The Italian film industry during the mid-to-late 1960s was cranking out Westerns at a prodigious rate, a trend that started after the box office success of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars in 1964. That movie was a gritty, ecstatically violent remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (which was loosely based on Dashiell Hammett’s crime novel Red Harvest), and it made an international star out of relatively unknown actor Clint Eastwood. Hundreds of so-called spaghetti Westerns flooded the market over the next few years. Many of them are excellent–Django, The Big Gundown, A Bullet for the General, to name a few–and they rank among the greatest Westerns ever made, especially Leone’s subsequent contributions to the genre–For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Once Upon a Time in the West. But none of them can match the darkness awaiting you in Sergio Corbucci’s 1968 classic, The Great Silence.
“I’m going to shoot every one of these people here,” a bounty hunter named Loco (Klaus Kinski) states near the end of the movie to Pauline (Vonetta McGee), before he does just that. Pauline’s husband was killed by Loco and she hires a mute bounty hunter, Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), to avenge his death. Although Silence is a lethal killer and exudes a sexy coolness that was de rigueur for any antihero worth their leather chaps in those days, he’s sauntered into the wrong movie. He’s doomed.
Corbucci’s world is dominated by corruption–the Utah town where the story is set is ruled by bounty hunters and venal authorities. The majority of the townspeople–men like Pauline’s husband–have been branded outlaws because they’ve had to resort to stealing food to survive, which is why so many bounty hunters have swarmed into the area… business is a-boomin’.
Silence is a man of violence. He makes his living off the blood of others, but he avenges the poor and is anti-authoritarian, another strong plus for any proper gunslinger in the age of rock ‘n’ roll. John Wayne–who during the same time always represented larger-than-life father figures and men of the establishment–was square. Duke represented the hardhats and Nixon’s Silent Majority. He was your dad.
Silence, on the other hand, was who young guys wanted to be and who everyone wanted to be with. He was lean, sharp, and European. Trintignant was French and decidedly cool. Arguably even cooler than Eastwood’s Man with No Name character.
But not even Silence could get out of Corbucci’s movie alive. Evil is not vanquished. There’s not even room for an ambiguous finale, a stalemate where Silence and Loco are allowed to go their separate ways, each the hero in their own narratives. Silence dies, Pauline dies, the townspeople all die, and Loco and his men ride off to destroy the lives of others for another day. Loco even plucks Silence’s pistol from his cold dead broken hand and keeps it for himself.
It sounds like a movie you’d never want to see unless you were a complete masochist, right? It’s certainly not for the timid, but The Great Silence is also a movie of frail beauty and melancholy, something that you can’t really say about a lot of spaghetti Westerns. But it’s not a particularly beautiful looking movie, despite its striking snowbound, mountainous setting. The typical dusty and dry Almeria locale seen in countless Italian Westerns is gone. Corbucci filmed in the Dolomites instead, isolating his characters in ice and snow, effectively stripping the movie of duels in the sun and horse chases across cracked earth. Even Ennio Morricone’s score is plaintive and haunting, removed from his usual operatic majesty.
Then there’s Kinski. A fixture in spaghetti Westerns, Kinski shines darkly here like never before. At least, I’ve never seen him in anything that rivals this black-hearted bastard of a character. It’s simply one of his finest performances, though not one sans humor. Kinski’s eyes flash with secret wisdom throughout and there’s a moment of modest brilliance when a character shoots off his hat at one point and Kinski flicks back his head, his hair whipping back away from his eyes, as if to show that it was no big thing. Even under pressure, he was going to remain unscathed. Fearless. And that as an actor, no indignity was going to seep into him. Vonetta McGee and Trintignant are marvelous, as is Frank Wolff (an American character actor who worked plenty in Italian features, usually as a bad guy) who plays the local sheriff, the only decent authority figure in the movie.
The Great Silence has a lot going for it, despite its unapologetic nihilism. It lacks the stylistic finesse of Leone, but its ruthless butchery of Old West mythology and its critique of unbridled capitalism and authority is spot on. Perhaps not the kind of movie you want to pop on for a night of escapist entertainment, though it’s certainly satisfying and one of the great spaghetti Westerns.
The video at the top is a little homage I put together. Another one of my experiments. Hope you enjoy it.