Saturday, 15 May 2010

The Great Silence (1968)


Il grande silenzio

Although Sergio Leone was the critically acclaimed face of spaghetti westerns in the 1960’s, equally important work was being produced by Sergio Corbucci. While Leone reached operatic highs with his sweeping camera movements, audacious set ups, and melodramatic performances, Corbucci offered audiences a rougher approach with handheld shots, zooms, and minimalist performances. You cant get much more minimal than the main character of his 1968 masterpiece The Great Silence. He is mute throughout due to having his vocal chords cut as a child. This was Corbucci’s fifth notable western following on the heels of Django (1966), Navajo Joe (1966), The Hellbenders (1967) and A Professional Gun (1968), and he reaches a pinnacle of weirdness by setting his film during the blizzards that befell Utah in 1885. The beautiful snowy landscapes gives the film a genuine uniqueness which is brought to life by the wonderful widescreen cinematography of Silvano Ippoliti.

Despite a screenplay written by four individuals (Mario Amendola, Bruno Corbucci, Sergio Corbucci and Vittoriano Petrilli) The Great Silence is structurally sound and builds its plot efficiently and economically. The film deals in detail with the moral questions surrounding bounty hunters and the outlaws they seek. The film creates a bleak world in which those people with wealth and position can use their money to choose who becomes bounty. The film clearly sides with the ragged bunch of outlaws holed up and starving in the Utah mountains, despite the fact they are heading towards a tragic demise in the town of Snow Hill. But the screenplay is at pains to stress that the bounty killers are working within the remit of the law, which raises all kind of difficult questions that the film leaves despairingly unanswered.

The Great Silence is more interesting than the average spaghetti western because it offers a multiplicity of perspectives. It chooses to give a point of view to all its major characters, and avoids making monolithic judgements. The enigmatic Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who is the nearest thing the film has to a protagonist is a moral killer, significantly different to the money motivated heroes of Leone’s Dollars trilogy. He only fires when his opponents have drawn first (and as a result avoids arrest because he is defending himself), shoots off the thumbs of those who mean to kill him, and hunts down bounty killers because of the cold blooded slaughter of his parents at the hands of a bounty hunting gang. Although this vendetta may be unlawful, its clear that Silence is a defender of oppressed communities. French actor Trintignant (perhaps best known for roles in art films) brings a pathos to the character largely through his eyes and his body language. He doesn’t say a word, but this is a good performance. His minimal performance is balanced by the brilliant Klaus Kinski who plays Tigrero the sadistic leader of the bounty killers. Kinski’s icy demeanour is married perfectly to the snowy mountainous wastelands and he is able to use the snows to get the drop on his enemies, one of which includes a troublesome Sherriff (Frank Wolff). Tigrero bends the law to suit himself, and has the support of Pollicut (Luigi Pistilli) a local businessman responsible for issuing the bounties. Pollicut is the true villain of the piece, because it is his money which sets the chain of events in motion. He has also encountered Silence before, but isn’t as lucky the second time when the mute gunslinger kills him after the attempted rape of Pauline (Vonetta McGee). African-American actress McGee is given a notable and strong role which is quite daring and radical for the time.

The Great Silence truly moves into the realm of masterpiece at the end. Corbucci has patiently led us to the predictable showdown between Tigrero and Silence. And we fully expect our hero to prevail…except he doesn’t. He and Pauline are gunned down in cold blood. Furthermore the outlaws (who have been lured into town with promises of food) are massacred by the trigger happy gang - a reference to a true event that occurred in Utah. Despite this shocking finale (and one I didn’t see coming at all) the film reassures us that the action of the bounty killers in the film led to a change in the law, but this doesn’t alter the shock value of seeing Kinski and his band of sadistic cutthroats ride off into the snowstorm with their lives and money intact. The atmosphere of nihilistic fatalism is aided by a restrained (but typically outstanding) soundtrack by Ennio Morricone which is the final touch of class this excellent western needed. For me this is not only up there with the best of Leone, it is in definite contention of being the greatest spaghetti western ever made.

© Shaun Anderson 2010

1 comment:

  1. I've been dying to see this movie! I really need to. I love the other Corbucci I've seen, I definitely dig the grittier, pulpier Spaghetti Westerns. If you're into Spaghetti Westerns, you should check out my Spaghetti Western Concept Rap album, called "Showdown at the BK Corral." It's basically an epic Spaghetti Western over 9 tracks - very influenced by Morricone. I'd love to hear what you think of it! You can download it for free at


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