Away from the gun-slinging, blood and sand of Leone's Western opus is a moment of honesty and tenderness which went on to sum up the director's career...
“You don’t understand, Jill. People like that have something inside… something to do with death.” – Cheyenne (Jason Robards) to Jill Mcbain (Claudia Cardinale), Once Upon A Time In The West (Sergio Leone, 1968).
As the conclusion of the four main characters’ counter-manoeuvring in Leone’s gunsmoke-opera plays out in a climactic shoot-out between snake-hearted hired gun Frank (Henry Fonda) and his implacable nemesis Harmonica (Charles Bronson), the weary-sounding bandit leader Cheyenne nails home a bittersweet message to the aggrieved widow Jill McBain. Even should Harmonica emerge triumphant through the homestead door, in her new-found role of town-builder and figurehead of burgeoning civilisation Jill will have to figure without the company of either of her unlikely protectors.
Cheyenne’s line has since been adopted as a cypher for Leone’s career, Christopher Frayling taking Something To Do With Death as the title for his definitive Leone biography in 2000
As Fonda’s Frank breathes his last in the dust outside, realising in his dying moments Harmonica’s origins in his blood-smeared past, the avenger’s whole raison d’être expires with him. Intoning an unconvincing promise to visit Sweetwater again someday, Bronson, as Cheyenne predicts, picks up his bag and walks out the door. The bandit announces regretfully he has to go too, falling in behind Harmonica, but barely making it a couple of hundred yards down the trail. Once of out Jill’s eyeshot, the reason for Cheyenne’s earlier discomfort becomes clear; winged by a bullet in an earlier scrape with dying railway magnate Morton, the bandit leader berates Bronson into looking the other way as he fades on the path. Heaving Cheyenne’s lifeless form onto the back of his horse, Bronson again saddles up, and as the clanking of the railway crew heralds the inexorable march of prosperity to the McBains’ previously barren sandpatch, the two western stereotypes fade from the scene.
Cheyenne’s line has since been adopted as a cypher for Leone’s career, Christopher Frayling taking Something To Do With Death as the title for his definitive Leone biography in 2000. Misunderstood in most territories on its initial release, Once Upon A Time In the West is now recognised as the director’s artistic high water mark, a testament to the myths of the old west tottering on the edge of extinction in the face of big business and progress. The no-prospects status of the gunfighter, as civilisation drives its shiny rails towards the pacific seaboard, is captured perfectly in Cheyenne’s succinct line.
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