The first half hour or so of Sergio Leonne’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is dedicated to introducing the four main characters. Harmonica, seen in the screenshot above playing the harmonica; Frank, an enforcer for a railroad company; Mrs. McBain, the widow of an important landowner; and Cheyenne, the leader of a gang of bandits.
What makes each introduction so effective is that each scene tells us exactly who each characters is through their actions. In Harmonica’s introduction, for instance, we very quickly understand just how calm under pressure, how dangerous, and how focused on Frank he is.
Let’s take each in turn and explore what each introduction tells us about the character.
The movie begins with three rugged, violent men showing up to a train station and locking the clerk in a closet. As the opening credits roll they wait patiently in their own ways. One stays in the shade and uses his hat to catch water from a slow drip above him. Another wanders the tracks. The third toys with a fly, ultimately trapping it in the barrel of his gun.
When the train shows up they become on edge. On alert, they wait for someone to get off. At first, it looks like no one will. The train pulls away.
And reveals, on the other side of the tracks, Harmonica. We are nearly ten minutes into the film.
As played by Charles Bronson, Harmonica is calm, cool, and collected. He plays his harmonica (hence the nickname) as a way to occupy himself and throw off his opponent. He knows those men are there for him.
His first question is about Frank, demonstrating how important Frank is to him. After realizing he’ll need to wait longer for Frank, he has the following exchange:
Harmonica: “You bring one [a horse] for me?”
Hired Gun: “Looks like we’re one short.”
Harmonica (shaking his head): You brought two too many.Once upon a time in the west
Through a single action–playing the harmonica–and two lines of dialogue, we’ve already learned everything we need to know about Harmonica. We know he’s cool under pressure, is focused on someone named Frank, and is confident in his ability as a killer.
We learn one more thing about Harmonica before the film moves on. After he’s taken out all three hired guns, we see that he was only able to draw quickly enough to do so because he had hidden his gun inside of the bag he was carrying, saving him the extra movement needed to reach for a holster. He’s clever, too.
Frank’s introduction is structured similarly–most of the screentime in this sequence is dedicated to Mr. McBain preparing for his wedding feast–but just as efficient. To be fair, what we need to know about Frank is a bit more straightforward.
After watching several minutes of Mr. McBain and his children, a sense of dread slowly building, we hear a gunshot. Quail fly away in the distance while a look of concern crosses Mr. McBain’s face. When he turns back to his daughter, blood gushing from the gunshot wound in her gut. He rushes over to her and his shot himself. As he crawls, he watches as his son, who had just been about to leave to pick up Mr. McBain’s new wife from the train station, is also mowed down. He dies in the dirt with two of his three children.
Frank leads several men out of the bush that surrounds the house. His face is steely as he observes the area, still on alert for other threats. Mr. McBain’s third child, a young boy, comes out of the house, alarmed at the commotion. The men stop, unsure of how to handle the situation.
“What do we do, Frank?” one of them asks.
“Well, now that you’ve said my name…” Frank says, and then shoots the child.
And now we know everything we need to know about Frank. He likes to murder and has no rules governing him.
Next we follow Mrs. McBain as she arrives in town to celebrate her new marriage. She gets off the train and searches for her husband, joy on her face. When he can’t be found, she waits. And when she waits for long enough, she decides to go to town herself.
She gets one of the men in town to drive her to Sweetwater, the name of the land her husband had bought, and tolerates the man’s snide remarks about what a silly purchase that was. She tolerates several stupid men from the moment she gets off the train, all with grace.
While her introduction isn’t as exciting as Harmonica or Frank, it’s just as informative. In watching her wait for her husband, whom we know is dead, we see her love for him. Her loyalty to him. And then when she solicits a ride to his land, we see her resourcefulness and independence.
While on the way to Sweetwater, Mrs. McBain is forced by her driver to stop at a small bar outside of town. While she waits for him to get his drink and tolerates the bartenders advances, there is a sudden commotion outside. She is nervous, but unshaken by the gunshots.
A man stumbles through the doors, bound by handcuffs, and holding a gun we are certain is not his. He struts around the room, watching the other patrons watch him. The first thing he does is order a drink that he swigs directly from the bottle.
And then we hear the familiar harmonica. The room’s attention shifts, and Cheyenne pushes an oil lamp into the dark corner the music is coming from to reveal Harmonica. He goes to him and takes the gun that Harmonica has casually left near his feet. Cheyenne tests Harmonica, taunting him. Harmonica plays along.
Another man in the bar, clearly intimidated by Cheyenne, reaches for his gun. Cheyenne sees him and gives him a warning that stops him. Then, Cheyenne takes Harmonica’s gun, gives it to the man that just threatened to shoot him, and has the man breaks his chains.
Cheyenne takes the gun back, and returns to the bar where his men have just entered. With snark, Cheyenne lets his men know that they’ve let him down. “Oh, you’re right on time,” he says. “To bury my escorts. If I’d have waited for you, I’d be in jail by now.” The men clearly respect him.
He almost leaves with Harmonica’s gun, but gives it back when Harmonica reminds him. Harmonica tells Cheyenne that Frank is trying to frame him for a murder.
Throughout this scene, we come to understand who Cheyenne is via his actions and his dynamic with the already-established Harmonica. Because we already know what a badass Harmonica is, Cheyenne showing no fear of him and, in fact, testing him, automatically elevates him in our eyes. The movie uses an already established character as a shortcut to learn something about another.
This is the major difference from the other characters’ introductions. While the other characters are introduced on their own, and are largely defined by their individual actions, Cheyenne is largely defined by how others react to him. We see their fear and their admiration for him. Which makes sense, since Cheyenne turns out to be one of the lynchpins of the film.
By the end of the scene we’ve come to understand Cheyenne as charismatic, intimidating, dangerous, and savvy. All qualities we’ll see play out again throughout the story.
What I take away from these introductions is that by the end of a character introduction, your audience should know their most important traits–the thing that will carry them through the rest of the story. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST also demonstrates how many different ways you can do that. Through action, reaction, or via the characters navigating a situation they don’t know much about.