Once Upon a Time in the West

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German title Once Upon a Time in the West
Original title C'era una volta il West
Play me the song of death Logo.png
Country of production Italy , USA
original language English
Publishing year 1968
length 165 minutes
Age rating FSK 16
Director Sergio Leone
script Dario Argento
Sergio Leone
Sergio Donati
Mickey Knox (dialogues)
production Bino Cicogna
music Ennio Morricone
camera Tonino Delli Colli
cut Nino Baragli

Successor  →
Death Melody

Once Upon a Time in the West (original title: C'era una volta il West ; English title: Once Upon a Time in the West ) is one of Sergio Leone staged spaghetti westerns from the year 1968 . The Italian-US co-production is one of the most successful films in this genre. The premiere was on December 21, 1968 in Rome. The theatrical release in the Federal Republic of Germany was on August 14, 1969.

An epic story of revenge , greed and murder unfolds around the construction of a railway line , centered around four people. In the literary sense, it is a story in a box , which is resolved in an analepse at the end of the film in a scenic retrospective ( narrative theory ).

The film is considered the first part of Leone's Once Upon a Time trilogy. The other parts are Death Melody (1971) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984). The individual parts of the trilogy have no contextual references to one another.


At the end of the 19th century, in the middle of the semi-desert in the Southwest of the USA: Three seedy gunslingers in long dust coats occupy the lonely and run-down train station Cattle Corner . A train arrives, but no traveler seems to get off. The train continues and the men turn to go, but pause when a plaintive melody is heard from a harmonica. The harmonica player got off at the back of the train. This nameless traveler had actually expected a certain "Frank", the leader of the three men. He shoots the three men and gets a shot in the left shoulder himself, but can leave the station.

Cut to the Sweetwater Farm in a dry wasteland. The widowed Irish farmer Brett McBain and his three children are preparing an outdoor party for the arrival of his wife Jill, who had recently been to New Orleans . Many guests are invited. Suddenly the silence of the crickets signals danger. A gang of men in dust coats ambush McBain and two adult children, Maureen and Patrick. Little Timmy runs out of the house, stands disturbed in front of the murderers and is finally shot by their leader after one of his accomplices has addressed him as "Frank".

Jill waits for McBain at the next town, Flagstone station. Since no one picks her up, she lets a car drive her to Sweetwater and learns from the driver that McBain is considered crazy to build a farm on this barren piece of land. During a rest on the way, she witnesses how the imprisoned drifter Cheyenne escapes his guards in a shootout and meets the enigmatic nameless harmonica player, who is not intimidated by him.

On Sweetwater, Jill is greeted by the invited guests. They laid out the four bodies on tables. Since Jill had worked as a prostitute in New Orleans and wants to escape this profession, she decides to run the farm alone as heiress. Shortly afterwards, a large amount of building material is delivered to the farm, which Jill does not know what to do with.

The sheriff suspects Cheyenne of murder, whose gang members wear long dust coats as a sign of identification. But when Cheyenne visits Jill, she realizes that he may be a crook, but not an assassin. The nameless man, alternatively called “harmonica”, arrives at Jill's farm. He sees through McBain's plans: McBain recognized early on that the wealthy railroad entrepreneur Morton had to run the route he was building to the Pacific over the area of ​​his farm, because there was the only water point in a long distance, and was speculating on a lucrative business. In order not to be forcibly expropriated, he contractually agreed to build a train station and a small town when he bought the land. With the murder, Morton apparently wanted to create a free path. The nameless man sets out with Jill to make McBain's plan a reality.

An argument breaks out between Morton, who suffers severely from bone tuberculosis and can only get around with aids, and the criminal Frank who works for him, because McBain was intimidated by Frank, but not shot. Frank is now supposed to neutralize Jill, but secretly plans to own the farm himself, and begins an erotic relationship with Jill. For her own protection, she agrees to it, even after Frank admitted the murder of the family to her. Personally, however, she is far more interested in the nameless, who does not reply.

At Frank's pressure, Jill has the farm with the building materials auctioned off. But none of those present made a serious bid, as Frank's people intimidated everyone. Shortly before Morton comes to the country at a ridiculous price, “Harmonica” offers ten times as much and finances it by delivering the wanted Cheyenne to the sheriff. Cheyenne is not sent to the local prison as expected, but is said to be moved to a more distant, safer prison in Yuma on Morton's train .

After Frank tries unsuccessfully to buy the farm back from the Nameless Man, he becomes involved in a shootout with his own people, who were generously paid by Morton to kill Frank after he became too dangerous for Morton. Frank is inexplicably supported by the nameless. Meanwhile, Cheyenne is freed by his gang from Morton's platoon, with almost all members of both gangs being killed. Morton himself dies not far from his train at the edge of a dirty puddle of water, mocked by Frank, who had come to settle accounts with him.

