Charles Bronson as “Harmonica”, vengeful drifter
Arizona, circa 1875
Film: Once Upon a Time in the West
(Italian title: C’era una volta il West)
Release Date: December 21, 1968
Director: Sergio Leone
Costume Designer: Carlo Simi
After establishing the spaghetti Western with the popular “Dollars trilogy”, Sergio Leone had intended to move away from the genre until Paramount Pictures compelled him to follow up his success with another Western. With Paramount’s substantial budget in his coffers, Leone reteamed with iconic composer Ennio Morricone and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, working with Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci (and, once production began, also Sergio Donati) to conceptualize the vengeance-driven epic that would become Once Upon a Time in the West.
Unlike the Dollars trilogy, which invariably starred Clint Eastwood among a mostly Italian and Spanish cast (with the rare exception for Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach), Once Upon a Time in the West featured a cast well-known to Americans, led by Henry Fonda playing one of the few villains of his career. The cast also included Claudia Cardinale (who was a Tunisian-born Italian actress but known to Americans thanks to films like The Pink Panther), Jason Robards, Keenan Wynn, American Western regulars like Jack Elam and Woody Strode, and Charles Bronson, who was recruited after Eastwood turned down the role.
Following its December 1968 premiere in Italy, Once Upon a Time in the West was a massive hit across Europe, with such an impact in France that one Paris projectionist reportedly harangued Sergio Leone in person for the film’s popularity forcing him to show it for two years straight. Unfortunately, Paramount cut twenty minutes from the run-time for its American release six months later, and when Once Upon a Time in the West was finally released in the United States 54 years ago today on May 28, 1969, it was considered a flop. Luckily, time—and restored edits—was kind to Once Upon a Time in the West, now considered one of the best Westerns and among the best films of all time.
More than a half-century after its release, Once Upon a Time in the West continues to influence filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, George Lucas, Vince Gilligan… and Nicolas Cage. When the latter had cited it as his favorite Western last fall, I was reminded that I wanted to cover its style and ran an Instagram poll to let @bamfstyle followers decide if I would write about Charles Bronson or Henry Fonda first. And so…
What’d He Wear?
By the way, you know anything about a man going around playing the harmonica? He’s somebody you’d remember. Instead of talking, he plays. And when he better play, he talks.
Rather than defining him by his costume, the bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards) asks around about Charles Bronson’s character by referring to his signature harmonica that he wears on a cord around his neck.
The blog Classiq thoughtfully meditated on the role of Harmonica’s costume in a post published last year:
Harmonica was maybe the one who fit the least in this iconography. Just like Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, whose poncho was not like anything seen on an American horseman, not in a classic Western anyhow, Harmonica’s checkered coat and off-white trousers are a unique choice of costume. And just like The Man with No Name was coming from nowhere, going nowhere, without a past, without a future, we can not be sure about anything about Harmonica, and can not place him in any particular archetype, except that, as Leone explained his choice of Charles Bronson for the role, “he is the face of Destiny, with a whole world behind it, a kind of granite block, impenetrable but scarred by life.”
Harmonica’s simple attire is remarkably brightly colored for his brooding character, providing a contrast to the dark-clothed and dark-hearted antagonist Frank (Henry Fonda). His checked jacket, henley, and beige jeans would be very contemporary for the late 1960s production (perhaps moreso than the intended setting of a century prior), with only his wide-brimmed cowboy hat contributing to the classic Western silhouette.
The tattered telescope hat is made from a light taupe felt and detailed with a narrow dark brown tooled leather band that closes through a buckle on the left side. Characterized by a low, round crown and a wide brim, the telescope hat reportedly originated among Mexican charros who benefited from the brim’s sun protection and the low crown preventing hot air from accumulating. In addition to these Mexican cowboys, the telescope hat also became associated with American gamblers who were drawn to the style.
“You, uh, interested in fashions, Harmonica?” Cheyenne asks after observing Harmonica look over one of his henchmen’s dusters. “I saw three of these dusters a short time ago, they were waitin’ for a train. Inside the dusters there were three men… inside the men there were three bullets,” Harmonica responds. Harmonica’s shorter and distinctively patterned coat provides a clear visual contrast between Harmonica (and his motives) from the darker dusters worn by the killers he’s been targeting.
