The railroad rushes westward, bringing power and progress with it, in Sergio Leone’s grandest spaghetti western, an operatic homage to Hollywood’s mythology of the Old West.

Film details

Cast & Credits


“Stunningly summarizing the formal and thematic preoccupations of his early work, Leone created a very personal fresco of surpassing scope and grandeur.”
Richard Corliss, Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, 1980

Sergio Leone brought international renown to Italian spaghetti westerns with his violent ‘Dollars’ trilogy. Written in collaboration with Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, his next film was an epic compendium of borrowed situations from the cowboy films he loved.

Beginning with a bravura, drawn-out prologue in which gunmen await the arrival of the noon train, Once upon a Time is a story of the ruthless advance of the railroad and of the dangerous men, including the mysterious Harmonica (Charles Bronson), caught up in the struggle for power.

Slow, tense showdown sequences are made electrifying by Leone’s distended widescreen compositions and Ennio Morricone’s score, which favours each of the protagonists with their own motif. Henry Fonda plays against type as the rail company’s sadistic gun-for-hire.

No less ambitious, Leone’s 1984 Once upon a Time in America is a decade-spanning gangster film beginning in the Jewish ghettoes of New York.

Latest from the BFI

  • Latest from the BFI

    Latest news, features and opinion.

More information

Films, TV and people

  • Films, TV and people

    Film lists and highlights from BFI Player.

More information

Sight & Sound magazine

  • Sight & Sound magazine

    Reviews, interviews and features from the international film magazine.

More information

Back to the top