Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

2013 #38
Sergio Leone | 220 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | Italy & USA / English | 18 / R

Once Upon a Time in AmericaPart of Leone’s intended trilogy about the history of violence in the USA, Once Upon a Time in America is the life story of four friends and gangsters in Noo Yoik during a large chunk of the 20th Century. So it’s a gangster film focusing on violence, then? Well, no… not at all, really. Indeed, saying Once Upon a Time in America is a film about gangsters is a bit like saying Die Hard is a documentary on police procedure during a hostage crisis — sure, there’s something of that in there, but if you’re focused on it then you’re missing the point.

I refer to “the point” as if, a) I’m some kind of expert about to expound on it, or b) there is a singular ‘point’ to this three-and-a-three-quarter-hour epic. Neither is true. In fact, I’ve perhaps never felt less qualified to discuss a film in depth. Thing is, it’s a difficult film to digest in one viewing, because there’s so much there. It’s not just the length (Titanic is pretty straightforward through its three-and-a-bit hours; even something superior like Apocalypse Now Redux I ‘got’ first time), though that is a factor: over such a long time, it’s packed with incident, and shaped in a non-traditional — or non-common (uncommon, you might say) — narrative structure. A first viewing is an exercise in following what’s going on, what connects to what else, why things are happening in such an order. It fairly begs, “get a handle on it this time, you can analyse it when you watch it again”.

And analysing it may, I think, be a requirement, because this isn’t a film of straightforwardness or easy answers. For one, it asks much of the viewer in our interpretation of the characters: this is a film where our (supposed?) heroes do truly despicable things, and not in aid of a “they’re actually the villain” twist either. Is Leone exposing us to reality — that not all those who do horrible things are horrible people? Or is he just a misogynist? Or a lover of violence? It’s something grander critics than I have battled with for decades.

Boyz...Leaving aside the less savoury aspects (as, it seems, many have to), a lot of the discussion when it comes to a Leone film is always of his fantastic visual and storytelling style. That’s not unmerited, and while it’s not as overt here as in his Westerns, it is present. But he was a filmmaker with an awful lot of substance too — perhaps a daunting amount. What he created here is an Epic in the truest sense of the word, but in addition to that, it’s a peculiarly intimate one. It has an epic’s length and a decades-long sweep, at times exposing and commenting on facets of entire eras that it traverses; but it’s really ‘just’ the story of a small group of friends, their successes and their failures, their triumphs and their tragedies — probably with the emphasis on the latter — over a more extended period of their lives than most movies are prepared to tackle. That probably doesn’t make it unique (someone else must have attempted such a feat, surely), but it does make it rare; and when something rare is created with such undoubtable skill and achievement, it certainly merits deeper consideration — over an equally long period of time, I suspect, as the ghost of 82 notes in his summation.

My relationship with Leone’s oeuvre is, on reflection, a vexed one. While I liked A Fistful of Dollars and was instantly beguiled by For a Few Dollars More (both fairly straightforward action Westerns, or at least digestible in that way), it took me two or three viewings to appreciate Once Upon a Time in the West (now it would contend for a place among my favourite films), and I wasn’t congruent with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — to a point where, about a decade on, I still haven’t found time to revisit it and try to see what all the fuss is about....2 Men Once Upon a Time in America falls somewhere between these two stools. It’s a film that is, I think, easy to instantly admire — if not wholly, then for its majority; but also one I found difficult to process a full personal reaction to. With the recently-extended version set to arrive on DVD/Blu-ray/download later this year (in the US, at any rate), an ultra-convenient chance for a second evaluation looms.

4 out of 5

Once Upon a Time in America was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 12 for 2013 project, which you can read more about here.

8 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

  1. At last! Very perceptive review, did you see it twice? Looking forward to the extended cut at last (hopefully it will get announced for release over here soon, otherwise its import time again). I don’t expect it to be a better film for the additional footage but am so curious after so many years, its an essential purchase and one of the most important releases of the year. Enjoyed this piece of yours very much and you raise valid points. America is a complex enigmatic work; will we ever see its like again?


    • Thanks! Have to say I struggled with the review a bit, hence the ludicrous delay — since March last year! I only watched it once and have been putting this together in bits & pieces ever since, so I’m glad it turned out well.

      I don’t think we’ll ever see an American-made film like this again — who would pay for something so large but brazenly uncommercial (in today’s marketplace)? Then again, you have directors like Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson who are allowed to release 3 hour films and do ‘crazy’ things like shoot on 70mm, so maybe one day…

      I presume a UK release will be announced before long, but who knows — I’ve been looking into the Oliver Stone Alexander recently, and despite the “Final” Cut coming out seven years ago, and the Ultimate Cut released last week in the US, the first UK Blu-ray of any version isn’t out til later this month and is only the 2004 theatrical cut! As for OUaTiA, the US release is a digibook — as those tend to get dropped for the UK release, I may import anyway.