Finally, behind the construction site of the Sweetwater town, there is a showdown between Frank and the nameless man who was waiting for him there. The nameless one wins the duel and sticks his harmonica between the dying Frank's teeth. Thereby he reveals himself to Frank. In a flashback you can see how the brother of the then still young nameless man was cruelly murdered by Frank: He had to stand with his neck in a sling on his young brother's shoulders, then Frank and his men watched in amusement until the boy exhausted, collapsed and hanged his brother. Before that, Frank had put the harmonica in his mouth and told him to play him "the song of death" (German dubbing. In the original he says: "Keep your loving brother happy").

Meanwhile, Cheyenne arrives at the McBain farm, where Jill is waiting for the nameless one, and explains to her that it is pointless: He is the kind of man who takes their bundle and moves on without turning around. And so it actually happens when the nameless one returns from the duel with Frank. To Jill's farewell greeting that Sweetwater will be waiting for him, he replies evasively (in German dubbing): "Someone is always waiting" and leaves. (In the English original, Jill tells him that she hopes he will come back one day ("someday"), to which he replies with "Someday" and leaves her hoping for a future together.) Cheyenne follows him at first, but then falls off his horse and dies of the shot in the stomach he got when he was freed from Morton after he didn't want to shoot the seriously ill himself.

The nameless man rides away with Cheyenne's body on his horse without bothering about the first train to arrive at Sweetwater, the newly built station on McBain Farm. Jill sees a bright future ahead and, following Cheyenne's advice, provides the workers with refreshments.



After Sergio Leone with glorious Two scoundrels (1966) its dollar trilogy had been completed, he wanted no spaghetti western rotate more, but the gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America stage. But since he could not find a sponsor who believed in the audience success of his gangster film, he decided to do another western. Leone initially wanted to work with United Artists , which had already distributed his three previous films. But since he insisted on Charles Bronson as the leading actor, there was no agreement. Leone then found a partner in the US American Paramount who matched his casting request and also made a higher budget available compared to his previous films : 3 million US dollars was more than twice as much as his predecessor film Two Glorious Scoundrels ( 1.3 million dollars). Play Me a Song of Death was Leone's first US production.

Story development

Leone developed the operatic story of the film together with Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci . He then wrote the final script with Sergio Donati , it was translated into English by Mickey Knox . Leone was urged to cast a major US star in the lead role of harmonica player. However, the director insisted on Charles Bronson, who had worked in Hollywood for decades but had only distinguished himself in supporting roles ( The Dirty Dozen , 1966). Leone wanted the weathered Bronson because "he has a face that could stop a locomotive". He offered the role of the sadistic killer Frank to Henry Fonda , who until then had only played positive characters. Fonda didn't want to play her at first, but then found pleasure in making a fundamental change in image in the film. He appeared on the set with what he thought was a bad guy matching brown contact lenses and an unshaven face, but Leone convinced him to play the character with his own steel blue eyes.

Film music

The background music also serves as an essential design feature for Leone in this film. He staged entire passages to the rhythm of the music that the composer Ennio Morricone had already completed before filming began. Different melodies characterize the individual protagonists. The plaintive harmonica (played by Franco de Gemini ), which gives the main character the nickname , is the key to understanding the plot, but it is only presented at the end of the film. Your "Song of Death" is one of the most famous film compositions of all.

The almost operatic music was unusual for the time and the genre. Each main character has its own musical theme, which is taken up again and again as a leitmotif , which gives the film an epic character. The wordless vocals of the Italian singer Edda Dell'Orso during the theme music for the “Jill” McBain character are particularly convincing . In contrast, in the 13-minute opening scene, there is no extra-diegetic music whatsoever , only natural sounds are used instead. Initially, Leone wanted to underlay this with a composition by Morricone. But after attending a John Cage-style concert, the composer suggested using a sound collage instead, which - more and more condensed - would eventually culminate in the harmonica melody. The desertedness of the station is underlined by the silence and the monotonous noises of a wind turbine, which can be heard from the start, but which only explain themselves to the viewer after three and a half minutes, when the wind turbine comes into view for the first time. The noises are the means of creating tension, they take on the function of a soundtrack. Each of the three bandits has its own sound, its musical theme, so to speak. Drops of water hitting the hat; the cracking of the finger joints; the buzzing fly. The noises swell, the various themes are accompanied by the rustling of the wind and the squeaking of the wind turbine. The sound collage is thus condensed, which creates a special tension. The arriving train introduces the climax of the sound palette. The panting and puffing of the boiler of the stopping locomotive is reminiscent of heavy breathing. With the appearance of the harmonica, diegetic music also begins. The natural sound palette has to give way, but not without reason. The three subjects fall silent as the men they are assigned to die. This scene is in stark contrast to the end of the film, which is practically only accompanied by music.


