The Great Silence
As a lone rider makes his way across a snow-covered plain, Il Grande Silenzio has already become one of the most unusual of all Italian Westerns. Most Spaghettis are set in the dusty, heat-blistered deserts of the Old West, those which look conveniently like Southern Europe, so Sergio Corbucci’s film, known here as The Great Silence, makes an impact with its first few frames. This, however, is only one of the keys to its status as one of the most interesting movies in the sub-genre and one of the most provocative and downbeat films ever made.
Set in Utah during a particularly harsh winter around the turn of the century, The Great Silence introduces us to two fascinating characters; Silence (Trintignant), a mute gunslinger, and Loco (Kinski), a demented bounty hunter. Both men are guns for hire, both charge $1000 for their services, but this is where the similarity ends. Loco will kill anyone for the fun of it and the thrill of the chase, although he prefers to maintain the appearance of staying within the law. Silence will only kill in self-defence and devotes his life to helping the oppressed find the justice which is denied to them through official channels. Placed between them is Sheriff Burnet (Wolff), a pragmatic lawman who hates the tenuous legality of bounty killing and wants to see legally sanctioned murder replaced by a fair system of law and order. He says, “We’re fighting to build a great country, and we’re gonna make sure justice governs it!” The three men are initially thrown together in a stagecoach travelling to Snow Hill, a small community where the power lies with the wealthy storekeeper Pollicut (Pistilli) who uses his money and his hired thugs to maintain influence. It transpires that Silence has accepted two commissions which have connections with the town; one from Pauline (McGee) , a widow, to avenge her husband, killed by Loco, and one from a group of Mormons who have been forced out of the town because of their non-conformist beliefs.
The following review contains spoilers for The Great Silence
The title is, of course, multi-layered. In one sense, it refers to death, the ‘great silence’ that awaits us all, and some of us sooner than others. In another, it refers to the silence that has been enforced upon our hero, whose throat was cut as a child when he witnessed the murder of his parents. Then again, it could refer to the mythic status of the hero Silence, renowned as an honourable man who fights for the underdog. It also refers to his profession – “Wherever he goes, the silence of death follows...” Finally, it could refer to the vast desolation of snowbound Utah, a place of silence which is less serene than empty and sinister. This multi-faceted title is an indication of the complexity of the film. In one sense, it fits in with the tradition established by Sergio Leone of the (this time literally) silent stranger entering town and ultimately squaring off against the bad guys. Silence is very much a relative of the Eastwood figure and he shares certain similarities with Corbucci’s previous hero, Django, played by Franco Nero, a man whose method of dispensing instantaneous justice concealed a romantic spirit which eventually found more sympathy with the bandidos than the forces of authority, who were represented by the sadistic Major Jackson. But Silence is romanticised out of all proportion to the point where Corbucci is clearly making an explicit statement about the martyrdom of the spiritually pure and the triumph of the morally bankrupt. To some extent, this is where Leone was headed with Eastwood’s character at the end of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, when he stared at the battlefield and said, “I’ve never seen so many men wasted so badly”, and offered some brotherly kindness to a dying soldier. Silence is given a little sadistic / masochistic quirk of his own however, one which could be as much to do with torturing his own guilt as hurting his enemies; he collects the thumbs of his victims.
But The Great Silence also has an interesting place as a political Spaghetti western, following on from Damiano Damiani’s explicitly Marxist A Bullet For The General, which also featured Kinski, and Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown. In the former, the choice is explicitly between bread and revolution – the peasant chooses revolution – while in the latter, legal authority is explicitly identified with repression and rape – both literal and the metaphorical rape of the peasants. The Great Silence is less obviously political than these two on one level – it’s not preachy in the Damiani sense – it’s undoubtedly in sympathy with the nonconformist Mormons who have been forced to go into the mountains as unwilling outlaws. Law and order does exist, in the person of Sheriff Burnet, but he is impotent in a system where legality is seconded to murder in the shape of the bounty killers. These bounty hunters are represented as a step away from being psychopaths and Loco is pictured, particularly later in the film, as a grinning sadist who thinks nothing of massacre if it gets the job done. Silence fights for the Mormons because of their status as an underclass whose legal rights are being denied. The grieving widow also represents the human cost of the failure of law and order and it is this, as much as the love she offers him, which seems to motivate Silence. The fact that he ends up dying, pointlessly, in the middle of the street is an extraordinary expression of cynicism about the ability of the individual to make things right, as is the death of the sheriff who is shot in the back by Loco.
