It is a classic opening scene, in a classic Western. Sergio Leone claimed it was "the summa" of his entire career. It was ambitious and complicated and it wasn't the easiest of shoots.
Here's the full quote:
"I wanted to say farewell to the three characters from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and to do so in style. I wanted to say farewell to them and to the rules of the game, which I had imposed. So I hoped that the three pistoleri who are killed by Charlie Bronson at the beginning of Once Upon a time in the West would be Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach. The other two agreed, but Clint was the only one who didn't want to do it—so there wasn't any point in using Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach. It wasn't a question of expense—he just couldn't see the funny side of it. . ."
Where Did The Idea for The Squeaky Windmill Come From?
"I'd been, some time before, to a concert in Florence where a man came onto the stage and began in complete silence to take a stepladder and make it creak and squeak. This went on for several minutes and the audience had no idea what it was supposed to mean. But in the silence the squeaking of this stepladder became something else, and the philosophical argument of this experiment was that a sound, any sound at all from normal everyday life—isolated from its context and its natural place and isolated by silence—becomes something different that is not part of its real nature. I talked about this with Sergio, who already had these things in his blood—in his ideas about silence. He made those extraordinary first twenty minutes of Once Upon a Time in the West from that idea."
"A lot of actors think that the more words they have, the more attention they get. That's bullshit. I make people look at me. I don't have to say a lot of words."
—Lee Van Cleef
"I've never heard of an Italian Western—it sounds like a Hawaiian pizza!"
—Eli Wallach, when his agent told him an Italian director wanted to interview him for a part in a movie.
Where Did The Funky-Weird Train Station Come From?
"Listen, Sergio! I've seen some old abandoned wagons covered in dust and sand—with pots and pans still under the canvas—in some American books I've been looking at. Instead of make a [train] station that looks like a station, why not let's have a station that looks like an old abandoned wagon?"
—Carlo Simi, the production designer for Once Upon A Time in the Old West
The dusters were a mania of [Sergio's], and they became a mania of the time as well. We went to look at costumes at Western Costume 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 were worn by ice-cream vendors."
—Carlo Simi, production designer
Western Costume was in reality a very large warehouse on the lot at Warner Brothers that housed most of the costumes from every Western ever filmed there, going back decades. Crowded aisles and long racks of jackets, boots, shirts, holsters and hats were piled and strewn about for several acres. When I was a guest extra on the set of "Briscoe County, Jr." back in 1992-ish we (radio DJs and personalities) were brought in from around the country to be on the show and hopefully talk about the experience on the air, which we did. Anyway, I got to choose my outfit out of the warehouse and there were vaquero outfits next to cavalry outfits, from every period, going back 50 years. I realized this is why so many Westerns look like a kaleidoscope of styles because here you have a costume from a 1950s TV show and over there are two dusters from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Several years ago, the warehouse was liquidated and all the costumes sold, and our very own Phil Spangenberger told me he bought up all the best stuff for his collection.
And while we're on the subject of costuming, when Clint showed up in Spain for his first assignment he was somewhat amused that they didn't have extra, or duplicate, costumes for the main actors, like in the states. On a Hollywood production you have two of everything: two hats, two vests, two pairs of pants for the main actors, because a vest might get torn in a fight scene, or a hat run over by a train during a take, so there are always extra costumes as insurance. Not with the Italians. As we shall see, this gets pretty bizarre at the end of this shoot.
Silverado Needed to be Crazier?
"We digested the American Western, and then we recycled it in a more Italian—I would say Roman—way: more cynical, ironic, like the commedia all' italiana. And then when the Americans tried to do Westerns Italian style—in the sense of Silverado, for instance, it was not good, because they had not the craziness."
—Sergio Donati, co-script writer on Once Upon a Time in the West
A Very Long Detailed Script
A typical American script is, on average, 120-140 pages long. The script for Once Upon a Time in the West is 420 pages! "Hundreds and hundreds of stage directions, with just one line of dialogue. The first sequence—there is the fly, the water, the knuckles, everything. The first line is on page thirty, I think. Here, the old man asking for the money for the tickets. . .we're on page eleven already—no words yet. Pages 17 to 20, no words except the notice board, which says, 'delays': whereas in High Noon the train is on time for sure. And then page -29, the stationmaster, the old man, says, "For the tickets, you have to pay. . ."
—Sergio Donati, co-script writer
A No Fly Zone
When it came time to film the fly scene with Jack Elam there were no flies. Zero. It was May and they had been battling flies for the entire shoot, but now, nothing! Sergio tried honey to attract flies, but it showed up too much on Jack's face. Finally, the caterer came with watermelon for the crew and Sergio rubbed a slice of watermelon on Jack's jaw and viola! several flies showed up for their close-ups.
Dead On Arrival
In the opening sequence, there are three gunmen who show up at the train station. "Stony" (Woody Strode), "Snaky" (Jack Elam) and "Knuckles" (Al Mulock). Towards the end of the four day shoot Mulock jumped from the balcony of his room on the second or third floor of his hotel room in Gaudix, Spain wearing his costume. Mulock survived the fall, and before being taken away by an ambulance, Sergio Leone shouted, "Get the costume, we need the costume!" Mulock suffered a pierced lung from a broken rib and during the bumpy ride to the hospital he died. Sergio outfitted a crew member to finish the shoot and in several of the iconic shots of the trio standing on the platform you can see "Knuckles" looks a little off.
No one knows the reason for his suicide, but one of the crew members later claimed Mulock was a drug addict and committed suicide out of desperation, because he couldn't acquire drugs in the isolated location where they were filming.
"[Sergio Leone] always had to go one step farther than what was expected."
—Christopher Frayling, the author of "Once Upon A Time In Italy." Most of the quotes in this post are from this exceptional book.