Bring Back a Sample of Dirt: Costuming “Once Upon a Time in the West”

“Once Upon a Time in the West”, 1968. Paramount Pictures


Historical realism or film history? Confirming to the idea of dynamic roles and narrative function or spectatorial statements? I always ask myself this predicament when it comes to film costumes. I think it has to be both. But nobody has achieved this quite like Sergio Leone. And the creative mind behind the look of his films was Carlo Simi, who was production and costume designer. His costumes for Sergio Leone’s films had a comic-book panache, were astounding, cool, just like the characters were larger-than-life, but without being out of place, without being fake-looking. They were original, but accurate as well. They are iconic, but not in the sense of being pop culture pervasive and influential – a successful film costume doesn’t have to translate well in everyday life, despite modern-day filmmakers who believe everything must relate to the modern audiences even if the story is decades old. They are iconic because they are an intrinsic part of the iconography of his films. Sergio Leone’s film costumes have no life outside the world in his films. They were made to live in those stories. That’s what makes them real for the characters. There’s a moment of truth in all Sergio Leone’s films, even if it’s through the filter of cinema.

The dusters in Once Upon a Time in the West belong to that film alone. “The dusters were a mania of his,” Carlo Simi recounted Sergio Leone’s interest in the long coats of his characters to Christopher Frayling. “We went to look at costumes kept in the Western Costume house in California, and we happened to find these beautiful dusters, which were dustcoats for riding. They had also been shown in the film by John Ford, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in the flashback. They were white, so we changed them to chocolate brown. Before we changed them, they looked like they were worn by ice-cream vendors.” The Man who Shot Liberty Valance was, as it’s well known, a big influence for Leone and his favourite John Ford film. “Because Ford finally, at the age of almost sixty-five, finally understood what pessimism is all about,” Leone said in an interview in 1982. “In fact, with that film, Ford succeeded in eating up all his previous words about the West – the entire discourse he had been promoting from the very beginning of his career.” Paul Duncan endorses this view in John Ford: The Complete Films: “In movies as disparate as The Grapes of Wrath, My Darling Clementine and The Searchers, Ford had nudged his characters toward a final ascendence to myth; now, he begins the film with the myth and methodically deconstructs it on the way to a mournful irony.”

Leone brought cynicism and irony, craziness, boldness and machismo to the clichés of Western cinema, letting a picaresque spirit intrude on dramatic events, where no true hero is represented by a single character in the story that sees rapacious civilization take over the wide open spaces of the West. In Leone’s unique vision, historical reality and the realistic settings give us the conviction of fantasy. The style was brave, but the tone was pessimistic. The movie was a western, but it not only rewrote the conventions of the Western, but became a new language for cinema, embracing purely cinematic elements of filmmaking. Sergio Leone even had the flair to use in the title of his film the stock phrase that introduces the narrative of fairy tales and folk tales, and the title alone already carries a legendary, fantastical air. Once Upon a Time… And the greatest award for the viewer is that the film rises up to that myth and timelessness.

“Once Upon a Time in the West”, 1968. Paramount Pictures

“The costumes pop before the characters,” Quentin Tarantino writes in the forward to the book Once Upon a Time in the West: Shooting a Masterpiece. They do, but they further attract the attention onto the characters.
Cheyenne: “Are you interested in fashions, Harmonica?” Jason Robards asks Charles Bronson when the latter takes an interest in one of Cheyenne’s men’s dusters.
Harmonica: “I saw three of these dusters a little while ago. Inside the dusters there were three men.”
Cheyenne: “So?”
Harmonica: “Inside the men there were three bullets.”
Cheyenne: “That’s a crazy story, Harmonica. First, nobody in these parts have the guts to wear those dusters besides Cheyenne’s men. Second, Cheyenne’s men don’t get killed.”
“Leone once said they were like suits of armour,“ Tarantino continues. “The dusters in Once Upon a Time in the West are their suits of armour. And they have this pop cultural zeitgeist to them. Like the pink shirt and the tan vest that were populating the American westerns don’t have. When you think that all of Sergio Leone’s westerns and most of Sergio Corbucci’s were the work of Carlo Simi – as costume designer and production designer: the man who came up with the Django costume and the Man with No Name costume, the man who found the circular graveyard and the bullring at the end of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly… I mean, it’s unfathomable… The dusters in Once Upon a Time in the West, like the trenchcoats in Melville’s films, are timeless…”