The exterior shots were taken near Tabernas province of Almería and near Quadix at the train station of "La Calahorra", province of Granada in Spain, the interior shots in the Roman Cinecittà studios. The film was also shot in Monument Valley in Arizona and in Utah , where director John Ford once staged many major US westerns. In the end credits one thanks the representatives of the Navajo for their support in their Indian reservation there .


The film has a special imagery with long shots and wide-angle shots , such as the desert landscape of Monument Valley . The extravagant film cut is already apparent at the beginning, when a locomotive whistles over the camera position in a hard cut . H. over the viewer, drives. In the further course different brackets lead from one scene to the next.


Leone had planned to have the three killers portrayed in the opening sequence by the main cast of the previous film Two Glorious Scoundrels . Lee van Cleef and Eli Wallach agreed, but Clint Eastwood was not available because he was already filming Hangs Him Higher . The actor Al Mulock , who is beginning to see the film as a finger cracking Bandit and even in Bad and the Ugly had occurred, committed during the filming suicide by jumping in his costume from the hotel window. His two cronies were played by Woody Strode and Jack Elam .

The cast of Henry Fonda as the murderous bandit Frank came as a surprise to the cinema audience, as Fonda was best known for his embodiment of good and upright characters. His appearance as Frank therefore meant a radical change in roles. For Charles Bronson , the role of the "harmonica" meant the breakthrough to an international film star, after he had mostly only played supporting roles, e.g. in 1954 as Charles Buchinsky alongside Jack Elam in Vera Cruz , in which Bronson also played the harmonica. For example, in his next two films, Friends do not “sing” at Bullen and Der aus dem Regen came in the lead role.


The German dubbed version was created in 1968 by Berliner Synchron GmbH under the direction of Gert Günther Hoffmann .

role actor German Dubbing voice
Frank Henry Fonda Ernst Wilhelm Borchert
Jill McBain Claudia Cardinale Beate Hasenau
Harmonica man Charles Bronson Michael Chevalier (additional sentence for the long TV version: Thomas Albus )
Manuel "Cheyenne" Gutiérrez Jason Robards Arnold Marquis
Mr. Morton Gabriele Ferzetti Paul Edwin Roth
Brett McBain Frank Wolff Martin Hirthe
Flagstone Sheriff Keenan Wynn Hans Wiegner
Coachman Sam Paolo Stoppa Wolfgang Amerbacher
barman Lionel Stander Eduard Wandrey
Snaky, first gunslinger Jack Elam Gert Günther Hoffmann
Stony, second gunslinger Woody Strode Edgar Ott
An assistant to Frank Benito Stefanelli Klaus Sunshine

Changes in the German dubbed version

The sentence that gives the title in German-speaking countries "Play me the song of death" does not appear in the original English version of the film. In the German dubbing, Frank says this sentence in the flashback of the lynch scene to the nameless when he shoves a harmonica between his teeth. The nameless man has obviously kept this harmonica and plays it regularly - hence the nickname “harmonica” used by Cheyenne for him. In the English original, however, Frank says in this situation “Keep your loving brother happy” (for example: “Keep your beloved brother happy”). Because of the change in the text and the lack of information as a result, it is often assumed that the murdered person is the father of the nameless because of the apparently large age difference in the German-speaking world. Last but not least, the German title Spiel mir das Lied vom Tod also changes the focus of the plot - the film becomes more of a story of the nameless, while the English title Once Upon a Time in the West places more emphasis on the overall storyline and the modernization changing "time in the west". It should not be forgotten that "Once upon a time ..." is the opening phrase of many English-language fairy tales, comparable to the German "Once upon a time ...". This underlines the role of the Western as a myth and legend.

The German dubbing tends to be slightly changed or over-phrased in some scenes. A few scenes can be identified in which lines of dialogue have been placed in the mouth of a figure whose lip movements cannot be seen due to perspective or montage. In the German version, Frank says “The Pacific, huh?” To the fatally wounded railroad baron Morton, who absolutely wanted to reach the Pacific Ocean with his train and is now dying face down in a muddy puddle. In individual scenes, this even changes the statement: When they first met at the rest stop, Cheyenne denied the nameless person's question as to whether the three men shot at the station were his men, with the words: “My men do not commit any massacres.” In the original he says, however, “My men don't get killed”.

