Once Upon a Time in the West Explained: What’s Up With the Ending?

The essence and meaning of the classic Western Once Upon a Time in the Wild West (1968): plot summary, meaning idea, explanation of the ending, similar films.

Country: Italy, USA

Genre: Western, Drama, Adventure, Action

Year of production: 1968

Directed by: Sergio Leone

Cast: Claudia Cardinale, Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards

tagline: “There were three men in her life: one to pick her up, one to love her, one to kill her”

Awards: 2004 Saturn Award for Best DVD Edition of Film Classics

To a viewer who decides to immerse himself in the classics of cinema, the plot of the film “Once Upon a Time in the Wild West” (“C’era una volta il West”) may seem a little confusing, and the actions of the characters are not always logical. However, all this in some way reflects the features of the spaghetti western genre, of which this picture is a representative.

What is the movie about

So, let’s make a description and analysis of the plot of “Once Upon a Time in the Wild West”.

At the beginning of the film, we see the scene of the appearance of bandits at a remote railway station. They chase away its employees, including an old ticket-taker and a girl from an Indian tribe, and then, under the creak of an old windmill, they wait for something for a long time. One of the gang members brushes off the annoying fly, eventually driving it into the muzzle of a gun. The train arrives at the station. However, men do not see in him the one they are waiting for. So the gang is going to leave. But then a harmonica sounds, and the villains understand that their enemy is still here. As we learn later, he is nicknamed Harmonica.

Charles BronsonCharles Bronson played the role of Harmonica. Frame from the film.

Harmonica is looking for a certain Frank, but the bandits present at the station are only his servants. The musician asks if there is a horse for him. The bandit, mocking, replies that they don’t have an extra one. Then the Harmonica concludes: “There are two extra here,” meaning that he intends to take one for himself. There is a shootout, from which the musician emerges victorious.

We meet McBain, a widower farmer who hunts ducks with his youngest son. McBain’s daughter Maureen sets the table in anticipation of the arrival of her father’s bride. Family members look around anxiously – it seems that someone with bad intentions is hiding nearby. McBain promises his daughter that they will soon be rich. The eldest son Patrick is going to the station to meet the guest. Suddenly, a gunshot rings out and Maureen falls dead. Then a few more – and McBain and Patrick are also killed.

Only the farmer’s youngest son survives. The bandits show up. One of them asks if it makes sense to kill the boy. The ringleader answers in the affirmative, because the accomplice called him by his name – Frank. So the child can talk about it. The villain points a gun at the boy and fires a shot.

Meanwhile, McBain’s fiancée named Jill arrives in town. Having met no one at the station, she goes in a stagecoach to the ranch. The driver laughs at her name – Pure Key. After all, this is not a wonderful oasis, but only a piece of desert away from the city. The carriage passes workers building a railroad and stops at an establishment in the middle of the road that is both a stable, a smithy, and a bar. There, Jill meets a bandit named Cheyenne, who has just got rid of the officers of the law who caught him. With the help of a shot made at his request by one of the visitors of the institution, he also gets rid of the handcuffs, managing to throw a couple of phrases in the direction of Harmonica, who is also present here. The latter draws attention to the clothes of the Cheyenne servants who entered – similar jackets were worn by Frank’s accomplices. Cheyenne is sure that the Harmonica is wrong, because only his gang wears such clothes.

Henry FondaHenry Fonda played the role of Frank. Frame from the film.

Jill finally makes it to the ranch and discovers McBain’s dead family there. Having buried her chosen one, she remains in the house. Now the ranch belongs to her. After all, as it turns out, Jill and McBain secretly got married back in New Orleans, where she came from. So the girl is a full-fledged heiress.

Authorities discover at the crime scene a piece of the very clothes worn by members of the Cheyenne gang – Frank’s gang clearly tried to set them up. But the sheriff does not know about the trick, and the guardians of the law go to look for their old enemy.

Harmonica tortures the man named Wobbles, who arranged the meeting at the station, about where Frank is. But he doesn’t know anything. From the conversation, it becomes clear that Harmonica understood: Frank is throwing off his suspicions by framing the Cheyenne gang.

Jill looks around the house: nothing has been touched here, even the jewels are still there. In one of the chests, she finds a strange craft – a toy in the form of a railway station, as well as several more miniature buildings and a wooden train. At night, she hears the Harmonica playing her instrument somewhere in the yard – it looks like he is hoping to catch Frank.

Cheyenne visits the house in the morning. He is not going to harm Jill – his goal is to find out what is the point of killing McBain’s family and thereby setting him up. Alas, the girl also did not find the answer to this question.

The viewer is given part of the clue in the next episode. It turns out that businessman Morton instructed Frank to intimidate McBain. But he decided not to waste time on trifles and kill the farmer, who is a hindrance. Now he intends to eliminate Jill as well.

Claudia CardinaleThe role of Jill was played by Claudia Cardinale. Frame from the film.

The girl is about to go to the city, but in the stable she runs into Harmonica. He shows his strength by forcibly undressing Jill, but then saves Frank from accomplices who were going to kill her. This is being watched by Cheyenne with his gang.

In town, Jill meets with Wobbles and asks him to deliver a message to Frank. This means that Harmonica told about who really killed the heroine’s lover. He himself is nearby, watching Wobbles, who goes to the train to Morton and Frank. The latter guesses about the surveillance and catches Harmonica, and Wobbles is killed as punishment for revealing his whereabouts. Frank interrogates the captive who he is. But Harmonica in response only calls the names of the people killed by the villain.

