Once Upon A Time in the West – Opening Scene

The opening scene from Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) may very well be the greatest opening scene of any film ever. And I mean ever, I can’t even think of anything remotely close, save maybe the insane shoot-out from The Wild Bunch (1968) (a film which will be featured prominently in this series). In fact, the opening scene of this film is actually so good that it ultimately makes the rest of an excellent film seem anti-climactic. And while this film features Henry Fonda in his only role as a villain, which he plays brilliantly, and Charlie Bronson is an ass kicker with a harmonica, the opening scene is not only the greatest scene of any Leone film—which is saying a lot— but quite possibly one of the all time best. The only problem with it is that it comes too early in the film and doesn’t last long enough. Between the fly in the gun barrel, the plank wood train depot, the insane close-ups, and the impeccable pacing, this may be cinema at its most playfully gripping.

Hat tip to Luke Waltzer for sending in this request almost immediately after I tweeted the series. Which means I do accept requests, but they are run through a very stringent filter that only the best or worst scenes will survive 🙂

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11 Responses to Once Upon A Time in the West – Opening Scene

  1. Alan Levine says:

    Oh man, how have I missed this one? “You brought two too many”…

    And the angles are superb.

    Mmmmmm bring on the spaghetti.

  2. Brad says:

    You know I usually love to argue with you, but I can’t bring myself to do it here. Brilliantly played, sir; this scene is immortal & probably will continue to go down as one of the greatest openers in cinema history – if not THE best. I would say one of the few things that might rival it is West Side Story’s opening sequence, but the insanity that racks Once Upon A Time (plus Bronson) pretty much trumps.

    Did anyone have better lines written for them than Bronson? Negatory.

  3. Luke says:

    This scene features non other than Woody Strode, who played football at UCLA with Jackie Robinson and then became the first black player in the NFL, before turning to a successful movie career.

    I love the control and pacing of this scene, and the whole movie is conducted with similar mastery… a singular performance by Fonda, and great turns by Bronson and Jason Robards. Bravo!

  4. Reverend says:

    Yeah, the “two too many” line sends tingles down my spine. The whole scene is almost operatic, there is some real Puccini in Leone’s best scenes.

    I think that is one of the weaknesses of this pick, there really isn’t much to argue, it’s just genius—pure and simple. I figure I would work on my layups until I move to Piranha, Alligator, and the like 🙂

    Nice call with Woody Strode, his performances in both Gladiator and The Man who Shot Liberty Valence are amazing. And following your link to Wikipedia I learned he was one of John ford’s dearest friends, which suggests I know so little about Ford. So while I am dogging John Huston these days, I am re-discovering the sheer and utter brilliance of Ford (who may be the greatest director of the 20th century)—and I really want to go in search of a biography of his. Thanks for this clip, it is pure gold, and it don’t hurt that Woody Strode is a Bruin, because I actually saw this film for the first time in Melnitz Hall while a student at UCLA. The connections never stop 🙂

  5. This is a splendid scene, nearly Tarkovskyian in its pacing.

    This whole movie is glorious. I can watch it every year: the Wagnerian climax, the heroine’s sick scenes with Fonda, every moment with Fonda the villian…

  6. Pingback: Raiders of the Lost Ark—Opening sequence at bavatuesdays

  7. Jared Stein says:

    I gotta agree with you completely on the comparison to “The Wild Bunch”, which has its own a stand-out opening sequence not just for the shoot-out, but for dirty, propped-up or ill-used atmosphere of the town, from the tent revival to the kids torturing the scorpions et al.

    @Bryan I’m glad someone else appreciates that Tarkovskyan pacing enough to point it out. Before Tarkovsky we might have had to stretch and say Welleian, but I’m glad we don’t.

  8. jaykay says:

    I agree with you – one of the most phenomenal opening sequences to any movie ever made !

    However, I love the rest of the movie too, so definitely dont see what comes after as anticlimactic, its merely a wonderfully grandiose introduction that sets the time and place of a story perfectly, and introduces us to some of the characters inhabiting that sweeping ultrawidescreen panoramic landscape.

    While a very different movie, Blade Runner also for me, has one of the most stunning opening sequences I’ve ever seen – my jaw literally dropped to the floor when I first witnessed it in on the big screen.

    • Reverend says:


      I agree with but Once Upon a Tim in the West, I may have u=overstated how limp the rest of the film is in comparison in the opening scene, but still have to beleive when anyone thinks of this film, that opening scene sets the standard.

      As for Blade Runner, I agree with you too. Not only the crazy fire in the eye, but also the Leon interview, which I am getting ready to blog about, and uplaoded here:
      So brilliant!

      Thanks for the comment.

  9. Darwin Kandt says:

    I bet Dennis VanDerGinst would say the same thing.

  10. John Parus says:

    Strode wasn’t in Gladiator. He played one in the epic Spartacus and has the great fight scene of him as a Retarius vs Kirk Douglas as a Parmularius / Thracian but not fully equipped as either of them would have been.


    I also liked him in The Professionals, a western with some serious names in it. Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, Jack Palance, Claudia Cardinale, Ralph Bellamy

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