This is the spaghetti western taken to the ultimate. The pacing is even slower than normal, the use of musical motifs even more insistent, the close-ups held for longer lengths of time – it has an operatic quality to it. It is also an anthology of western tropes – the buttes of Monument Valley, the construction of a railway, the lone guy seeking revenge, the enigmatic gunman who turns out to have a heart of gold, the “reception committee” at a station, the girl in a bath in a plush hotel who gets intruded upon….. The masterstroke is the casting of Henry Fonda as the ultra-baddy. He brings his intelligence to bear on the role and, because there are echoes of the OK Corral shoot-out and hence My Darling Clementine, he seems even worse than he really is. Because of the baggage he brings with him as the hero in all those westerns, it is difficult for the audience not to dislike him more than they would any normal villain. His brutality affects you more than it otherwise would.
The title gives away the fact that this is a fable, a harking back to the “good old days”. The railway is bringing civilisation in its wake – much the same theme as The Harvey Girls. Once Cheyenne and Harmonica realise what McBain’s grand idea was, an orgy of construction begins. At the close of the film, the camera lingers on a panorama of railway construction activity matched by similar work on the new town of Sweetwater. The era of the Wild West is about to end. The crooked businessman is dead, as is his enforcer. The good bad man – Jason Robards as Cheyenne – is dead. The golden-hearted whore owns the new town. The loner heads out into an unknown future.
At the same time, the film has the dynamics of a fairy-tale: good does triumph, evil does suffer and, along the way, we meet a multitude of unlikely characters. The ease with which Harmonica repeatedly kills baddies is almost supernatural.
You could probably fill a book spotting the quotations from Duel in the Sun, Destry Rides Again, Shane, High Noon, various OK Corral films, 3.10 to Yuma, but that is part of the point of the film. It is a homage to the western, an extremely stylised homage – perhaps it is saying that this is positively the last time that these clichés can ever be shown on screen. For the final shootout, Fonda even dresses in black.