I asked my friend Ted Haycraft if he’d care to write something about ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, since he’s a huge Leone fan. He demurred, modestly. I nudged him with my sharpest elbow. And LO —
PRE-TITLE SEQUENCE: I was nine years old going on ten when I was exposed to the world of Sergio Leone. There I was packed in a station wagon with my family of five watching the Man With No Name in action from dusk to dawn (the newspapers ads exclaimed “Spend a Night with Clint Eastwood!”) and my world was never the same! The extreme use of the widescreen frame, the strange and cool soundtrack, the filth, dirt and desolation of the landscape and towns (surely this must what the West was really like?!), the laconic hipness of Joe/Manco/Blondie, the deep gravitas of Colonel Mortimer, and so much more…I was so gone! At first my focus was mainly on Clint Eastwood even to the extent that I haunted an art supplies store that stocked a batch of ‘hippy’ clothes where I was hoping to find a poncho and of course once I got older I was going to grow a stubby beard, smoke short little cigars and squint a lot (I would eventually do my 8th Grade Term Paper on him concluding he was going to be a big star – I received an A+ on it!). But as I matured and my critical facilities started to kick into higher gear I became aware that it was the Italian film director with the name of Sergio Leone that was truly the most important creative force behind these films. I was becoming to discover that he was the reason that I loved them so much. I had been reading comic books since before I could actually read and then became a devoted film fan as a child thanks to my father’s love for movies (I was watching films meant for adults at a very early and impressionable age due to him!) but once I laid eyes on Leone’s trilogy of Westerns my adoration for all things cinema really began and needless to say he became my favorite film director forevermore…
ONCE UPON A TIME IN INDIANA I WEPT…
It had been 12 long years since a new Sergio Leone film had been in the theater. I had seen DUCK, YOU SUCKER at the drive-in in my hometown of Evansville, Indiana during its first run (so it hadn’t been re-titled as A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE yet) way back in 1972 and it felt like an eternity if we were ever going to get to see a new film from him! So here it was the summer of 1984, the month of June to be more exact, and I was filled with excitement as I headed off to a theater on the north side of my town Evansville, Indiana) to see ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE THEATER back-to-back with Walter Hill’s STREETS OF FIRE (1). Of course I was also very apprehensive about seeing OUATIA since I had been following whatever news on its production I could get my hands on at the time (how did we ever exist in those ancient pre-internet days?). I knew it had been tampered with but surely not to an extent that it wasn’t worth seeing? Of course I watched Siskel & Ebert on TV back then religiously and their review of it that aired the previous month was very damning. I recall it actually instilled a sense of dread in me and I began to fret over how I would feel once I got a chance to see the film for myself.
By the mid 80’s my very frequent movie going habit had started to become a solo affair for the most part and with these two films I wasn’t about to delay seeing them, waiting for someone’s schedule to be in sync with mine. So there I was on opening weekend (I seem to recall it was specifically Sunday afternoon) sitting for 3 hours (2) or more anxiously and feverishly devouring the images of two of my favorite directors. Afterwards as I sat in the theater in my solitude since nobody had sat through the end credits (which are simply heresy to me!) quietly contemplating what I had just viewed…and I silently wept.
Okay, okay…maybe I’m exaggerating a wee bit about weeping in the theater but that’s the way I love to tell and retell this story since that sad, sad day. Siskel & Ebert and other critics were correct that this American release of OUATIA was a travesty. Sure there was enough individual scenes of cinematic beauty and resonance along with the Ennio Morricone score – so unbelievable gorgeous it was almost unbearable to listen to (and a major crime that it didn’t receive an Oscar (3)) – that I was able to get through the film. Now even though that’s how I felt about it, that I just barely ‘got through it’ and even with it being a very frustrating and sad experience, it still was a Leone film (of sorts) up there on a big screen. As I leerily watched the film unspool before my eyes one thing that struck me was where was Louise Fletcher? Earlier in the year I had seen a teaser trailer for the film that consisted of stills of the cast which included Fletcher. Factoring that in with what I already knew about the editing of this version before it was release I knew I was being exposed to a mangled mess. Unfortunately there was no way I could hop on a plane to zoom over to Europe to see the 229 minutes version (4) with all the flash-forwards and backs in place and the version that the critics were much happier with so I had to settle for this for the time being.
