It has been an evolving theory I’ve had for several months regarding American westerns and their direct association with much-needed values—specifically the Cowboy Way. But going deeper than that I see them as one of the finest examples of laissez-faire capitalism that there is and it took a combination of film directors—trying to imitate John Ford westerns—in Akira Kurosawa and Italian director Sergio Leone to reflect back to America the true meaning of the mythology born in the United States espousing the merits of capitalism. I would go so far to declare that the best western that espouses this necessity in understanding is Once Upon a Time in the West, which I have previously reviewed just as a back drop for this article. Watching that movie provides one of the best examples of why capitalism works and how the gun evolved mythologically to support American values of property ownership. CLICK HERE TO REVIEW.
The story follows Brett McBain as he purchased a plot of land in the middle of the desert which nobody otherwise wanted to sink his hopes into real estate that he plans will make him gloriously wealthy. This isn’t the typical story of gold digging or cattle rustling that are so typical of American westerns—this is actually a very intelligent story about something we can all relate with. McBain has made a very calculated risk much in the way that Donald Trump became wealthy—the land he has purchased is sitting on top of a nice aquifer full of fresh water and he knows that steam locomotives need water to run. So he gambles that the railroad will come through his property, and a town called Sweetwater will form around his home making his family rich. This is a very capitalist thing to do and the movie never demonizes that action—in fact it is central to the entire plot.
The value of the railroad itself is provided by the tycoon Morton. Without Morton nothing happens, McBain’s property is just another patch of desert land. The value for the land is provided by Morton’s desire to build a railroad from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Without that intention, McBain’s purchase would be meaningless. However along the way to help make it possible to see his dream, Morton hired Frank—a thuggish gunman to eliminate opposition to his plans. In this way the good intentions of Morton become the bad intentions of the crony capitalist which seeks to destroy their competition with force. Along the way, Frank picked on the wrong guy who comes back from the past to face down Frank along the backdrop of the Sweetwater land deal. The avenger of justice in this western is played by Charles Bronson known as Harmonica.
However Morton is sick and Frank fancies destroying his mentor so he can take over his empire, but he doesn’t quite have the business sense that his boss had. Frank learns too late that he’s really only good as a thug and does not have the sweet touch to walk the fine line between good honest business in a capitalist society and a corrupt regime of crony capitalism. He learns this through his failures invoked throughout Once Upon a Time in the West. Frank decides he wants to stop McBain’s deal to build his contractually obligated station for the railroad so that he can complete his part of the fairly complicated business transaction with Morton. Frank kills off McBain and his entire family to essentially stop them from building the proposed train station. Before that killing McBain was feeling pretty good about his life. He had a good business deal and celebrated it by marrying a first class prostitute from New Orleans. Jill didn’t really love old McBain as she had been emotionally hardened after years of prostituting herself but McBain was offering her a second chance at life. In exchange for whoring herself out to one man instead of many, she was getting an instant family and a prominent social place in a growing town. But when she showed up by train to meet her husband and his family she was horrified to find that they had been slaughtered by some gunmen dressed up as known bandits working for an outlaw by the name of Cheyenne. Of course Cheyenne had nothing to do with the killing; Frank simply dressed up his own railroad men to look like those of the recognized bandit. Cheyenne gets blamed for the killing; Frank destroys the ability of McBain to fulfill his contractual obligations to the railroad allowing Frank to sweep in and swipe up the land at an auction making himself rich in the process.
Jill however decides to keep the land which throws a wrench in Frank’s plans. Harmonica steps in to help Jill deal with what Frank is up. He outbids Frank for the land by using the bounty money on Cheyenne’s head to pay for it. Of course Harmonica made a deal with Cheyenne ahead of time to free him before he gets to jail so that the bandit can be a part of foiling the plans of Frank who was the instigator in the set-up. Harmonica then befriends Frank somewhat to get close to him and helps the villain survive an attack by his own. Morton had hired Frank’s gunman as a means of self-preservation because the crippled railroad tycoon realized that he could no longer trust his long time apprentice. Cheyenne escaping from capture then attacked Morton and the rest of Frank’s men as Harmonica and Frank kill off the rest. Of course Jill is considering making Harmonica a sexual mate because he’s strong, mysterious and powerful. But she also has eyes for Cheyenne for the same reasons. She’s angry at Harmonica for helping keep Frank alive but little does she know that the mysterious stranger has been playing Frank the way she attempted to while seducing the killer herself.
