recaps. Try this on for size – Antonio Banderas’ Mariachi just wants to live a quiet life after the death of Salma Hayek’s Carolina at the hands of Gerardo Vigil’s evil General Marquez, but he’s drafted by Johnny Depp’s CIA goon Sheldon Jeffrey Sands as a hired gun.
Marquez himself has been hired by Mexican drug baron Armando Barillo, played, pointlessly, by noted non-Latino Willem Dafoe, to take out the President. As the CIA only approves of regime change when they’re pulling the strings, Sands wants an oar stuck in that, hence leveraging El Mariachi’s past, and also drafting Rubén Blades’s retired FBI agent Jorge Ramírez, who has his own reasons for wanting Barillo dead. And so it goes, with a whole bunch of plot twists and supporting characters, played by the likes of Mickey Rourke, Eva Mendes and Danny Trejo.
I didn’t have particularly fond memories of …in Mexico, at least in so far as I had any memories at all of it. However, for the first half of the film I thought perhaps I’d been mistaken. It had been a while since I last watched a Rodriguez film, and his blend of action and visuals are still a very enjoyable thing to watch.
However the second half falls off the rails a little. The essential reason you’d be watching it, I suppose, remains fine, with the action continuing apace, but why any of this is happening is soon lost in a mess of setups, double crosses, revelations and betrayals and the like, mostly happening to characters we’ve barely met and therefore aren’t all that bothered about. These convolutions are apparently by design, but all that goes to show is that achieving a goal and the goal being worth achieving are not necessarily the same thing.
Through all this Johnny Depp floats around, alternately instigating or explaining things to no great effect, occasionally arbitrarily killing people for no reason, consuming screen time that ought to be going to Antonio Banderas’ character, who’s the only one we have any emotional investment at all in.
In many ways, this seems like a budget in search of a story. The shoestringesque amount El Mariachi was made for proved to be a mother of invention, and the relatively colossal amount, albeit modest in the grander scheme of Hollywood budgets, given to Desperado allowed a similar tale to be told with more style and assurance. With the relatively super-collosal mountain of cash secured for …in Mexico, I rather wonder if there was much of a plan for that money other than “More”.
More characters, more stunts, more plotlines, more big name, big price tag actors. What there isn’t, really, is much of a reason to care about anything that’s been thrown at you, and this winds up being much less than the sum of its parts.
I don’t actually dislike Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and there a number of entertaining scenes in there amongst all the excess. The problem is why should I tell you, dear listener, to watch this, and not El Mariachi or Desperado instead, which are just better films all round. If you want to complete that set, however, I wouldn’t necessarily warn you away from it, but it’s not in the same league as the earlier outings. Indeed, I wrote these notes before rewatching the earlier pair, and I suspect I’d be rather less forgiving towards …in Mexico had I watched them in order.
Once Upon A Time in Anatolia
Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da) begins inauspiciously enough, with three men sitting in the office of a tyre shop, drinking, eating and laughing, though an ominous roll of thunder attracts the attention of one of them. We then move to a roadside fountain as night falls, small and inconsequential amongst the vast openness of the Anatolian plateau. Three cars come into view from the distance, and stop near the fountain. Numerous men spill out, including two who have their hands bound. The situation, and the title, suggest that something very bad may be about to happen to those men and that they are about to become part of the landscape.
It’s almost the opposite, in fact, as the something bad has already happened, and those accompanying the bound men are police officers and prosecutors, and the men themselves there to show them where a body is buried. If only they could remember just which fountain, by which road, by which tree.
The group travels through the wet and windy Anatolian night, moving from one potential burial spot to the next and we begin to learn a little about the personalities and lives of those in the party, principally in the lead car: the pensive young city doctor, Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), ill-tempered police chief Naci (Yılmaz Erdoğan), food-loving Arab Ali (Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan), as well as later Taner Birsel’s Prosecutor Nusret. In the back seat of that first car, though, one face is shrouded in darkness while the others are lit. When he leans forward we can recognise him as one of the men from the tyre shop, and can surmise that things did not go well for one of those three.
This man, Kenan (Fırat Tanış) is the group’s main focus as he leads them from one potential grave site to another, always claiming that he can’t remember, whether due to the fact it’s night-time or that he was drunk at the time. A tired and frustrated group, and an increasingly irate Chief Naci, call upon the mayor of a small village for refreshments where an unexpected encounter has a profound effect on many of the party and the film changes gear, leading to Kenan divulging the location of the grave, the body’s recovery and its subsequent autopsy, where a further discovery is made. In this portion of the film Dr. Cemal comes to the fore, and he must make a decision about whether total honesty is to be desired In all matters.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia has no great drama, and no great action. Instead, we travel with some people and learn about them as they do an unpleasant job, discovering things as they do, including some sad truths brought to light by the questioning of an anecdote that was originally meant to illustrate something along the lines of “it’s a funny old world, isn’t it?”.
The final act is more focused, and the main characters become only the doctor and prosecutor. The truth behind that anecdote is discovered, and during the autopsy the rather melancholy doctor must decide in which way best to interpret “first, do no harm”.
