The ultimate horse opera

July 12, 1996

Christopher Frayling picks his favourite film - Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. Sergio Leone's Italian western - his arrivederci to the most distinctive of Hollywood's genres - was made in 1968, the year when the children of Karl Marx and Coca-Cola took to the streets of Paris.

Once Upon a Time in the West is the simple story, filmed in Rome, Almeria and Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah border, of the discovery of water in the great American desert, and the attempts by a railroad baron to get his company's hands on it. The foundations of western myth in literature and film - "turning the desert into a garden", "wilderness and civilisation", "the frontier as key historical moment" - are all in there somewhere. It is also an anthology of the great sequences from the Hollywood western, lovingly recreated before being turned inside-out.

The script, partly written by Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, pits the railroad people (the baddies) against an "ancient race" of rugged individualists (the goodies), and at the same time contrasts the fairytales of the western ("once upon a time") with the unpitying economic realities of the westward expansion ("in the West"). In and out of the story (constructed with the precision of a geometrical theorem) stroll stereotypical characters such as the gunman-who-wants-to-be-a-businessman (Henry Fonda), the romantic bandit (Jason Robarts), the enigmatic stranger with no name (Charles Bronson) and the dancehall girl who settles down (Claudia Cardinale). All of them are doomed.

As Umberto Eco said of this film, "if you have one stereotype, a film is likely to be kitsch; if you have a dozen, it becomes art". It has also been called the ultimate horse opera, "an opera in which the arias aren't sung, they are stared": Ennio Morricone's huge score was recorded in advance, and the actors performed their dance of death in time with it; at one point, even Henry Fonda's horse manages to trot to the music - a dirge-like citation from the last act of Mozart's Don Giovanni.

The rhetoric of the film - music, image, flamboyant camera movements, dialogue always in quotation marks, stylish clothes (in the West?), story pieced together from other stories - makes this a total cinematic experience. It was cut down on first release, for fear that its slow pace and unusual length (for a western) would put off paying customers: but Paramount soon discovered - as a concert-promoter once discovered when he tried to prune Wagner's Ring cycle - that they did not have a shorter work on their hands, just a long work which was short in places. Recent video versions have put back some of the excised material.

Leone told me, shortly before he died, that he was aiming to make "a fairytale for grownups" - and that Once Upon a Time in the West represented his most considered response to and exorcism of the Hollywood images which colonised his head when he was growing up in the 1930s and 1940s in a suburb of Rome. I grew up in a suburb of London in the 1950s, the first television age, and I think I know exactly what he meant.

What event or policy has done most to damage the course of filmmaking? Three things, where the British situation is concerned: first, not allowing investors to write off the cost of a film in the year it happens, rather than over three years - this "tax break" would provide a much-needed financial stimulus; second, the fact that distribution of the products of this British industry is in the hands of the Americans; and third, the resistance of English culture (at the level of "opinion-formers") to the idea that film should be taken as seriously as all the other visual, literary and performing arts. For some reason, there is a corner of the English mind that is forever Ambridge; which doesn't help.

Professor Christopher Frayling is rector of the Royal College of Art.

Zola Budd patrols townships

Want to know what abba is? Consult the dictionary of South African English

Abalumbi, mantshingilane, windgat. Strange words? Yes, but English words nevertheless. South African English words, that is.

Over the centuries, the language of English colonists has been transformed by words drawn from Dutch, Afrikaans and the so-called Sintu tongues, especially Zulu.

English first arrived in South Africa in the 16th century. Early on, some shipwrecked sailors were absorbed into local clans, and even today there is a Xhosa clan called abelungu, the Xhosa term for white people.

But English was established as an important language only with formal colonisation after 1795. From that point until 1994, when some 11 languages were officially recognised, English was one of two dominant languages: Dutch until 1925, Afrikaans after that.

Among the legion of odd words is abba - not the Swedish pop group but the Khoikhoi-derived verb meaning "to carry (a child) on one's back". So, as one novelist used it: "You look tired - I wish I could abba you all the way home".

Other curiosities are "Zola Budd" and "Mary Decker" - township vernacular for police vehicles, the first slow, the second fast - and taken from a South African (briefly British) and an American athlete who were great rivals in the late 1980s.

Dictionary of South African English on Historical Principles is published this month by Oxford University Press.

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