Sergio Leone (1929-89) is one of those film-makers who provoke arguments. Was he a visual genius, a godfather of the wide screen and distended time? Was he a post-modernist who deconstructed the clichÃ©s of "the Western"? Or was he a visualising ham, cured in bombast? What no one doubts is his role in inventing the spaghetti Western, that bastard of the original genre, shot in Spain, with a couple of questionable American stars, mostly dubbed, where the story waits for the threatening close-ups to dry - the sort of thing in which comically rugged Westerners may turn into figments in a corn-flake ad. Now, with a very good biography and the re-issue of his classic film, we can wonder again where Leone (and the Western) stand.
We call his 1968 movie Once Upon a Time in the West, but Christopher Frayling, his biographer, prefers to render its original title (C'era una volta il West) as "Once Upon a Time - the West". For Leone wanted to be not just "in" the West, but throughout it - like light and dust and wind. He recognised that "the West" was no longer merely the lands of the western United States. Il West was a state of mind, a location and a mood, in the way Stephen Sondheim used the title Into the Woods to embrace all the emotional territory of fairytale.
I can go along with this theory of what Leone is doing. But it's when I see the film itself that I give up the ghost. Consider the sequence in Once Upon a Time ... in which Claudia Cardinale arrives in Utah's Monument Valley by rail from New Orleans. Never mind that there has never been a railroad in Monument Valley, nor the busy town that Leone put there. Never mind even that Cardinale (playing someone named Jill - a far-fetched name for 1870s America) has eye make-up as loaded as the guys' guns. Never mind the self-adoring crane-shot that lifts up over the train to reveal the town she walks into. What really shatters my belief is the Ennio Morricone music, which was composed and recorded first, so that the camera movements could be timed to it.
There are those who call this beautiful music. I think it's rhapsodic bathos, Mantovani doing a slow-motion pastiche of "From the New World", with heavenly singing. And it's also the flapping end of wallpaper that lets you rip away the whole fraudulent scheme, a way of seeing that all Leone did was turn the Valley and its haunting red buttes into bogus monumentality. (After him the car ads.)
My view is not widespread. Christopher Frayling's new biography regards Once Upon a Time ... as a profound and ravishing picture. I like Frayling's book: it gets the raw gusto in Leone, and it knows the Italian film scene that produced him. But I can't buy the notion of Leone as a brilliant, ironic commentator on Westerns. I think he was a victim of his own eye and of his lavish respect for attitude. His "spaghetti" pictures - notably the Dollars trilogy that made Clint Eastwood more than a TV actor - show his virtues (and his limits): a sardonic familiarity with Western situations and set-pieces; a happy acceptance of male presence - and female stereotypes; flurries of action, and the creaking clock of sinister music. But the Dollars films grew longer, and slower, as Leone's reputation built; and the restored version of Once Upon a Time... (168 minutes long) is either a feast, or time enough to wonder what else you could be doing.
Wim Wenders felt that Leone helped bury the Western, or at least to drag it to a standstill. My own regret is that, despite his famous visit to Monument Valley itself (after years of using the AlmerÃ¬a area in Spain), he did not respond to American landscape or history. Monument Valley is a real place, beautiful yet ominous, sacred to the Navajo, mercifully far from cities and airports. John Ford discovered it in the late 1930s and filmed it well, if a little sentimentally, just as he hired the Navajo to serve as "savages" in his cavalry films and Comanches in The Searchers. But no one makes Navajo films, or pictures about the real tragedy of Native American life in America today.
I am not expecting a renewal of the old Western. Even in Ford's hands, that legend was full of distortions. But just as the true stories of 1850-1900 still need to be told, so the West in more recent times is a real place, packed with human interest. That's why Once Upon a Time in the West - even if it's the work of a master - strikes me as fatuous, and why I am more engrossed by films like The Wild Bunch, The Last Picture Show, McCabe and Mrs Miller, Chinatown, The Right Stuff, Paris Texas (by Wenders), Mulholland Falls and much of the work of Sam Shepard. Those works see life in the West and compare the legend and the tricky history. They are films in which space is full of hope, and edged with danger. Whereas, for Leone, I fear, space was too often just an accompaniment to soupy music.
'Once Upon a Time in the West' opens 14 April; Christopher Frayling's 'Sergio Leone: Something To Do With Death' (Faber, £20) is out nowReuse content