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In Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Morton is obsessed with reaching the Pacific as quickly as possible, and has hired Frank to clear any small problems along the way. This includes “scaring” McBain.

But McBain wants to build a station and a whole town for the railroad. This seems like it would be to Morton’s advantage. He had a contract on file and everything.

Why was McBain considered an obstacle to Morton?

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  • Maybe Morton didn't want to wait for a station etc. to be built? He just wanted to get the track laid quickly, not laid well.
    – magarnicle
    Commented Aug 14, 2022 at 23:25
  • Yeah, that whole plot doesn't make sense. Morton could always have used the power of government to apply eminent domain to obtain the land (like this happened in real life).
    – BCdotWEB
    Commented Aug 15, 2022 at 10:05
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    Then again, this movie is a parable, a movie about movies, where the lead characters are tropes from old(er) westerns and story elements as well as locations refer to other westerns. It is about how the modern era (trains etc.) is killing off the "wild west" and its characters (the gunslingers, ...). The plot is a mere means to an end.
    – BCdotWEB
    Commented Aug 15, 2022 at 10:15
  • 2
    @BCdotWEB Technically, Eminent Domain could not have been used, not even in reality. The government wasn't building the railroads, companies were. If one of the companies wanted to go through land owned by someone, they had to buy it, or force/scare the owners off. For a (kinda sorta, if you squint real hard) look into the (completely dramatized) reality of building the first railroad, watch "Hell on wheels" (tv series)
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Aug 15, 2022 at 17:27
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    Perhaps the point was that all the killing was pointless. Morton would have gotten what he wanted if he'd just left McBain alone, but that's not how men like Morton and Frank see the world.
    – Schwern
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 15:31

1 Answer 1

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I'm going to go into my own speculation. Morton could have negotiated with McBain, found out he's eager to build a station, and worked to their mutual advantage. But that would go against the theme of the film. Negotiation, communication, and mutual benefit are never considered, never even raised. In Sergio Leone's westerns, problems are only solved by violence.

Sergio Leone's westerns were about subverting the black and white, good vs bad morality of American westerns. He presents the same basic stories, the same good vs bad framing, but the morality and motivations of his characters are more out of self-interest than "good". For example, in his "Dollars Trilogy", Clint Eastwood is presented as the "good guy". He's not particularly bad, but he's certainly not good. He's mostly in it for the money.

"Once Upon A Time In The West"'s "good guys" are all in it for themselves. Harmonica is not protecting Mrs. McBain, he uses her for revenge on Frank. Cheyenne, a murderous criminal, seems legitimately concerned for Mrs. McBain, but more out of boredom and curiosity than heroism. Once their interests are served, rather than riding off into the sunset, they abandon her.

The victims are the McBains. While their murder is heinous, the McBains are not presented as particularly sympathetic. Mr. McBain is in it for the money; for himself and his family. He's a harsh father who smacks his children and married a whore he hardly knows to raise them. Mrs. McBain, rather than a weeping widow, is literally a whore shown to be more concerned about her dead husband's money than her dead husband. She even considers forming a relationship with Frank, her husband's murderer, if that means saving herself.

Frank, the very bad guy, is a good looking, well dressed, smiling man. He's also a thug who kills children when it's convenient.

Morton, ostensibly Frank's boss, is a cripple barely able to control his underlings. Morton is obsessed with reaching the sea. His terminal illness is increasingly making him desperate, rushed, and willing to accept Frank's immoral methods as long as they solve his "little problems".

Harmonica, Cheyenne, Frank, Morton, and Mr. McBain all use violence and intimidation to solve their problems. Unlike the clean "good guy with a gun" ethos of American westerns, Sergio Leone's westerns show violence as brutal and amoral.

Morton needs McBain's land to build a station; McBain is in his way. We never hear about any attempts to negotiate with McBain, nor of McBain informing Morton about his intent to build a station. Instead, McBain keeps it a secret. That would require communication, mutual trust, and understanding. These all go against the theme of showing the nature of solving problems by violence: quick, brutal, decisive, efficient, and amoral violence.

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  • So, to answer the question: Morton wanted the farmland because he didn't know McBain was planning to build a station there?
    – gidds
    Commented Jun 11, 2023 at 12:31
  • @gidds Yes. Morton never thought to look into it, and McBain kept it secret.
    – Schwern
    Commented Jun 11, 2023 at 23:09

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