The Great Blizzard of 1899 proves especially cold for the townspeople of Snow Hill, Utah. The tiny hamlet is surrounded by murderous outlaws who’ve taken refuge in the mountains, or so the local authorities would have the citizenry believe. These so-called outlaws are merely poor people who’ve been forced to fend for themselves. To make matters worse, a price has been placed on each of their heads. The bounty hunters looking to collect are a rather dishonorable bunch, led by a bloodthirsty rogue known only as Loco (Klaus Kinski). In this snowy wasteland, a gunslinger known as Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) proves to be the only salvation for those seeking true justice.
The Great Silence is a 1968 spaghetti western directed and partially written by Sergio Corbucci, known in many circles as the “other” Sergio. That designation is rather curious, seeing as how Corbucci’s contributions to the genre are at least as significant as those of Sergio Leone. Luckily, Quentin Tarantino’s superb Django Unchained has rekindled interest in such films, hence why I’ve decided to review this one. The Great Silence film is among Django Unchained’s many influences. As always, my love of Tarantino’s style has prompted me to seek out his inspirations. In this case, my curiosity was rewarded with perhaps the most haunting western I’ve seen since Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.
One thing that has always intrigued me about Spaghetti Westerns is their gritty sense of style. While many of the classic American westerns I’ve seen often feel too clean and staged, Italian filmmakers offer something a bit more akin to cinéma vérité. Zooms of all kinds are used. Many of the vistas are less than picturesque. Characters are often unshaven, and possess unspeakable table manners. Their clothes are worn and their lips chapped. The Great Silence adds a stark, snow covered landscape to this unattractive mix, which adds a pervading sense of loneliness to the proceedings. Snow Hill, and the surrounding areas, feel like a land that has been forsaken by the American dream.
As is standard for the genre, none of the characters are exactly pure. All seem to have a bit of dirt on them, even the hero. He is, after all, a killer. It just so happens that kills the right people, and often for the right reasons. Silence is like a parody of the persona that Eastwood developed in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy. He’s a mute who was made that way by an unspeakable act of violence. Therefore he utters not a single word of dialogue throughout the entire movie. Whereas Blondie aka “The Man With No Name” was the proverbial “man of few words,” Silence is a man of no words at all. While there’s an undertone of dark humor to certain scenes, there is nothing inherently funny about the character.
Silence’s choice of weaponry leaves quite an impression. Instead of the standard issue six-shooter, he packs a Mauser C96 with a wooden stock and holster. This suggests the encroachment of modern civilization on the Old West. Times are changing, and the age of outlaws and bounty hunters having free reign is coming to an end. The exact same thing was suggested by the Colt M1911 Star Model B pistols carried by the title characters in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.
|Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) holding a Mauser C96 with wooden stock.|
The film is innovative in other ways as well. It offers a steamy interracial romance between the title character and Pauline, a Black woman. Pauline is played to the very sexy Vonetta McGee. She went on to have a career in the Blaxploitation genre, and it’s easy to see why. She’s a pleasant to look at, though it’s hard to get a real grasp on her line readings do to the poorly dubbed dialogue. It’s interesting to note that the film pulled off this little hat trick mere months before the release of 100 Rifles, which controversially paired Jim Brown with Raquel Welch.
Loco, as played by Klaus Kinski, oozes sliminess and greed. There’s never a moment in the film where he doesn’t seem to be up to something. As with most such villains, the viewer will be praying for his death upon witnessing his treachery. However, The Great Silence offers a world full of harsh truths instead of easy answers. Ennio Morricone’s score punctuates such sentiments. It’s not nearly as iconic as his work in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, but it’s infinitely more haunting. Its chilling notes will linger in the viewer’s psyche forever.
The Great Silence is one Hell of Western, offering a truly alternate take on the genre at a time when such things were the rare exception as opposed to the general rule. Its bleak tone makes The Wild Bunch seem almost optimistic by comparison. Nevertheless, it’s as rewarding an experience as I’ve ever had with a film of this kind. Though it trampled my spirit into the dirt, I can’t wait to watch it again.