Studies in Flashback: “Once Upon a Time in the West”

Part 4 of a five-part series on movies where flashbacks work.

I set this discussion into motion here and here. To wit: Hollywood conventional wisdom is that voice-over narration and flashbacks are a no-no, yet some of the greatest movies ever produced use these narrative devices including Fight Club, Goodfellas, The Silence of the Lambs, and Rashomon.

My conclusion: Voice-over narration and flashbacks are not inherently bad, rather they are tainted by how poorly they get executed by inexperienced writers.

Goal: Find five movies in which each is used well, then analyze those movies to come up with — hopefully — guidelines on how best to handle this pair of narrative devices.

Today the fourth of five movies that use flashbacks: Once Upon a Time in the West, screenplay by Sergio Leone & Sergio Donati, story by Dario Argento & Bernardo Bertolucci & Sergio Leone

Here is a summary of the movie:

Epic story of a mysterious stranger with a harmonica who joins forces with a notorious desperado to protect a beautiful widow from a ruthless assassin working for the railroad.

It’s a complex story, but the basics are this: A harmonica-playing stranger played by Charles Bronson comes to town killing people and looking for revenge. His target: A vicious criminal named Frank (Henry Fonda). For much of the movie, we do not know why Harmonica is bent on revenge, only catching fleeting images through Harmonica’s fractured memories. And yes, that would be flashbacks.

Here Harmonica remembers a horrific moment in his past involving Frank:

Frank not only responsible for the death of Harmonica’s father, but also for the guilt Harmonica has grown up with since he was a boy. No wonder he wants revenge.

But that’s not the only use of the flashback. When Harmonica and Frank have their inevitable Final Struggle moment — a shootout — and Frank gets mortally wounded, we have another flashback:

Why do these flashbacks work? Several things:

Yet another example of flashbacks that work.

But as I’ve been saying all along, for any of us to consider using flashbacks in a spec script, we have to make sure they are the only and best way to tell our story.

Part 1: Casablanca

Part 2: The Social Network

Part 3: (500) Days of Summer

Tomorrow: Ordinary People.

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