Darryl F. Zanuck hated it. After the masterful American producer screened the relentlessly downbeat, anti-capitalist spaghetti Western Il grande silenzio (The Great Silence, Sergio Corbucci, 1968), he refused to release it in the United States or England. Asian and North African distributors demanded, and got, an alternate, “happy” ending to tack on to their prints.1 The US couldn’t get a look at the film until it appeared on DVD in 2001.
But The Great Silence is not nihilistic. It is political, it is subversive, it is despairing; but, at heart, it is an existential drama with a self-defining, Christlike hero at its centre.
Corbucci was riding high in reputation at the time, Sergio Leone’s equal (in Italy, if not elsewhere) as an influence on the western all’italiana. Morphing like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard from film critic to filmmaker, he became a competent and flamboyant genre director. His third western, Django (1966), made actor Franco Nero a star, and wound up spawning more than 50 Django-related (or, at least, titled) movies. Corbucci had the juice to get his projects made.
That he took such a grim tack in The Great Silence was due in part to his despair over the recent murders of revolutionaries Malcolm X and Che Guevara. Director Alex Cox writes, “For the radical … both deaths were terrible news. You could only take on the powerful and the wicked for a short time, it seemed, before they crushed you.”2 The Great Silence is a political allegory, with none of the tediousness that implies.
Corbucci channels his ideology through a grand style, featuring loose, enthusiastic (and sometimes unfocused) camerawork, and featuring crammed, overloaded interiors that contrast with exterior shots that read like bleak geometry. In most of Corbucci’s westerns, long, quiet sequences crop up that show a character moving across an immense frontier landscape, like a tiny figure tucked among mountains and cliffs on a Chinese folding screen. No matter his cinematographer, Corbucci sports an off-kilter, comic-book-style approach that seems to presage the more stylistically self-conscious generations of graphic novels to come.
Vengeance and violence permeate the film and serve as its watch spring. The setting is the frozen mountains, partly in tribute to such “winter westerns” as Track of the Cat (William A Wellman, 1954), Day of the Outlaw (André de Toth, 1959) and the melancholy Cheyenne Autumn (John Ford, 1964), and partly due to Corbucci’s desire to go skiing in the Dolomites nearby while on location.3 There’s plenty of bloody death (body count: 43) that spatters the (shaving-cream) drifts of Snow Hill, Utah, where a band of outlaws hides as they wait for an amnesty that will never come. Instead, they are the prey of bounty hunters, brought in by evil banker Pollicut (the great Luigi Pistilli) in order to get his cut of the reward money.
The primary antagonists are both bounty hunters. Klaus Kinski gives a bravura performance as the coldly genial Loco, in the employ of Pollicut, who kills his victims and then pauses to tally them in his little ledger book – a diligent entrepreneur if there ever was one. (Another masterful score from Ennio Morricone gives Loco a trilling, crackling trumpet motto remindful of Igor Stravinsky’s devil tale L’histoire du soldat). “These are dangerous bandits, enemies of God and man. The things they preach … it’s our patriotic duty to exterminate them,” he tells Sheriff Burnett (genre stalwart Frank Wolff) as they ride in a stagecoach with two of Loco’s victims strapped to it – living men turned into cold cash. (The English dub, unlike the original, implies that the bandits are being persecuted for religious reasons.) Burnett, the authority figure, is a bumbling fool, serving as comic relief in a too-small campaign hat, and is later easily dispatched by Loco in a highly improbable but stylish manner.
Opposing Loco is the titular Silence, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, fresh off his worldwide success as the male half of Un homme et une femme (A Man and a Woman, Claude Lelouch, 1966). Trintignant couldn’t speak Italian, so, rather than dub him, Corbucci wrote his character as a mute, a speechless Lone Ranger with no Tonto.4 Silence kills for money, but his sympathies are with the downtrodden. Pauline (African-American actress Vonetta McGee, in her first film role), the woman who hires him to avenge her husband’s death at the hands of Loco and Pollicut, describes him accordingly: “He avenges our wrongs … they call him Silence because wherever he goes, the silence of death follows.” Silence goes to the extreme of never firing first, and takes the trouble to shoot off his opponents’ thumbs – castration anxiety, anyone? Meanwhile, the interracial romance that Pauline and he develop is just another subversive thread in the tapestry.
The result is a protagonist with built-in pathos, and Trintignant underplays the role nobly. His mute expressiveness harks back to America’s first great cowboy star, silent hero William S. Hart. Like so many of Hart’s good badmen, Silence is haunted by a tragic past, trapped voicelessly within himself, but always ready to do right.
The Great Silence’s biggest achievement is to show how easily the western plot template could be subverted, and how flimsy, contorted and provisional the traditional happy ending was. By refusing to take the easy route, Corbucci placed this film in the same league as working-class tragedies such as How Green Was My Valley (John Ford, 1941) and La Terra Trema (Luchino Visconti, 1948) – dramas that leave the audience in a hopeless state. (The influence of The Great Silence on such filmmakers as Alex Cox (Walker, 1987) and Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful Eight, 2015) goes without saying, but I said it anyway.)
The ruthlessly bitter ending leaves all the good guys dead and the bad guys triumphant. “We’ll come back and collect them later,” cackles Loco, “all nice and legal.” A title card at film’s end tries wanly to reassure us that all this bloodshed was not in vain … but it fails.
Nonetheless, Cox asserts that Silence’s demise is noble in and of itself, specifically because he knows he is doomed beforehand. Crippled and outgunned, he nonetheless makes a stand and defines himself through sacrifice. “Sometimes, even though you know you’ll fail, you still do the right thing,” Cox writes.5 And the concept of choosing honourable death rather than a life of shame is one of the western genre’s great themes.
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Il grande silenzio (The Great Silence)
(1968 Italy/France 105 min)
Prod Co: Adelphia Compagnia Cinematografica, Les Films Corona Prod: Robert Dorfmann, Attilio Riccio Dir: Sergio Corbucci Scr: Mario Amendola, Bruno Corbucci, Sergio Corbucci, Vittoriano Petrilli Phot: Silvano Ippoliti Ed: Amedeo Salfa
Art Dir: Riccardo Domenici Music: Ennio Morricone
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Klaus Kinski, Vonetta McGee, Frank Wolff, Luigi Pistilli, Mario Brega