After little Timmy McBain meets the murderers of his family at the beginning of the film, one of the men speaks to Frank by name and asks him what to do with him (Timmy), whereupon Frank shoots Timmy. In the German version, Frank forbids being addressed by name beforehand. In the English original, Frank replies: "Now that you've called me by name ..." ("now that you've called me by name ..."). In the English original, Timmy is killed because one of the men named Frank's name. In the German version, it remains unclear whether Frank didn't want to murder him anyway.

In contrast to the French or Spanish versions, for example, the German dubbed version has shifted the content, which is already clearly expressed in the title. While Sergio Leone recorded a typical fairytale formula with C'era una volta il West , the German title characterizes the film as a brutal spaghetti western.

The figures have been reinterpreted accordingly. While harmonica and Frank are more clearly presented as "tough guys", Cheyenne and Jill appear more romantically inclined. When Cheyenne shaves at Sweetwater's house towards the end of the film, Jill compliments him and at the same time makes an offer that is simply reversed by the German version:

Jill: "Hey, you're sort of a handsome man."

Cheyenne: “But I am not the right man. And neither is he (= harmonica). "

J .: "Maybe not and it doesn't matter."

Ch .: “You don't understand, Jill. People like that have something inside. Something to do with death. If that fella lives, he'll come in through that door, pick up his gear and say adiós . It would be nice to see this town grow. " (02:25:30)

Jill: "Hey Cheyenne, and tired?"

Cheyenne: “We all get tired at times. He (= harmonica) doesn't. "

J .: "Yes, maybe, but that doesn't matter."

Ch .: “A woman doesn't understand that, Jill. Men like him can't help it. They live with death. And if he comes in here now, he'll take his things off the nail, disappear, and won't even turn around. I'll stay here if that's what you want. "

Cheyenne's life experience and wisdom in Once Upon a Time in the West turn into exhaustion and longing for a regular life. In Spiel mir das Lied von Tod , the bandit Cheyenne wants to build a civic existence and stay with Jill (although he knows that he is fatally injured and will soon die), to which she does not react at all. In Once Upon a Time in the West, however, Jill is looking for a man to stand by her side, whether Cheyenne or harmonica. In Spiel mir das Lied von Tod, however, Jill's pragmatism turns into romance: because she only wants the one, only harmonica.

The last dialogue between Jill and the nameless one ("Sweetwater is waiting for you." - "Someone is always waiting.") Seems more banal in the original, but at the same time less final: "I hope you come back some day." - "Some day." ("I hope you come back one day." - "One day.")

Success and importance in film history

Play me the song of death is called the first part of a trilogy that still consists of the films Death Melody (1971) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984). The works are often called the Once Upon a Time or America Trilogy , because the original title of the first part is C'era una volta il West (Once upon a time the West) and Leone's original title C'era una for Death Melody volta… la rivoluzione! (Once upon a time ... the revolution!) Planned; In addition, all of these films deal with defining sections of American history, hence the title America Trilogy .

When the film Game Me, a Song of Death, started in the United States , it didn't find an audience there. The audience, who were enthusiastic about the tough and cynical dollar trilogy , could not make friends with the rather operatic film. Play me the song of death was also significantly shortened for the US launch, so that the viewer could not understand many contextual connections. In 1980, with Michael Cimino's Heaven’s Gate, a similarly epic western turned into one of the most expensive flops in film history after also severe cuts.

In Europe, where the film was shown in different lengths, Spiel mir das Lied von Tod developed into a cult film and a great success after a rather weak theatrical release . Especially in France and Germany, Leone's epic western became one of the most popular and well-known films and was shown regularly for decades. Charles Bronson achieved his breakthrough to superstar with this film - and for years he varied the role of the silent avenger and gunslinger with great success.

Play Me a Song of Death is perceived as lengthy by some viewers, but it is widely recognized as a masterpiece and has become part of popular culture . Some synchronous dialogues found their way into German as idioms (for example “Somebody is always waiting!”) And many scenes are part of the collective memory of the cinema audience (opening sequence, lynch scene).

The film grossed almost $ 60 million worldwide, making it a gigantic success for its cost. It remained the most successful western ever produced until 1990, when Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves surpassed him with grossing $ 424.2 million. Play me the song of death is still one of the most famous westerns today.

The legendary first sentence of the nameless, the question “Where is Frank?”, Is a clear allusion to the cinematic model twelve o'clock (High Noon) , where gangster Frank Miller actually arrives by train in an iconic scene and meets three cronies. who have been waiting for him. The nameless one in Spiel mir das Lied von Tod arranges the three villains who are waiting for him with his question in a great prehistory and at the same time makes it clear that times have changed: the upright sheriffs have disappeared and people like Morton have each other enforced.