Frank and his gang leave to finish what they started – he needs to deal with Jill. Taking advantage of this, Cheyenne, who was hiding, gets inside the train. He deftly kills Frank’s accomplices, leaving only the crippled Morton alive and freeing Harmonica.

Jill, meanwhile, learns that McBain was going to build a train station with all the infrastructure. So the toys found in his house are models of this big project. Those who returned to the ranch and did not find Jill Cheyenne and Harmonica guess the same. The latter gives an explanation, revealing the meaning of McBain’s adventure: the farmer specifically bought a piece of desert that no one needs yet. The thing is that the only source of water in the district is located here, and the railway, most likely, will be laid just through this place. When this happens, the owner of the land who built the station in advance will get rich.

Harmonika found out the information after reading the contents of the property documents. They also contained the words that McBain’s heirs would lose their rights if the station was not built before the railway was laid. So Cheyenne, like Harmonica, who takes a liking to Jill, forces his people to start building. However, no altruism – Cheyenne hopes to get rich, because the girl will certainly share the profit with her saviors and helpers.

Frank breaks off the agreement with Morton and takes him prisoner, leaving him in custody. He changed his mind about killing Jill. The girl, saving her life, allowed Frank to seduce herself. The villain comes up with the idea to force her to sell the ranch in order to buy it himself for next to nothing.

Jason RobardsJason Robards as Cheyenne. Frame from the film.

An auction is organized in which Frank’s men threaten the buyers to stop raising the price. However, Harmonica appears and ruins the villain’s plan. He offers a good amount – five thousand dollars. He intends to receive this money in the near future for the brought Cheyenne, whom he allegedly caught.

Cheyenne is put on a train bound for Yuma Jail. But members of his gang are already rushing to his rescue.

Frank meets with Harmonica and offers to sell him the plot for the same amount, but he refuses, again naming the people killed by the villain.

Morton offers money to Frank’s associates in exchange for killing him. They agree. However, during the attack, Frank is aided by Harmonica, who wishes to kill the villain later on his own in a fair duel.

Frank returns to Morton’s train to find members of his gang killed by Cheyenne. Morton himself is also dying – he reaches for the stream, as if remembering with his last breath about his old dream to go to the sea.

Construction of the railroad near McBain’s house is in full swing. Jill is in charge of the house. Probably, the deal that took place at the auction was canceled due to the flight of Cheyenne, and the girl is now the full owner of the ranch again. While Cheyenne is talking to Jill, the Harmonica is waiting for Frank. He knows that the villain is tormented by curiosity. Frank will definitely come back to find out who Harmonica is – and that’s what happens.

In a duel, Harmonica kills Frank. Before dying, the avenger makes it clear who he is. Once upon a time, Frank brutally killed his brother, while mocking him himself, then a child. The boy had to hold an adult brother, who was in a noose, on his shoulders and play the harmonica at the same time.

At the end, Harmonica, having accomplished his revenge, says goodbye to Jill and leaves. Cheyenne goes after him, but dies from a wound received as a result of Morton’s shot during the attack on Frank’s people.

The first train runs along the laid railway. In the ending of Once Upon a Time in the West, we see Jill greet the passengers.

The meaning of the film Once Upon a Time in the West

Before us is one of the brightest representatives of the spaghetti western, pictures about the Wild West of America, which were filmed in Italy (hence the name). Director Sergio Leone shaped him in many ways. So, when trying to understand the essence of the film and give an interpretation of the details, it is worth considering the features of the entire genre.

And these include: an archetypal plot (revenge, the search for wealth, the journey of a mysterious hero), inventive dialogues, rich visuals, close interaction between image and music, active use of suspense techniques, and interchangeability of characters. “Once Upon a Time in the West” gives it all in a concentrated form.

It is hardly worth looking for a deep hidden meaning here. The depth here is already in every frame, in every sound and word. It is in the simplicity of the plot (albeit sometimes a little confusing), and in the complexity of building the interaction of each element of the picture. There are also many references to other films that influenced the director. For example, the anticipation scene at the beginning refers to 1952’s High Noon, while the duel between Frank and Harmonica refers to 1961’s Last Sunset.

“Once Upon a Time in the Wild West” is the first part of Sergio Leone’s trilogy of unrelated paintings. Each is dedicated to a historical period that, one way or another, “toughened” America. The first is the construction of the railroad, the second is the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917 (the film A Fistful of Dynamite), the third is the era of Prohibition (the film Once Upon a Time in America).

Once Upon a Time in the West Ending explanation

The meaning of the ending of Once Upon a Time in the West also fully corresponds to what is commonly called the spirit of the spaghetti western. The revenge of the brutal hero, whose past was shrouded in darkness, has come true. He doesn’t need another award.

Conditional evil (after all, there are no purely positive or negative characters here) is defeated. The drama of what is happening, despite some elements of parody and humor, leaves a sad aftertaste.

More explanation of the ending is not required. Everyone, of course, is free to indulge in discussions about the actions of the characters and their philosophy, but it is better to leave a sense of mystery here. Otherwise, Once Upon a Time in the West risks losing a significant part of its charm.

Once Upon a Time in the Wild WestFrame from the film.

Similar films

  • A Fistful of Dollars, A Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad, the Ugly (Italy, 1964-1966): Sergio Leone’s previous so-called dollar Western trilogy;
  • High Noon (USA, 1952): another classic western;
  • “Unforgiven” (USA, 1992): a western from the famous Clint Eastwood with himself in the title role;
  • “Rango” (USA, 2011) is an entertaining western in an animated format.
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