Isolated, Frank confronts Harmonica into revealing who he is and what he’s up to. He no longer has any help and the railroad is nearly completed in Sweetwater. So Frank has failed and just wants to know who Harmonica is. That’s when it is revealed that Frank killed Harmonica’s brother many years earlier and the only thing the mysterious stranger wants is revenge. The two fight it out in a classic gun battle where Frank dies. Jill wants one of the two men to stay with her to live out their days together but both Cheyenne and Harmonica leave to avoid being tamed by civilization. Jill meanwhile embraces her role as the matriarch of the town and she gets to live happily ever after with a completely fresh start. Most of the main characters had died leaving only her in the end and the birth of a town that was created under a premise of pure capitalism. It’s actually a very beautiful story that we don’t get enough out of Hollywood.
The central theme throughout the entire film is that the gun is the deliverer of justice. Noticeably not present throughout the whole film are police officers and government officials. The only justice between all the characters is their shared use of firearms. There is no sheriff who brokers mediation between Frank, Morton, or Jill. The only police we see are those taking Cheyenne away when he was turned into the authorities by Harmonica to collect a bounty. But at no time in the whole movie do the police or the government do anything to help solve any problems. All events were driven by the character’s themselves as the highest possible authority of law and order under the drive of laissez-faire capitalism. It is a minimalist tactic utilized by the director, Sergio Leone—but what’s interesting is that it was his Italian interpretation of what the America West was—a free and open land filled with unlimited opportunities. Harmonica enacted his own justice against Frank, in an honorable way. Jill was able to get a fresh start in life because of the capitalist efforts of Morton and McBain. And many thousands of others were employed because of the struggle. It was quite extraordinary to see the train finally coming into Sweetwater carrying hundreds of new workers to relieve the old ones. Without capitalism and the gun to protect it—nothing would be happening in the film Once Upon a Time in the West.
So my ambition to turn back the clock is not to return to slavery, or to move to a time where women couldn’t vote—it is to make the Second Amendment stronger and to invoke a lot more laissez-faire capitalism. When I think of the Old West I think of unlimited opportunities, very limited government, and the honor of equality that guns gave to the people who carried them. The Sergio Leone westerns are not historically accurate, but it is the wishful dreams of a European filmmaker yearning for a place in the world where such dreams were possible. And to his eyes and the large budget provided by Paramount Pictures—Once Upon a Time in the West was an honest philosophic crack at how an example of laissez-faire capitalism could be applied to the world using the American Western as a backdrop of simplicity to tell the story. It is for that reason that it is one of the greatest films of the 20th Century and one of the most underrated enigmas of art to emerge in a free market.
Film schools across the world study Once Upon a Time in the West hoping to recapture that magical movie. But they all miss the point because they don’t understand what the film is really about. They think it’s about Henry Fonda playing a bad guy, or Charles Bronson’s minimalist dialogue. They think it’s about the music and the cinematography, and the ambitious location shooting. Those are all very good things but not the reason it’s one of the greatest westerns of all time and also one of the great movie classics resting alongside Citizen Kane and The Wizard of Oz as an all time great classic. It’s because the movie was about laissez-faire capitalism and how to achieve justice in that world when things go bad then make it endure with just a bit of extra sparkle of obscurity. I can’t say that Leone was a remarkable capitalist as a film director during his whole life. I’d say he leaned more and more political left as his prestige in Hollywood increased. But for a time between 1963 to 1968 Sergio Leone offered some of the best arguments in favor of capitalism than any director has in movie history. And he did it with his wonderful spaghetti westerns—most notably, Once Upon a Time in the West. For me, that is a key to strategizing where we need to go as a civilization in the future. And we will.
The people of the world look to America for leadership……………and hope. It’s in the music from the very first video. Watch the faces of the audience. They know it without realizing that the tears that fall from their eyes is to feel again what once happened upon a time, in the west.
Rich “Cliffhanger” Hoffman
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