Harmonica wears a distinctive cream-on-beige checked jacket, which has six large dark brown buttons up the front from the waist to the ulster-style collar. He wears the coat fully open aside from when he needs to fashion a tourniquet for his left arm after being wounded in the shoulder by Woody Strode’s Mare’s Leg carbine during the opening gunfight. The set-in sleeves are plain at the cuffs, with no buttons, straps, or vents, and a squared patch pocket is positioned over each hip.
Harmonica’s eponymous instrument is almost as essential to his mission as his six-shooter, so he keeps the harmonica attached to a dark brown leather cord worn around his neck. When not playing it, he tucks the harmonica itself into a pocket set-in against his jacket’s inner left breast.
Harmonica wears a thin light coral-red cotton long-sleeved henley shirt. Henley shirts have followed a similar sartorial trajectory with T-shirts, having once been considered primarily an undergarment—as they would have been at the time Once Upon a Time in the West is set—until they evolved into shirts worn on their own toward the end of the 20th century. Harmonica’s henley has three white two-hole buttons at the top placket, which he wears completely open.
Harmonica’s cream-colored cotton straight-leg jeans are perhaps the most anachronistic part of his wardrobe. While jeans were around in the Old West—indeed, Levi’s just celebrated the 150th anniversary of the 501 Original Fit last weekend—the style that Harmonica wears would not have been standardized until at least the 1930s; it wasn’t until 1901 when Levi Strauss added the second patch pocket that completed the now-familiar five-pocket design. Integrated belt loops would come even later, as most early jeans were rigged with suspender buttons and/or a cinched back until belt loops were added as an option at the start of the 1920s.
Harmonica holds up his jeans with a thick brown leather belt that closes through a circular gold-toned double-prong buckle.
Harmonica wears the expected style of long-shafted cowboy boots, made with brown leather uppers that are quickly rendered a dusty shade of tan by the sand and dirt swirling through the desert.
The whole costume is likely meant to be an evolution of the tan checked shirt-jacket, pale-colored shirt, and khaki trousers held up by a belt that we had seen Harmonica wearing during the traumatic flashback to his brother’s lynching during his childhood.
Harmonica arms himself with a Single Action Army, the iconic six-shooter introduced by Colt in 1873 and immortalized as the “Peacemaker”. Through its original 68-year run until production was halted upon the United States’ entry into World War II, Colt offered the Single Action Army in a varied range of finishes, barrel lengths, and caliber, though the most classic configurations were the “Cavalry” model with a full 7.5-inch barrel, the “Artillery” model with a 5.5-inch barrel, and the 4.75-inch barreled model known alternatively as the “Civilian”, “Gunfighter”, or “Quickdraw” model.
Despite arguably fitting into both latter categories, Harmonica carries not the 4.75″-barreled Single Action Army but one equipped with a less standard 5-inch barrel. The frame is color case-hardened with a blued barrel and cylinder and smooth walnut grips.
Often colloquialized as the “Colt .45”, the Single Action Army is most frequently associated with the .45 Long Colt cartridge developed specifically for it, though it has since been produced in more than thirty different calibers ranging from the small .22 rimfire round to the hefty British .476 Eley cartridge, as well as the .44-40 Winchester centerfire (WCF) cartridge that would allow gunmen armed with Winchester Model 1873 rifles to only need to carry one type of ammunition.
IMFDB notes that Harmonica’s Single Action Army “has an extremely small bore despite the large bore chambers in .44 or .45,” suggesting that the screen-used revolver is likely a dedicated blank-firing draw competition gun that was specifically modified for Charles Bronson to fan the hammer.
Interestingly, Harmonica spends most of Once Upon a Time in the West without wearing a gun belt, instead keeping his Single Action Army concealed for a surprise quickdraw when he intends to actually use it.
For the final duel against Frank, he buckles on a conventional brown leather gun belt, perhaps indicating how much more seriously he takes this opponent while also making clear that he intends to challenge him to a duel rather than ambushing him as he does several other gunmen over the course of the film.