Throughout the characters and story are given time to breathe and expand as the film meanders through the countryside, and we can develop empathy for these unremarkable but profoundly real and human characters. Even Kenan, whose gaunt and haunted visage perforates the film: a hugely memorable performance from Fırat Tanış despite having no more than handful of lines.
If there’s a complaint it’s the all too common one of being almost exclusively male, and from the male perspective, though this is tempered as a criticism of the film (though not the situation) as likely being very representative of the society from which this film comes. Apart from two ill-defined women in a farm building at night, and perhaps a handful in the crowd in town, this film is populated by men, with two notable exceptions. One is the widow of the murder victim, the other the daughter of the village mayor whose house the search party visit.
Sadly the woman herself is not much more than a McGuffin, but the sight of her striking and youthful beauty, so unexpected in that place, and during their search for a corpse, seems to have a profound effect on many of the men. Undoubtedly desire is one aspect but it may not be, and probably is not, the principal one. Kenan seems particularly affected by her, and it’s not long after the encounter that he finally gives up, without further prevarication, the certain location of the grave. The prosecutor and, especially, the doctor are particularly affected by her, too, and the feelings of waste, lost youth, unhappiness, regret and loneliness are almost palpable.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is an at times mesmerising film, beautiful and complex, with even the landscape itself both informing the characters and acting as one. What seems at first to be a police procedural becomes a character study of Turkish manhood, with some political points for flavour. Where it has the potential to frustrate is in never adequately explaining what happened, or why. We get snippets and can make conjectures, but all is left ambiguous. Beyond that, though, it’s great.
Once Upon A Time in Hollywood
The latest Tarantino joint drops us into Hollywood in 1969, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton worries that he’s coming to the end of his career, hopping though TV series as special guests rather than the lead roles. This will also have implications for his friend, Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth, his body double stuntman, driver and general gopher.
Still, Rick has been offered some lead parts in Spaghetti Westerns, although he thinks that’s another sign of decline, but he still has his house in the hills. Indeed, he might even get a part by talking to his new neighbours, Roman Polanski and his wife, Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate.
For two hours, we’re mainly following the ups and downs of Rick and Cliff’s life and careers, both present and in flashbacks, and to a lesser degree Sharon Tate’s, along with her relationship with Polanski and old flame Emile Hirsch’s Jay Sebring. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, the Manson family are gearing up to do what they did, although in this alternate version, in particular their run-ins with Cliff and his awesome dog Brandy, things will be different. For some reason.
The questions rattling around in my empty ol’ head since watching this a few days ago have mainly reduced to what, exactly, was the point of all this, and what, exactly, was Tarantino trying to say, and about what? The answers I have settled on are that, well, he had no point, and isn’t saying a damn thing about anything, which is pretty much in line with Tarantino’s career so far. And that’s fine, not everything must pass explicit commentary on the world, but this feels like the first time he’s trying to reach for some greater point, particularly with his inclusion of approximate historical events and characters, but he’s failing to get anything across.
You could argue Inglorious Basterds was a toe in the water of alternate histories, but I don’t think that stands up to much scrutiny. That was a fairly straightforward Tarantino take on the Dirty Dozen war film formula. This is… weird. Why invoke real-world tragedy to produce a weird revenge cum home invasion fantasy, particularly when that only really happens in the final, what, quarter of the film, which has been entirely different in tone and feel up till that point?
There’s many strange lesser deviations from reality – I entirely understand why Bruce Lee’s estate are not happy about this – but in the main, I just don’t understand why bother doing it this way. It might be different had this been a character study of Tate, or had even a faint attempt to justify it, but she’s barely a character in the film. The sum total of knowledge of Tate you will get from this is that she seems nice. As, perhaps, you’d expect from Tarantino, this is exploitation, not exploration.
I really like all of the non-Manson stuff in here – DeCaprio and Pitt are great, Robbie is likeable, even is she’s not doing much, and it’s as stylish and sharp as Tarantino always is. I’m assuming this isn’t your first time to the Tarantino show, so if you’ve like his other work, you’ll like this aspect at least, and if you didn’t it won’t change your mind. But the Manson stuff… I dunno. It made me uncomfortable, but not because it was exploring their dark nature to get some understanding of them, but because they’re repurposing a horrible chapter of history into some ultimately entirely pointless light entertainment, and as a shorthand to avoid having Tarantino write a real villain. It’s lazy. I felt embarrassed for him.
So that stuff isn’t great, and that leads into the usual hyper-violent finale that here really feels like it’s been cut in from an entirely different film. Jarring, but not in the way I suspect Tarantino wants. Again, achieving a goal and the goal being worth achieving are not necessarily the same thing. The way that the final stretch delights in its violence towards women is a little off-putting – in the overall arc of Tarantino’s treatment of all his characters, regardless of gender, it’s perhaps not so out of the ordinary, but in a film with otherwise precious little of it, it sticks out like a charred corpse or an unrecognisably mashed skull.
Even with all that said, I suppose I liked it well enough to recommend it without all that much hesitation, and I’m just glad he’s still being allowed to make films very much in his style, in an increasingly homogenous big budget cinema landscape.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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