ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is the film that beat GONE WITH THE WIND at the box-office, at least in Europe. When France Soir did a poll at the major French universities, asking why they liked the film so much, eighty percent of the students replied with the same line: "Because it's a film about real men."
Apparently, the spectators, or at least those ones, identified the mythic character with a certain type of truth that we'd given these characters, really because of its absence from public life these days. The young feel the need for a true character today more than ever before. I avoided responding to the critics who said the film was much too serious, and other little things. Fortunately, the much more authoritative Andrew Sarris responded to him in my place. He's considered the most important critic in America, and he wrote an essay of sorts about ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.
I repeat that the Western genre ended for me with THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY, which concluded the triptych. That notwithstanding, I had to go to work and make another one. When I shot ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, even though I admitted it to no one, least of all my producer, who was poor Bino Cicogna... I felt guilty when I'd see him because I was certain I was condemning him to a flop. In my heart of hearts, I knew that I wanted to make a film I'd always dreamed of, and now at the height of my success I had the opportunity to do so, but I also knew from the get go that people would think I'd lost my mind. I confirmed this sense the first day the film was shown. I waited out in the lobby of the Supercinema in Rome where it was playing, when a working class woman came out burbling to her fourteen year old son: "This Leone has gone nuts. This time he doesn't understand anything. America has gone to his head!"
It was exactly what I expected that the public would say, because they were used to the incredible speed of FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, and couldn't accept ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, which is an auteur film; a film in which I proposed, first of all, to tell in an arc the birth of a nation like America. Very immodestly - but since its true I must say it - I borrowed the most stereotyped characters from the American Western - the whore from New Orleans, the bandit on horseback, the businessman, the classic Western characters - and I set them down within the context of a dance of death. Hence the reason why time is so drawn out; because the characters are aware, by the end of the film, that they won't survive, and thus analyze and enjoy the last breaths of life, truly because they know they are already dead, belonging to a past that's been cancelled out by the present, while the future will erase them forever.