Jill McBain: The Strong Heroine of Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West"
Claudia Cardinale (born 1938) is an Italian-Tunisian actress who became known in the US for her role in The Pink Panther (1963). Though Cardinale became a sex symbol because of her aesthetic femininity, she wasn’t just one of those actresses whose career relied on her looks and love affairs. On the contrary, Cardinale played strong female roles, many of which had as much inner-depth as the roles of the leading male actors’. The essence of Cardinale’s strong persona was demonstrated when she rejected the notorious ladies’ man, actor Marcello Mastroianni. She was also head-strong not to sign long contracts with Universal Studios but kept her freedom and independence by only signing for one film project at a time.
Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) would not be the classic it is today without Cardinale’s performance as Jill McBain. Jill is an ex-prostitute who arrives in a rural town in the Old West ready to start her new life as the wife of Brett McBain, a landowner whom she secretly married when in New Orleans. What she doesn’t know is that her husband and his kids from his previous marriage have been murdered. Suddenly, she finds herself as alone as she was in New Orleans. She is now the sole owner of the property called Sweetwater.
The movie has many layers and one of them involves the tension between men and women. In the movie, there are three men who play important roles in Jill’s life: the villain Frank (Henry Fonda), the hero, Harmonica (Charles Bronson) and the average joe crook, Cheyenne (Jason Robards), who rises to become the true hero for Jill without her even knowing it.
Frank is a vicious man responsible for killing Brett McBain and his kids. He’s the right-hand man of Morton, a rich man who is building a railroad through Sweetwater. Frank is tasked with scaring McBain away from Sweetwater. Before his death, Brett McBain bought construction materials to build a railroad station and a town in order to secure his family’s future, and now Jill is the sole owner of the material. Frank doesn’t expect a woman to appear and ruin everything, so when Jill comes along he rapes and forces her to sell the material in an auction. To Jill, this is the type of man she has dealt with before and though Frank hurts her, she doesn’t crumble but instead sucks everything up – the thing she has always done before.
The hero, Harmonica, is someone who piques Jill’s interest, but Harmonica is not even in the slightest interested in her. His attention is only on Frank, who murdered his brother. Harmonica even puts Jill in danger while visiting her at Sweetwater when asking her to get some water to see if Frank’s men are lurking around.
Cheyenne is a leader of a gang of bandits and he is accused of murdering Brett McCain and his children. To him, this accusation is a matter of moral and ethics; he and his gang would not do such a thing. He makes a deal with Harmonica: Harmonica takes him to the authorities, and with the reward money Harmonica buys Jill’s construction material from the auction. After the auction, Harmonica helps Cheyenne escape. They plan to quickly build the station so when the railroad tracks reach the territory, Jill can keep Sweetwater and Morton will get what he deserves.
Cheyenne is the only man who treats Jill as his equal. While others view her as a whore or a no-good woman, Cheyenne makes a subtle remark that her mother was the best whore of Alameda and the finest woman that ever lived. In the film, he also asks Jill to brew him some coffee, which is the only nonsexual task Jill is asked to do. To Cheyenne, it’s a way to measure a woman’s capacity to be a good wife. Jill’s is blind to this aspect of the task and lambasts Cheyenne for behaving like the rest of the men. Cheyenne listens to her outburst, sighs, and then concentrates his attention to the coffee offered, asking if Jill can make good coffee at least.
It’s only at the end of the movie, when she understands that Harmonica will not come to her, that Jill opens her eyes and remarks that Cheyenne is a good-looking man. But it’s too late. Jill and the viewers don’t know it, but Cheyenne is mortally wounded. The last thing he wanted to do before his death was to go and see that Jill is okay. He bluntly tells Jill that he’s not the guy for her and steers her attention to the men outside who are working to build the town.
The lesson women can learn from Jill is that what truly makes you unique in the eyes of a good man is not your profession or the way you look, but how you carry yourself and how you deal with difficult situations. This type of strong woman attracts those men who do not try to own women, but instead are willing to set them free for the sake of love. Cheyenne could have told Jill that he was dying and make her grief over him, as if her life should revolve around his ego, but instead he leaves her clueless about the true reason for his rejection and gives her a new start and chance for a bright future.