One of the most original Spaghetti Westerns ever produced, The Great Silence (Il Grande Silenzio) was directed by the ‘other Sergio’ the wonderful Sergio Corbucci, an acknowledged master of the Italian genre cinema from the 1950’s onwards. From his ground breaking Spaghetti Western Django (1966), starring Franco Nero, through Navajo Joe (1966) (Burt Reynolds), The Hellbenders (1967) (Joseph Cotton) to his ‘anti-western’ The Great Silence. Like many of Corbucci’s work, The Great Silence suffered from limited distribution globally, with it’s Italian/French co-production the film suffocated at the hands of a myriad of distributors who did not know exactly how to sell the film to their audience. The film’s downbeat and unexpected ending, more to come on that, made it hard to sell the film as a traditional Spaghetti Western. Corbucci shot two alternate endings for the film as the different countries wanted variants to make the film more sell-able abroad. From the first time I saw The Great Silence, on DVD way back in 2002, I was immediately taken by the sheer lyrical style of the movie, from it’s beautiful snow covered landscapes to wonderful Ennio Morricone score which has a slightly melancholic feel to it. I was enthralled by the whole film. Jean-Louis Trintignant, a giant of French cinema, plays the ‘hero’ Silence, a mute gunfighter who is a self-stylied defender of the weak. Klaus Kinsi plays El Tigrero (Also called Loco in the English subtitles) a cold. calculating leader of a group of bounty hunters and Frank Wolff plays sheriff Gideon Burnett, a by the book lawman.
The story begins in the year 1898, a severe blizzard has swept the frontier, bringing privation to the town of Snow Hill. As a result, much of the community is forced to steal in order to survive. Henry Pollicut (Luigi Pistilli), seeking to make a profit and establish himself as the mayor of the town, places prices on the thieves’ heads, attracting the attention of a bounty killer gang led by El Tigrero (Klaus Kinski) aka Loco. As they prey on the outlaws, Silence arrives to help defeat the first of the bounty hunters and save them. One of the outlaws, James Middleton, leaves the safety of the group to be with his wife, Pauline (Vonetta McGee). James is subsequently killed by Loco when he takes Pauline hostage. Vengeful, Pauline sends a message to Silence, requesting him to kill Loco. Meanwhile, the newly-elected Governor, hoping to have order maintained before declaring an amnesty regarding the outlaws, assigns the righteous but bumbling soldier Gideon Burnett (Frank Wolff) as the sheriff of Snow Hill.
On his way, Burnett encounters the outlaws, who steal his horse for food. After getting lost in the snow, he finds a stagecoach traveling to Snow Hill, on which he meets Silence, and later, Loco who has three bounty kills with him. Upon arrival, Silence meets Pauline, who promises to raise his reward, Loco demands his bounty from Pollicut, as Burnett confiscates the money, much to Loco’s anger. Pauline attempts to sell her house to Pollicut, who demands that she becomes his mistress, his reason for putting a bounty on her husband. Pauline bitterly refuses. Silence leaves for the town saloon, and attempts to provoke Loco into drawing first so that he can be killed in ‘self defence’. Instead, Loco savagely beats him before Silence fights back. Angered, Loco attempts to shoot him, but he is stopped by Burnett, who arrests him for attempted murder and prepares to take him to a prison in Tonopah.
Before leaving, Burnett requests that the townspeople provide food for the outlaws as he believes they will not steal anymore. Meanwhile, Pauline becomes romantically involved with Silence while tending his wounds as he tries to recover. Burnett and Loco stop by a frozen lake to allow Loco to relieve himself, but he springs a trap, shooting the ice surrounding Burnett and leaving him to die in the freezing water. Loco rides to his hideout and convinces the rest of his gang to confront Silence. Determined to take Pauline by force, Pollicut attempts to rape her as his henchman, Martin, tortures Silence by burning his right hand. Silence overpowers Martin and kills Pollicut.
Loco and his gang arrive to look for Silence, just as the outlaws appear at the edge of town to collect the provisions, having been previously advised to do so by Burnett. Deciding to use them to draw out Silence, the gang herds the bandits into the saloon and captures Pauline as well. Loco tells Pauline to have Silence duel with him, if Silence wins, the outlaws will be set free; if he wins, they will be killed. Despite Pauline’s pleas that the duel is a trap, Silence stands outside the saloon to confront Loco and his men.
The films ending is one of the ‘highlights’ of the movie and a great talking point amongst fans of the genre as you are expecting a typical ending and you are instead given what can be described as a downbeat finale. Here it comes, spoiler alert here, the hero does not live to kill the bad guys and get the girl! Corbucci wanted the ending to be as depressing and alienating as the snowy landscapes surrounding the protagonists, Loco wins and kills the hero, the girl and the outlaws who have been used as bait. Only he and his men leave alive. This part of the films narrative made the film hard to sell to it’s audience but like many of Corbucci’s other features, the hero has his own disabilities to contend with so all the director has really done is take the story to another logical end which was not the usual happy ending, but a possibility that the hero does not save the day in the end. When Jean-Louis Trintignant was approached to play the role of Silence, he voiced concerns that he could not speak English, which with the Italian western was not really a huge issue,with mixes of English, Italian, German, Spanish and French actors populating the genre, it was all left to the dubbing after the films completion. To allay his fears, Corbucci wrote no dialogue for the character, making him mute instead and thus giving him his unique disability, Silence in name, though not in deed.
It is interesting to note that both Silence and Loco are very similar in action and in some cases, motivation. Both kill for money, though Silence has a more heroic angle and not completely driven by money. Loco, on the other hand, is a professional bounty hunter, with no scruples who would kill for the right price, all legally and not above board. They could be the flip side of the same coin, the ambiguity is there from Corbucci, he sets up he narrative with you knowing that silence is the hero, but one with dark faults and not above tactics that Loco uses to get his man.
The Great Silence is such an important entry in the Spaghetti Western cycle and to Corbucci’s credit, one of the best of that genre. It is in my top ten all time best Spaghetti Westerns and is very much a respected film. Alongside the already mentioned Django (1966) Corbucci’s contribution to Italian genre cinema could never be overlooked and under respected and The Great Silence cements that reputation completely.
“…the most pessimistic western of all time.” Alex Cox, Director