What to Imbibe
When Harmonica meets Cheyenne and the recently widowed Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) in a desert tavern, he pours himself a mug from Cheyenne’s bottle of Old Monogram rye whiskey.
This brand had actually been a product of the Kansas City-based distillery J. Rieger & Co., founded in 1887 by Austro-Hungarian immigrant Jacob Rieger. The company was headquartered on Genessee Street in Kansas City’s West Bottoms neighborhood, known as the “Wettest Block in the World” for the proliferation of bars, brothels, gambling dens, and liquor retailers that quenched the thirst of patrons visiting from the nearby and now-dry state of Kansas.
Under the management of the founder’s son, Alexander Rieger, J. Rieger & Co. grew exponentially through the first twenty years of the 20th century, offering products like Monogram rye, aged eight years and touted to be the “standard of perfection” according to contemporary newspaper advertisements. The company itself was the largest mail-order whiskey house in the United States by the time Prohibition was enacted in 1920, when J. Rieger & Co. was one of many distilleries across the nation to fall victim to the Volstead Act. Without one of the prized licenses to produce “medicinal whiskey”, Rieger was forced to end operations… though its story doesn’t end there.
Ninety years later, Kansas City bartender Ryan Maybee teamed with Jacob Rieger’s great-great-great-grandson Andy Rieger to revive the brand. Maybee and Rieger purchased the long-expired trademark and, after a four-year process, relaunched J. Rieger & Co. in 2014, using the company’s original logos, slogans, and bottles as inspiration. You can read more about the J. Rieger & Co. story on their website.
The Monogram name was revived in 2017, originally applying to a blend of 11-year-old rye and 9-year-old corn whiskies that were finished for 18 months in sherry casks. “Rieger’s Monogram is a delight that smells of honey, dates, and fresh peaches,” wrote Dan Dunn for Robb Report. “It’s a balanced, dry whiskey possessed of a warm, soft, and creamy mouthfeel. Every sip offers a rich mixture of primary flavors: plums, figs, and cashews derived from the Sherry with bold vanilla and toffee notes courtesy of the American oak. The finish is embroidered with traces of cinnamon, chocolate, and cherry that heighten the sensory experience.”
J. Rieger & Co. has launched a new variety under the Monogram name each year since, including the 2021 blend of straight rye whiskies and the 2022 straight bourbon whiskey.
How to Get the Look
Harmonica illustrates a more creative way to put together an iconic Western costume, retaining the classic hat-and-boots silhouette but with the contemporary simplicity of a light plaid coat, red henley, and beige jeans… and the musical touch of a harmonica around his neck, of course.
- Cream-on-beige checked 6-button thigh-length jacket with ulster-style collar, patch hip pockets, plain cuffs, and ventless back
- Light coral-red cotton 3-button long-sleeved henley shirt
- Cream cotton straight-leg jeans with belt loops and five-pocket layout
- Brown leather belt with circular gold-toned double-prong buckle
- Tan leather cowboy boots
- Light taupe felt telescope hat with narrow dark brown tooled leather band
- Dark brown leather corded necklace (for his harmonica)
Leone and company were intentionally vague about the exact setting, consistent with the mythical-sounding title Once Upon a Time in the West which—as far as setting—tells us all we really need to know, with any more specific detail being generally irrelevant. That said…
The “once upon a time” is likely meant to be during the quintessential years of the Old West, between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the turn of the 20th century, by which point the rapid industrialization of the Gilded Age had all but snuffed out the culture associated with the “Wild West”. If I had to pinpoint a timeframe, I’d suggest it was meant to be not long after the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869. A few prop bills used on screen are marked with dates indicating the 1870s, which would also be supported by the characters being armed with the Colt Single Action Army “Peacemaker” that was introduced in 1873. That said, Westerns of the era frequently ignored the trappings of anachronism, dressing characters in contemporary belt-looped trousers and arming them with Peacemakers or Winchester rifles decades before either were introduced.
And where “in the West”? The stated town of “Flagstone” somewhere in the southwest American desert recalls Flagstaff, Arizona (first settled in 1876), and the flashback lynching filmed in Monument Valley would support that this is meant to be somewhere between Arizona and Utah.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
Did you bring a horse for me?