“Once Upon a Time in the West”, 1968. Paramount Pictures

And just like in Melville’s films, Leone’s characters have no time for women because they are too busy trying to survive. And you kind of feel their urgency. Cheyenne’s men’s dusters are a signature for them and a trick Henry Fonda’s Frank uses to frame them for the massacre. “And those long coats, those dusters. He had a pile of books of photographs of ranch hands wearing dusters to protect themselves from all the dust,” Mickey Knox, who translated the script in English, himself rememberers. “So he had to feature them. In American Westerns, they all wore tight pants with gun belts. But scripts are funny things, you know. It sounds great when you write them, and you are sitting there reading them to yourself. But then the actors have to speak the lines! They are different for some reason.”

And if there was any doubt why these characters come across as mythical creatures, Leone’s words clarifies it: “Once Upon a Time in the West was from start to finish a dance of death. All the characters in the film, except Claudia, are conscious of the fact that they will not arrive at the end alive…”
Frank: “Morton once told me I could never be like him. Now I understand why. Wouldn’t have bothered him, knowing you were around somewhere alive.”
Harmonica: “So you found out you’re not a businessman after all.”
Frank: “Just a man.”
Harmonica: “An ancient race. Other Mortons’ll be along, and they’ll kill it off.“
Frank:“The future don’t matter to us – nothing matters now, not the land, not the money, not the woman. I came here to see you, ’cause I know that now you’ll tell me what you’re after“,
Harmonica: “Only at the point of dyin’.”
Frank: “I know.”
But Leone did put a woman in Once Upon a Time. In fact, Claudia Cardinale’s Jill is the character that is at the center of the story and “accorded a kind of existential solitude and strength normally reserved to the men in Westerns,” John Fawell comments in The Art of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West: A Critical Appreciation. Women had usually been allotted stereotypical parts in Westerns – wife, saloon showgirl, prostitute, or rancher daughters (with some notable exceptions, of course, of female gunfighters, outlaws and gamblers, like Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious, Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns, Joan Crawford and Mercedes MacCambridge in Johnny Guitar). In Once Upon a Time, Claudia is, too, at origins, a prostitute from New Orleans, but she becomes a western pioneer woman, a fact also symbolised through costume, when Harmonica tears her Eastern finery, the white bright lace, off of her black crinoline dress. And by that, he also makes her “a less easy target for Frank’s assassins,” John Fawell concludes, signaling instead the arrival of a new era and the driving force in American life that women would play from then on.

“Once Upon a Time in the West”, 1968. Paramount Pictures


When Henry Fonda reveals his face in Once Upon a Time in the West, another big American movie cliché was capsized. Fonda had thus far been associated with the family man, with the good guy, with the classic hero, with Wyatt Earp, and that’s what the audiences were expecting to see. But there is nothing good about his stone-faced, piercing blue-eyed Frank – “He played a gunman like no-one else could,” Leone said. “Icy cold, very stiff, merciless. You could tell immediately that he and never attended the Actors’ Studio.” – and watching Henry Fonda in this film is one of my most satisfying experiences for a cinephile.

Fonda declared that Leone had chosen him specifically “to heighten the anticipation of his character’s entrance,” as Ennio Morricone tells Alessandro de Rosa in the book Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words. “The viewers were supposed to see a strange figure stooping over the little boy paralyzed by fear. At that point, the camera would pan around the actor’s back and with a circular movement it would reveal his face.” The distorted electric guitar that introduced the theme of the character was used to further heighten that suspense. It was as shocking as the kid seeing his family killed and being himself killed thereafter. And as shocking as Henry Fonda playing the villain. Clad in black (a black covered in the dust present everywhere in that wide desert), his presence not only portends bad things to come, but represents death itself.