The pessimism of Corbucci’s vision in The Great Silence is one of the things which makes it such a rich and unusual film. It’s as if the chill of the icy wind got into his bones and forced him into a negativity about the, somewhat inadvertent, heroism demonstrated by his previous hero Django. When you watch the film a second time, it’s impossible not to see that Trintignant’s face seems haunted by his impending death from the very first scene and the final reel becomes genuinely harrowing as we see him rush towards his murder and the death of the Mormons imprisoned by Loco. Given this context, Jean-Louis Trintignant was a superb choice to play Silence. He’s a very good actor indeed, considerably better than Franco Nero or, for that matter, Clint Eastwood, and Corbucci gets an expressive, touching performance out of him. He combines expressive body language with an iconic presence. He also makes a good match with the garrulous, perversely comic Kinski who shows here how funny he can make his twisted villains. Loco may be a psychopath of sorts, but he’s a pragmatic one and his protestations of legality to the sheriff are, intentionally, funny. For the most part, he goes about his business in a highly professional manner and this contrasts well with the day-to-day frustrations of being a bounty hunter; it must have been a nightmare to have to collect all those corpses and drag them into town when you’re reliant on the goodwill of stagecoach drivers. Frank Wolff is also very funny as the sheriff, a man who sees the future but likes the sound of his own voice too much to usher it in by changing his ways. Wolff appeared in a myriad of Italian films, mostly Spaghettis and Giallos, but was probably most memorable in Once Upon A Time In The West as Claudia Cardinale’s husband who is killed by Henry Fonda. A number of other familiar actors from Italian Westerns make appearances and I was particularly pleased to see Luigi Pistilli from For A Few Dollars More and Texas, Adios. Sergio Corbucci gets convincing performances out of his cast and spends more time on character than a contemporary Spaghetti director such as Fredinando Baldi. In this sense, he is squarely in the tradition of Leone, whose For A Few Dollars More remains, for this viewer, one of the most psychologically penetrating of all Italian Westerns.
The Great Silence is one of the great Spaghetti Westerns. It shares a lot of elements of the genre; the graphic, sometimes startlingly brutal violence which didn’t find it’s way into American Westerns until Hang Em High; the explanatory flashback adding weight to the plot and the motivations of the characters; flashy, self-conscious direction which has a fondness for zooms and operatic camera movement; and stunning cinematography of European locations dressed up to look American - in this case the Pyrenees, photographed by Silvano Ippoliti whose generally mediocre career was distinguished by this film and Montaldo’s extraordinary Sacco e Vanzetti. Mention must also be made of Ennio Morricone's alternately dissonant and romantic score which is one of his most interesting. But it’s also a piece of filmmaking which stands on its own in terms of its incredibly bleak vision, expressed in a finale which sharply divides viewers. Some find it unbearably cynical and vicious, others find it provocative and a brilliant coup-de-cinema. Whichever side of the divide you find yourself on, it’s pretty certain that it’s an ending – and a film – which you will never forget.
The Great Silence has been released in Region 1 on a superb disc which contained a good transfer and some valuable extras. The Eureka Region 2 release is equally impressive on the transfer front but omits a couple of bonus features. Given that these were sourced in the UK and provided by our own Alex Cox, the omission is a little irksome.
The film was, unusually for a Spaghetti, shot in a ratio of approximately 1.66:1 and this is respected on the disc. The transfer is non-anamorphic but this is the only major criticism. I was knocked off my seat by the clarity and richness of this image. Colours , often deliberately muted, come across strongly and the level of detail is immaculate. There is some print damage evident in places but this is relatively minor and considerably less of a problem than I would have expected for a film which, for all its qualities, is reasonably obscure. The print used looks identical to the Region 1 release from Fantomas and the transfer may even be a little more impressive.
There are two soundtracks included. The Region 1 Fantomas release contains an English 2.0 Mono mix which sounds a little crackly and suffers from hiss but is otherwise reasonably good. The Region 2 contains both this English track – identical to the Region 1 in quality – and also an Italian 2.0 Mono track which sounds a good deal cleaner. However, the downside of this is that it sounds a little too artificial and lacks atmosphere. Music comes across strongly on both tracks and dialogue – which would have been post-dubbed in any case – is eminently clear on the English track. English subtitles are offered for those who prefer the Italian track and it’s very nice to have the choice of which to listen to. I tended to prefer the English for its more natural sound but it’s a close-run thing.
The only extras are an Italian theatrical trailer, in poor condition, and the extraordinary alternative ending which exists only in a soundless version. Shot for the North African market, where it was considered the downbeat ending would be disastrous, it’s a complete mess which is very funny but also rather frightening when you consider that it was made by allegedly intelligent people. I won’t reveal what it contains but be prepared for the most unlikely ‘arrival of the cavalry’ scenes you’ve ever seen.
The extras from the Region 1 which are omitted are the Alex Cox introduction to the film – which is like one of his Moviedrome pieces; enjoyable and informed but not essential – and a brief commentary on the alternative ending. I can live without these pieces but it’s hard to believe that they would have been very difficult for Eureka to include. Possibly the cost of submitting them to the BBFC was prohibitive in the circumstances.
This is a great movie, one of those lesser known films which you want to tell the whole world about even though you know that they are destined to remain little seen. I don’t think it’s the best Italian Western, but it’s certainly in the top 5 and I recommend the Eureka Region 2 DVD, which looks and sounds gorgeous, without hesitation. Although the Region 1 contains two additional features, the inclusion of the Italian language track and the slightly better picture quality of the R2 more than make up for this.