Once Upon a Time in the West…and Space

Westerns and Science Fiction: Two cinematic genres that beautifully blend together despite their surface disparities. Both have a long history of adventures in wild frontiers; heroes vs. villains; noble, yet formidable goals; and blinding spurts of naked violence.

The two complement each other superbly. And as any Star Wars fan worth her tauntaun will tell you, George Lucas realized this, too. The Bearded One drew heavily from John Ford, along with Akira Kurosawa (also a Ford devotee).

Other SF epics by way of a Lash LaRue approved trail include: Star Trek, the “Wagon Train To The Stars“; 1981’s Outland, which is essentially High Noon transplanted to Io; and don’t forget the eloquent reinvention of The Magnificent Seven that was Battle Beyond the Stars. Recently, Josh Whedon also took up the mantle with Firefly and Serenity.

But there’s one more comparison you may not have considered—and its influence is as wide as the Montana sky. It involves two geniuses—one Italian and one Japanese.

Think you can guess the outcome…?

My trip to Sergio Leone Land happened ass-backwards.

I was a fan of science fiction films (largely space westerns) before I had watched a single actual Western. Even so, I understood—or thought I did—the whole Western influence/motif in SF films. Frankly, that aspect was part of the appeal (I’m looking at you, Bat Durston).

But that wasn’t the half of it, as I later discovered.

Everything changed the moment I watched a wee li’l film called Once Upon A Time in the West awhile back. As I sat in awe of this sweeping tale, many of the elements in the film seemed incredibly familiar to me.

Then, the answer hit me. I had seen them all before, drawn in the sea of stars.

Unbeknownst to my 12-year-old self racing home after school to catch the next episode of Star Blazers, Leiji Matsumoto had been channeling Sergio Leone in space. And you know what? It worked. The same elements were all there, it was just the milieu that changed. Cinematically speaking, space really was the new West.

Now if you haven’t had the pleasure of taking in one of Signore Leone’s epics recently, let me visually connect this for you.

Clint Eastwood

When most of us think of Westerns today, one of the first images that typically flashes through our minds is that of a hard-bitten, squinty-eyed Clint Eastwood with complementary dusty hat and poncho ensemble, right?

TochiroNow transpose that indelible image over Captain Harlock, the stalwart antihero from Matsumoto, and factor in Tochiro, Harlock’s compatriot and confident. Keep in mind that the latter also prefers a wide-brimmed hat and poncho—and even possesses more than just a passing resemblance to Sergio himself.

Then there are many of the shot compositions: Tiny, lonely figures set against a vast sea of unforgiving terrain. Whether it’s the Yamato or Arcadia rising against the blackness of space, or the silhouette of a mysterious equestrian defying the yawning desert expanse, these scenes connote the same emotion (that being coolness multiplied by 100).

Now throw in the indelible soundtracks of both directors. Instead of just mincing words, I’ll let your ears drink in the stirring goodness from Ennio Morricone (OUATITW) and Hiroshi Miyagawa (Yamato), respectively:

Rousing, aren’t they?

In addition to the music, both Leone and Matsumoto also carry a strong feeling of romance throughout their work.

To wit: In the world of Harlock, the short, rotund figure of Tochiro is a valiant hero who bags delicious babes like Queen Emeraldas just as Jill (Claudia Cardinale) swoons for Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and Harmonica (Charles Bronson)—handsome men in their prime, but hardly the Tiger Beat endorsements you’d see cast today (and that’s a real pity).

I’d like to see more filmmakers today take up the Western mantle as Matsumoto does. And what about you…? What other “Sci-fi meets the Old West” tales do you appreciate?


Essential Matsumoto:
Uchu Senkan Yamato
Saraba, Uchuu Senkan Yamato
My Youth in Arcadia

Essential Sergio Leone:
Shoot…all of ’em!


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