Leone saw his work as a kind of " conclusion " of the western genre: Many elements and scenes allude to genre classics, such as The Black Falcon (1956), My Great Friend Shane (1953), Johnny Guitar (1955), Twelve Noon (1952 ), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Iron Horse (1924).

Ennio Morricone's film music, whose importance extends beyond the film itself, played a major role in the film's popularity . The theme song in particular became an evergreen .

Movie reviews

“'Once Upon a Time in the West' is an account of a trip to a distant land called America, which means Atlantis . Paradise Lost . From his trip Leone brought back images of the Promised Land , images of a longing and a dream . He linked these images with the means of a popular Mediterranean art form, opera. [...] And by committing American images to a European structure, Leone makes their beauty tangible as that of a dream. Paradise Regained: The painful awareness of the futility of reproducing the dream unbroken in every shot ensures the authenticity of the unreal for the film. "

"The film deserves to be regarded as one of the greatest westerns ever made."

- The Motion Picture Guide

“Sergio Leone's baroque horse opera is the résumé, climax and apotheosis of the Spaghetti Western, whereby classic genre models are subjected to an idiosyncratic reinterpretation. The style of the film pays homage to the myths of American history and drives them to a pessimistic, often cynical resolution. In dramaturgy , installation , equipment and background music a model of perfect cinema entertainment. "

“The whole thing is like a modern opera, which without the overwhelming music by Ennio Morricone would probably only be worth half. Conclusion: Ultimate game with the western myths. "

“Leone has created an extremely tough Western, proven his sense of good humor in detail and underlined the whole thing with images that burn into the consciousness. 'Play me the song of death' is a masterpiece that will continue to fascinate generations to come. "

- Richard Rendler : Filmreporter.de



  • Ulrich P. Bruckner: For a few more corpses. The spaghetti western from its beginnings until today. Schwarzkopf & Schwarzkopf, Berlin 2002.
  • Bianca Busch: Ennio Morricone's music in C'era una volta il west . University of Cologne, December 2012.
  • Robert C. Cumbow: Once upon a time: The Films of Sergio Leone. The Scarecrow Press, London 1987.
  • Christopher Frayling: Sergio Leone. Something to do with death. Faber and Faber, London / New York 2000.
  • Kim Newman: Play me a song of death. In: Steven Jay Schneider (Ed.): 1001 films. Edition Olms, Zurich 2004, ISBN 3-283-00497-8 , p. 489.
  • Andreas Rauscher: Play me the song of death - C'era una volta il West. In: Bernd Kiefer, Norbert Grob with the collaboration of Marcus Stiglegger (Ed.): Film genres - Westerns. Reclam junior, Stuttgart 2003, ISBN 3-15-018402-9 , pp. 297-301.
  • Harald Steinwender: Sergio Leone. Once upon a time in Europe. Bertz and Fischer, Berlin 2009, ISBN 978-3-86505-308-4 .
  • Sandra Uebbing: Finding America: Tradition and Transformation of Myths in Sergio Leone's Films. Nomos, Baden-Baden 2009, ISBN 978-3-8329-4374-5 .
  • Christopher Frayling: Once upon a time in the West - Shooting a Masterpiece - Foreword by Quentin Tarantino. RAP, London 2019, ISBN 978-1-909526-33-4 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Cenk Kiral: An Exclusive Interview With Mickey Knox on fistful-of-leone.com from April 9, 1998, accessed on October 2, 2014 (English).
  2. Stefan Höpel: Waiting for "Harmonica", where the song of the great westerns played , taz, April 1, 2009
  3. Once Upon a Time in Almería Archives. Retrieved March 3, 2020 (American English).
  4. Play me the song about death in the German dubbing file
  5. ^ Ralf Junkerjürgen: Sergio Leone: C'era una volta il West . In: Andrea Grewe; Giovanni di Stefano (ed.): Italian films of the 20th century in individual presentations . Erich Schmidt, Berlin 2015, p. 245-249 .
  6. See: Bonus material: CD2 chapter “An Opera Of Violence” from minute 15:17 DVD edition Paramount 2003
  7. Quoted from Joe Hembus : Das Westernlexikon , 3rd edition 1976, p. 610.
  8. Play me the song of death. In: Lexicon of International Films . Film service , accessed March 2, 2017 .Template: LdiF / Maintenance / Access used 
  9. Cinema.de: film review
  10. filmreporter.de
  11. loc. Gov