They filmed Hank’s hideout both in America and Rome, at Cinecittà, and they had to match the colours of the exterior to the interior. To make sure Simi remembered the exact colour, Leone sent someone to America to bring back a sample of that earth and dust. Mickey Knox remembers how Leone was concerned with every detail: “I can remember Henry Fonda trying on over twenty hats until they were both satisfied with the right one. I didn’t think the hat was so special…” That was the idea, I believe, not to be special, but to belong. In her book, Watt Matthews at Lambshead, about one of the great last Texas cattlemen and one of the most important figures of the Texas frontier culture, photographer Laura Wilson explains what the hat means to a cowboy, whose authority comes from meeting things head on: it “is soft so the brim will give if he hits brush; the crown is not high. On a new hat, he has the brim cut down to two and three-eighths inches so it’s perfectly proportioned to him. Then, before he wears a hat for the first time, he holds it over a steaming kettle in the cookshack, pinching and bending the felt to shape the hat into a style that’s all his own.”

Frank’s hat has plenty of close-ups, because Leone loved to shoot his actors in close-up, and you always have that uneasy feeling when those baby-blue eyes are piercing from under that Stetson. Leone said that the greatest difficulty he encountered with Fonda was that of dressing him. “No matter what I put on him – even the most worn-out old rags – he always seemed a prince, with his ‘noble’ walk and his ‘aristocratic’ bearing.” That walk does have its moments in the film, and the boots have some close-ups, too. Long, elegant, well-worn, dust-covered, black boots. We see a great close-up of them when Frank comes out of the saloon and patrols back and forth on the porch, suspicious of what’s to come, right before Harmonica kills Frank’s men who had come to kill him. The way he walks, that walk, demands attention and makes you aware of the tension. We get another close-up of the boots a little later on in the duel with Harmonica, when Frank’s boots walk the dance death.

“Once Upon a Time in the West”, 1968. Paramount Pictures

But there’s another character who is often introduced by his boots. Cheyenne. “He represents in the film the same type of character as Eli Wallach in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” Leone explained. “But with him, there is more warmth, more humanity, which, with a mixture of drollery and sadness as well, gives him a certain philosophy of life.” And “boots, along with hats and guns, are one of the most essential ingredients in the uniform of the cowboy, so as usual Leone is taking advantage of items with iconographic weight for his visual schemes,” writes John Fawell.

Harmonica was maybe the one who fit the least in this iconography. Just like Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, whose poncho was not like anything seen on an American horseman, not in a classic Western anyhow, Harmonica’s checkered coat and off-white trousers are a unique choice of costume. And just like The Man with No Name was coming from nowhere, going nowhere, without a past, without a future, we can not be sure about anything about Harmonica, and can not place him in any particular archetype, except that, as Leone explained his choice of Charles Bronson for the role, “he is the face of Destiny, with a whole world behind it, a kind of granite block, impenetrable but scarred by life“.

Sergio Leone brought authenticity back into the western. Props, sets and characters, and, yes, violence. And the dusters, too. “I haven’t invented anything – I’ve just gone back to the original. The canvas dusters were a practical kind of garment, because they were the only protection a cowboy had, when he stayed away from town out in the desert for several days at a stretch – the only protection against the terrible dust of the desert in the daytime, and the downpours of rain at night. And the dusters were good with whisky stains, too. Sometimes they were covered in buffalo grease, as a protective surface. So when the cowboys took them off, they almost stood up by themselves!” – I saw three of these dusters a little while ago. Inside the dusters there were three men. “American directors depend too much on other screenwriters and don’t go back enough into their own history. Actually, some of the westerns that were made at the very beginning of the century were closer to actuality. But, with the expansion of Hollywood, the films came to diverge more and more from historical reality.”

Editorial sources: “Once Upon a Time in the West: Shooting a Masterpiece”, by Christopher Frayling; “John Ford: The Complete Films”, by Paul Duncan and Scott Eyman; “The Art of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West: A Critical Appreciation”, by John Fawell; “Watt Matthews at Lambshead”, by Laura Wilson



Julie Christie in “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”: Revisioning the Western female character

The Man with No Name but with an Iconic Look:
Clint Eastwood in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”

Very, very natural and herself: Katharine Hepburn in “Bringing Up Baby”


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