1968 | Italy, France
Director: Sergio Corbucci
AKA: Il grande silenzio

Of all the cinematic subgenres to come out of Europe during the 60s, the Spaghetti Western is the most macro, containing multitudes. With literally hundreds of entries, it was inevitable that filmmakers would indulge in some hybridization to mix things up, with the results being, among many others, the comedy westerns of the Trinity series, gothic westerns like Antonio Margheriti’s And God Said to Cain, and the Bondian trappings of the Sartana series. Come the late ’60s, such filmmakers began to experiment with style and content as well as genre, leading to some of the more “arty” spaghettis that are today among the best of the cycle, such as Robert Hossein’s Cemetery Without Crosses and Giulio Questi’s Django Kill! Arguably the best of all of these was The Great Silence, directed by Sergio Corbucci, who was one of the genre’s founders and trailblazers despite his repeated claim that he hated westerns.

According to director Alex Cox, who’s devoted quite a lot of attention to The Great Silence, the decision to film Silence in Spain’s snowy Pyrenees Mountain region was the result of Corbucci wanting to take a skiing trip. Whatever the case, it’s a decision responsible for giving the film a unique and visually striking character. You’d think that looking at footage of men on horseback looking tiny against a blinding white, snow-swept backdrop would get old after a while, but in Corbucci’s hands, it never fails to be arresting, even as telltale signs of the director’s characteristic haste and impatience – shaky transitions, shots that are not quite in focus – remain. Corbucci, any cynical posturing aside, is clearly in a rare lyrical mode here, supported by an Ennio Morricone score that eschews the triumphalism of that composer’s earlier Spaghetti themes in favor of a more disarmingly “pretty” and mournful approach.

Silence takes place in the small, isolated town of Snow Hills, Utah, where the citizens, goaded on by town boss Pollicut (Luigi Pistilli), are in a state of hysteria over a gang of “outlaws” encamped in the woods along their border. It turns out, however, that these are less outlaws than outcasts. In the English dubbed version, it’s suggested that they are Mormons, but they are in any case people who are being persecuted for their beliefs, hiding out in the woods until the time that a proposed amnesty passes the ballot and allows them to return to their homes. Exposed to the elements and without food, any crimes that they commit are for the sake of survival. In response, Pollicut keeps the group in check with a small army of bloodthirsty bounty killers who hunt them like animals and trade their corpses in for cash.

The outcasts, meanwhile, have employed a defender of their own, a mute gunslinger called Silence who acts as a sort of bounty hunter of bounty hunters, charging, as the hunters also do, one thousand dollars per head. Silence is played by French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant, who had become an international star with 1966’s A Man and a Woman. The fact that it was Trintignant’s only western is another thing that makes The Great Silence unique, as opposed to had it been fronted by a more oft-seen Euro-western hero like Giuliano Gemma or Django’s Franco Nero (who was actually an early casting choice but proved unavailable). Not that either of those actors would have done a bad job with it, of course. It’s just that their appearances were numerous, and their characters generic, to the point of all blending together somewhat. Silence, meanwhile, is distinct within Spaghetti Western canon, and skillfully portrayed by Trintignant in a wordless performance that nonetheless conveys intense emotion while at the same time maintaining the western avenger’s expected level of flinty stoicism.

In confronting the bounty hunters, Silence comes up against their leader — named Loco in the English version, Tigrero in the original Italian – played by Klaus Kinski. Loco is a standout spaghetti western villain for Kinski. While he clearly enjoys his death-dealing work, he carries himself with a sardonic detachment that’s pronouncedly at odds with the maniacal sadism you might otherwise expect from the actor in such a role. In fact, the most disconcerting thing about Loco may be his complacence, apparently born of an unshakable confidence that he is on the right side of both the law and morality and even history.

That the bounty hunters are using their legal mandate to cleanse the town of perceived undesirables becomes clear with their cold-blooded murder of the husband of the beautiful Pauline (Vonetta McGee), one of the town’s only black citizens. Of course, this murder is also part of a plot on Pollicut’s part to pressure Pauline into becoming his mistress, which meets with a predictable level of success. Pauline instead also recruits Silence to enact her revenge and ends up entering into a love affair with him that is handled by Corbucci with surprising tenderness. McGee, an American actress who became a fixture in blaxploitation films such as Blacula and Shaft in Africa, was making her film debut here. She gives a tough and affecting performance that, combined with Trintignant’s, provides The Great Silence with its wounded heart and soul.

Silence’s wounds, ultimately, are revealed to be the product of Pollicut, who, once a bounty killer himself, murdered the young Silence’s parents before his eyes before slashing the boy’s throat to prevent his giving witness. This, however, is all news to Pollicut, until Silence, at a key moment, pulls back his scarf to reveal the jagged scar. Meanwhile, the wanton violence of Pollicut and the bounty hunters has come to the attention of Utah’s governor (Carlo D’Angelo), who dispatches a new sheriff to the region in hopes of calming things down in the run-up to the amnesty vote. This is Burnett, played by San Francisco boy Frank Wolff, who, like many of Wolff’s characters, is played somewhat for laughs, but is nonetheless presented as a decent and honorable upholder of the law. Once in Snow Hills, Burnett almost succeeds in convincing the townspeople that taking an approach of compassion to the “outlaws” is the solution to their problem, but finds an immovable obstacle in a populace that has become inured through years of institutionalized murder.

In the end, The Great Silence paints an unforgiving portrait of a law that applies unequally depending on who is applying it, with the bounty hunters’ sanction to kill in the interest of the moneyed and powerful being its ultimate, implacable expression. Corbucci, a leftist of a particularly hardnosed bent, set out to present this in the most uncompromising light possible, offering his audience no easy catharsis, and in succeeding makes The Great Silence a very difficult film to discuss in the current spoiler-averse climate. The ending of the film, you see, is a real gut-puncher – and, like the similarly downbeat ending to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, is hard to imagine not being born of the wave of bloodshed and political martyrdom that characterized 1968.

So… um, spoiler alert.

As the film reaches its conclusion, Loco takes captive the band of religious outcasts, who have been drawn into town by the promise of food, and sends word to Silence that he will execute all of them if Silence does not come into town to face him in a showdown. Silence, despite Pauline’s protests and the fact that his shooting hand has been maimed in a fight with one of Pollicut’s goons, complies. Upon Silence’s arrival at the Saloon where Loco and his men are hiding out, one of the men shoots him through a window, crippling his other hand, whereupon the defenseless Silence is cold-bloodedly executed with a bullet to the head. Pauline, who has followed him, is then also shot down, whereupon the bounty hunters methodically massacre the outcasts to the last pleading man, woman, and child. “All according to the law”, says Loco with self-satisfaction, as he steps out into the snow and relieves Silence’s corpse of its gun.

So harsh was The Great Silence’s ending that it was actually deemed inappropriate for some territories, and necessitated the producers inserting an alternate “happy” ending depicting an improbable rescue. This ending, of course, only serves to underscore just how much the original ending is the only one that The Great Silence could have had, so much does the alternative clash with the tone that Corbucci strived to set. Whereas a Hollywood filmmaker might have tried to at least give Silence’s sacrifice some kind of mitigating spiritual dimension, Corbucci’s visual template, with all those tiny figures isolated in a blinding expanse of white, makes clear that his is a martyrdom that takes place in the absence of God. And it is that yawning blankness that truly may be the silence to which the film’s title refers.

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