      • Yep, import looks likely for me too, although I try to buy UK releases when I can (if only to encourage further releases).

        Regards Alexander, I like the film (particularly the Final Cut) but cannot fathom Oliver Stone’s endless fascination with it, or why the Studio allows/finances the tinkering. Hadn’t realised that the film is not out here in the UK yet, would have thought there was more of a market for those different editions in Europe than over in the States. But there you go, its an odd world. Still waiting for the Ultimate Cut of Watchmen to come out over here- doesn’t look like that’s ever happening.

        I fully understand your problems reviewing OATIA, it’s such a dense and complex film. I’ve seen it a dozen times and its still an enigma to me. The extended version should at least add a few more pieces to the puzzle. Did you hear that Morricones score was not even nominated for an Oscar? One of the finest scores of all time not even nominated, unbelievable. Thats the thing about OATIA, the whole thing was a tragedy that contributed to Leone’s failing health and early death. A James Woods commentary track would have been glorious to listen to, he loves the film so much.


        • It’s a shame they don’t seem interested in putting together a more extensive special features package, especially with this being a ‘new’ version. When I was gathering photos for the review there were a lot of the cast all together recently, presumably from the Cannes screening of the extended cut, so they clearly are still invested enough to turn out — perfect for a retrospective documentary, at least!

          I didn’t know that about the score. It did get the BAFTA though, which confirms our good taste. The Oscars that year looks like a rather unexceptional bunch — in fairness, I’ve not actually seen much from the big categories, but not much of it seems to have endured with large amounts of praise either.

          Re: Alexander, somewhere I saw a quote from Stone that this new version was actually the studio’s idea — apparently the Final Cut sold like hot cakes in spite of them not advertising it, so they wanted something new for the 10th anniversary (why it’s not branded as a 10th Anniversary Edition, goodness only knows). He also said he was happy to do it though, so swings and roundabouts. The only review I read said that, despite his endless fiddling, the original theatrical version remains the best anyway!

          Finally, Watchmen: I was going to say I think the studio have forgotten about the Ultimate Cut, but turns out it was the basis for their last US re-release 18 months ago. I don’t think they’ve ever cared much about how it was put out in the UK, though — I mean, how long did it take for the Director’s Cut to arrive? Long enough I just bought the US one, at least.


  2. Regards Watchmen, it all seems to stem from the financing- it was a Warner/Paramount co-production, and Paramount got the international rights, Warner the domestic USA rights. Warner seem to have financed the Ultimate Cut and own the rights to that particular version.Oddly it doesn’t seem to have had anything other than a limited release even in the States at a rather premium price (and has always been abused by the Ebay sharks). I’ve always been curious to see it as I’m something of a Watchmen nut, but consider it an oddity really;maybe I’ll see it someday, but surely the Directors Cut is the definitive version?

    Agh All these different versions of movies! You knew where you stood in the old days!


    • I have a quote somewhere (it may be in my Director’s Cut review, or it may be on hold for my Ultimate Cut review) where Snyder says the DC is his preferred version, while the UC was an experiment. Probably why they’ve kept it exclusive to those premium-style editions and never afforded it a ‘budget’ release.

      This “different version” phenomenon can be a right pain, but at least most of the time either, a) someone says which is The version, or b) the film is trashy so it doesn’t matter either way that they edited in five minutes of deleted scenes for the DVD. That’s just marketing.


      • How long is that UC? I find the length of the DC rather puts me off rewatching the film as it is, does the UC need splitting into two sessions? I positively adore OUATIA (hey, back on topic!) but its sheer length has limited the number of times I have been able to watch the film. I enjoy long movies but I find that very length restricts the opportunities to watch them. I’m still trying to find time to watch the remastered The Good, The Bad And The Ugly disc I bought a few weeks ago.


        • The UC is 3 hours 35 mins, vs the DC’s 3 hours 6. A pretty hefty commitment. All on a single disc too, so no handy maker-indicated break. Though OUATIA‘s disc change isn’t at the interval anyway, so I guess that means nothing.

          I feel exactly the same about long films, which I think is part of the reason last year’s WDYMYHS had so many. Apocalypse Now is another — loved it the first time I saw it (in its Redux form, incidentally), but that was I-dread-to-think-how-many years ago (10+?) and I’ve not made the time to revisit it, despite moving through several DVD and Blu-ray editions since.


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