I also had a perceptive feeling that it wouldn’t linger too long locally so I was determined to at least see it again since it might be another 12 years before the next Leone epic. So for my second go round I grabbed my best friend and we headed over to the theater on a Monday evening to see it. I was prepared to even sit through this frustrating weak shadow of a masterpiece for a second time and prepped my friend what he was about to witness. Why we weren’t aware of this ahead of time I can’t recall but when we got to the theater we discovered that there had only been one evening showing and we had missed the start time. Now I hope one can see the irony in this? One of the main reasons that OUATIA was chopped down so the theater owners in America could have more showings of it! Well, apparently at 144 minutes this was still too long for the manager of this theater to have two evening showings. Since I wasn’t about to join a film already progress (a cardinal sin for me!) my best friend and I settled for a showing of STREETS OF FIRE. (5) I never again got to see OUATIA up on the big screen – it was gone within a week – and my work schedule at the time prevented me getting another showing in before it left. Such a bittersweet and maddening experience which turned into devastation five years later after the news came to me of Sergio’s way-too-soon passing.
POSTSCRIPT: I wasn’t able to see the eventual theatrical release of the 229 minutes in the USA but I certainly watched it right away as soon it was released on VHS. Of course I was very relieved to see this version that was much closer to what Leone had envisioned. At that time since I was so exhilarated to finally being seeing it that I didn’t seem to consciously key into the fact how melancholy the film is and how most all of the main characters can be very unsympathetic depending on how you approach the film (they were even more so it seemed when the story played out in chronological order!). It’s only now over the recent years I see how for some this can possibly be a tough film to watch. The film however seems to always rank fairly frequently on all sorts of lists (Best of the ‘80’s, Best Gangster Films, etc.). Recently in response to one of these lists I was sharing via an e-mail a professional writer friend of mine and a huge Leone fan admitted that OUATIA can be a difficult watch. In preparing for this essay I began to watch the opening moments of the film and weirdly enough I was a little startled on the how brutally violent the scenes are that it opens up with (I guess I didn’t realize that it’s been quite a while since I’ve watched it!?!). And of course there’s been a lot of negative critical attention heaped upon the two rape scenes within the film. Ruminating on these elements as I was writing this article I have concluded these were part and parcel of Leone’s intention with the film – he wasn’t about to avoid the brutality of this world and its characters even though his undeniable film-making artistry certainly sugarcoats it to a certain extent. It seems to me (if this makes any sense at all and if it doesn’t please forgive me) that the violence in The Man With No Name Trilogy was mostly used for comedic effect and the violence in the first two films in the Once Upon Time Trilogy (6) could possibly be referred to as romantic and distant due to the era they take place in. With OUATIA being set in our ‘modern’ age maybe the violence hits to close to home for us? We can only wonder how Leone would have staged the horrors of WWII with his next planned film centered on the siege of Leningrad.
(1) I had recently become a diehard Walter Hill fan mainly due to THE LONG RIDERS and SOUTHERN COMFORT. So now after his huge box office hit 48 HRS., here comes a total hardcore action film mixed with iconic heroes and a very hot-at-the-time music video look and feel – how could it fail?!?? Ironically since I had my expectations set so low for OUATIA I had them set way to high for STREETS OF FIRE and I was frustratingly disappointed with it!!!
(2) OUATIA was 144 minutes in length, STREETS OF FIRE at 93 minutes.
(3) Apparently some needed paperwork wasn’t properly filed for the soundtrack to be considered for an Academy Award nomination!?!! (I used the main theme for a video I put together for my sister’s wedding and when I showed it to a friend to see how it was working he said why such sad music?)
(4) Little did I now at the time even in the 229 minutes version of the film Louise Fletcher’s character still didn’t show up!!! It’s only now in the recent Film Foundation restoration of the film will we get to see her scenes.
(5) With my expectations out of the way, my second viewing of STREETS OF FIRE went down much easier and actually over the years I come to like it quite a bit with some reservations. Unfortunately though it never became the ultimate Walter Hill action epic masterpiece that I thought for sure it was going to be back in 1984.
(6) I’ve always been a little dubious whether Leone had always originally intended for ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, DUCK, YOU SUCKER and ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA to make up a second trilogy. He had originally planned not to be the director of DUCK, YOU SUCKER (Peter Bogdanovich…really?) and since maybe since OUATITW had done so well in France that’s why it was specifically titled as ONCE UPON A TIME THE REVOLUTION for its Gallic release. Plus I thought it was weird how a trilogy of America takes a sidestep into Mexico with its second part. If I recall correctly it was only during or after the release of OUATIA that Leone began to tout how this was officially a second trilogy.