The Great Silence (1968)
by Steve Habrat
For those who are not familiar with spaghetti westerns, a movement within the western genre during the mid 1960s, The Great Silence may not be your best introduction to the subgenre. You are probably wondering, what is a spaghetti western? A spaghetti western is an Italian made western that is usually set in a rundown frontier town and features ugly, weather worn characters. Among these characters is usually a protagonist who walks a fine line between good and bad and an antagonist who is usually beyond loathsome. And usually everyone is really, really sweaty and the violence is really, really gruesome. The best-known spaghetti westerns are Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) and Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. If I were a novice to the genre, I would begin with the four films I have just listed and if you feel the genre is for you, then immediately see The Great Silence, a spaghetti western that embraces every single attribute I listed above and replaces the sweaty, dusty setting with a snowy backdrop. This film is just as uncompromising as the environment it takes place in and, boy, is it violent.
The Great Silence follows a mute gunslinger known as Silence (Played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) on a quest to find the bounty hunters responsible for the slaying of his family and taking away his speech. Silence kills off his targets by picking fights with them and then shoots them in self-defense. He wanders into the town of Snowhill, Utah, set high in the snowy mountains and in the clutches of a brutal blizzard. The craggy, snow-caked hills are a safe haven for poor and starving refuges that the merciless bounty hunter Loco (Played Klaus Kinski) and his bloodthirsty gang have been hired to drive out. The rough weather has caused the refuges to become outlaws themselves in order to keep themselves alive. After Loco kills an African American outlaw, his wife Pauline (Played by Vonetta McGee) hires Silence to kill Loco, setting into motion a bleak and nasty showdown.
Director Sergio Corbucci frames several unforgettable moments throughout The Great Silence. One scene finds Loco dragging an outlaw through the snow while he interrogates him. The opening sequence finds Silence shooting off the thumbs of one gunfighter, making sure he can never pick up a weapon again. There is a saloon scene where a repulsive gunslinger gnawing at a greasy piece of chicken makes the mistake of picking a fight with the glaring Silence. But the reason the film gained notoriety is the climatic gun battle, which is horrific, tense, bleak, and unforgettable. Some countries were upset over the dark ending of the film and demanding Corbucci shoot an alternative ending that was much more optimistic. I prefer the grim end–the way Corbucci intended the film to be seen, as the Wild West wasn’t always a forgiving place where heroes triumphed in the face of evil.
The Great Silence also features a jangly, lingering score by spaghetti western composer Ennio Morricone, who seems to have scored every single one of these films (He must have been a busy guy!). Everyone on the face of this earth is familiar with his score for The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (That famous whistle?). It has been said that the spaghetti western is supposed to be the rock-n-roll version of the American western and Morricone’s music was meant to exemplify that statement. With The Great Silence, the score is a bit less scruffy and more romanticized, even when paired with the soft and epic long shots of snow-covered mountaintops. The Great Silence isn’t just a party for the boys, as it features (surprisingly!) a romance between the strong Silence type and wounded Pauline. Even the new firm sheriff of Snowhill, Burnett (Played by Frank Wolff, who also shows up in Once Upon a Time in the West, another surprisingly romantic spaghetti western) seems like more of a character who stepped out of a John Wayne western than a world full of grotesque money hungry murderers.
The Great Silence doesn’t go soft on the viewer. Oh no, just get a load of Kinski’s Loco, a breathy bounty hunter who likes to play with his prey before he puts it down. He buries bodies in the snow and then returns later to claim them (No respect for the dead), hides weapons all over town, and will gun down anyone without batting an eye. He is the personification of evil and a true spaghetti western antagonist. Kinski, who was a sensational actor, enjoys going bad in this one and who can blame him. He’s a self-centered character out to only benefit himself and certainly not the residents of Snowhill. Kinski was always so good at adding multifarious emotions to his villainous turns (See Nosferatu the Vampyre to see what he does with Dracula) and Loco is no different. I got the sense that if and when he laid waste to the refuges in the hills, it would not be for the sake of law and order and the only emotion he would feel is desperation, desperation to find more outlaws with a big price tag attached to their head.
It is a shame that the DVD print of The Great Silence isn’t better than it is. It seems as if the print of the film wasn’t properly cared for, as some shots are hazy, sometimes scratchy, and crude. Yet The Great Silence provides haunting entertainment for those who wish to subject themselves to the climax (You’ll feel this one, folks) and is just as grim as the era it was released in (1968, for those interested). The drastic change in location also makes for a western of a completely different breed, making it all the more memorable and distinct. Even the gunslingers have a more flamboyant feel to them and are not simply the tough-as-nails type. If you are a person who enjoys the romanticized west, you may want to skip this one. I recommended this film to a family friend who loves westerns and he reported back with a negative reaction to the film. If you enjoy spending time with some truly revolting and morally corrupt individuals, you’ll want to head to Snowhill immediately.
The Great Silence is now available on DVD.