American theatrical release poster, artwork by Frank McCarthy © Paramount Pictures/Reel Art Press

Carlo Simi’s original costume designs for Charles Bronson as Harmonica, Henry Fonda as Frank and Gabriele Ferzetti as Mr Morton © Carlo Simi/Reel Art Press

Frank (Henry Fonda) stands outside Mr Morton’s carriage and decides what to do with his dying boss © Angelo Novi/Reel Art Press

Charles Bronson as Harmonica © Angelo Novi/Reel Art Press

Frank gives the young Harmonica (Dino Mele) the fateful musical instrument, while his elder brother (Claudio Mancini) balances precariously on his shoulders © TCD Images

Posed portrait of Jason Robards as Cheyenne © Angelo Novi/Reel Art Press

Claudia Cardinale as Jill McBain © Angelo Novi/Reel Art Press

Sergio Leone and Jason Robards on set © Angelo Novi/Reel Art Press

Poster for the West German release in August 1969. The title translates as Play Me the Song of Death © Paramount Pictures/Reel Art Press

Thomas Schleusing’s poster design for the East German release in July 1981 © Progress Film/Reel Art Press

Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West set out to be the ultimate Western – a celebration of the power of classic Hollywood cinema, a meditation on the making of America, and a lament for the decline of one of the most cherished film genres in the form of a “dance of death”. With this film, Leone said a fond farewell to the noisy and flamboyant world of the Spaghetti Western, which he had created with A Fistful of Dollars and its sequels (1964–6), and aimed for a much more ambitious exploration of the relationship between myth, history and his own autobiography as an avid film-goer.

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It was a production in which several of Leone’s dreams came true: to work with Henry Fonda – a hero of his youth in suburban Rome – to make a star of Charles Bronson as he had of Clint Eastwood, to integrate musical score and visual image by recording the music in advance of filming, to reboot some of the most hallowed moments of Hollywood Westerns, while shooting among the buttes and mesas of Monument Valley, John Ford territory.

An inspiration to several generations of filmmakers worldwide, its reputation has steadily grown. This book, by the world-renowned authority on Sergio Leone Sir Christopher Frayling, includes revealing personal interviews with all the key players involved in Once Upon a Time in the West –  in front of the camera and behind it. Among them, an interview with Bernardo Bertolucci who wrote the story outline for the film provides a bridge between Bertolucci’s early low-budget films and his later international successes. Also included are a wealth of never-before-published documents, designs and photographs, and the latest research into the making of a masterpiece, shot by shot. It is introduced with an in-depth foreword by Quentin Tarantino, who cites the film as a major influence on his career.

2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the international release of Once Upon a Time in the West and this richly illustrated book is a fabulous tribute.

 

Christopher Frayling is an award-winning broadcaster and writer on film, design and popular culture. He has written the definitive biography of Sergio Leone, curated a major world-touring exhibition on his work, published a classic study of the Spaghetti Western phenomenon and provided commentaries to Leone DVDs and television documentaries. He was Rector of London’s Royal College of Art from 1996 to 2009, and also served as Chairman of the Arts Council of England and a Governor of the British Film Institute. He was Professor of Cultural History at the RCA for over 30 years and is now Professor Emeritus. He was knighted in 2000 for services to art and design education. Once Upon a Time in the West is published in hardback by Reel Art Press, RRP $75/£50.
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