Film Review: The Great Silence

Classic Italian Western Is Restored To Its Cold, Dark Glory

Devin D. O'Leary
6 min read
The Great Silence
Not a cactus in sight. (Courtesy of Film Movement)
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When it comes to movies, there are Westerns and there are Spaghetti Westerns. Westerns were an industry unto themselves, cranking out an unbroken string of “oaters,” “cowboy pics” and “horse operas” from the silent era of the teens well into the early ’60s, when their popularity finally began to wane. The Western genre is an extended, twangy song of praise to the myth of the American West—a gunpowder-scented, Manifest Destiny-driven tale of the rugged individualism that “tamed” a nation. These stories invariably center on a single, upstanding fellow—most perfectly and quite frequently embodied in the form of genre icon John Wayne—whose compassion, manly virtue and quick skill with a pistol allegedly comprise the fundamental DNA of every red-blooded American male. The capitalistic subordination of nature—in the form of towns, ranches, mines and railroads—and the macho concept of personal honor—often wrapped in the form of “frontier justice”—continue to influence American ideals long after the Western genre has faded from popular consciousness.

Spaghetti Westerns, on the other hand, didn’t really come into existence until the turbulent ’60s. Shot on the cheap, often with Spain’s desert region of Almería subbing for the American Southwest, these darker-toned European imports revised and reimagined the myth of the American West through more distanced and far more cynical eyes. Gone were the noble men in white hats, replaced by rough anti-heroes (most of them Italian actors sporting fake names and dubbed voices) with far more selfish motives. Sergio Leone, with his “Man With No Name” trilogy (
A Fistful of Dollars; For a Few Dollars More; The Good, The Bad and The Ugly), was the biggest luminary in the field. But following close behind was cult figure Sergio Corbucci, whose 1968 masterpiece The Great Silence has been digitally restored in 4k resolution just in time for its 50th anniversary.

The film—shot in northern Italy amid the rocky Dolomites—is brutal, uncompromising and visually sweeping. It was never actually released theatrically in America and didn’t even get a DVD treatment until 2001. So, it’s a treat to finally view it properly in this crisp new restoration, particularly as its indelible snowbound scenery was a major inspiration to filmmaker Quentin Tarantino when he shot his American Spaghetti Western
The Hateful Eight.

The Great Silence takes place in the late 1890s, as the era of the American West is slowly dying and giving way to the 20th century. The Utah Territory is about to be admitted as the 45th state of the Union. Ready to civilize this wild land, the governor dispatches a new sheriff to Snow Hill, Utah. Sheriff Gideon Burnett (stock Roger Corman actor Frank Wolff, who went on to a number of Italian Westerns, including Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West) is a no-nonsense lawman with a surprisingly forward-thinking edict. The era of the gunslinger, the outlaw and the bounty hunter is at an end. Gideon is to pardon as many of them as he can and arrest the ones who don’t want to give up their chaotic ways and become proper American citizens.

But Snow Hill is a hotbed of old school lawlessness. Bounty killers are running rampant, collecting rewards for gunning down anyone with a price on their head. Frequently, these “dead or alive” bounties are placed on poor, starving citizens who have run afoul of greedy landowners, bankers and business owners. Leading these bounty killers is grinning gun lover Loco (frequent Spaghetti Western baddie Klaus Kinski), whose soft-spoken manner belies his callous nature.

Wandering into this chaotic situation is our titular anti-hero, a mysterious gunslinger named Silence (French legend Jean-Louie Trintignant from
A Man and a Woman, Trans-Europ-Express, Z and The Conformist). He’s given the name because, as one character points out, “wherever he goes, the silence of death follows.” Plus, he’s mute; so there’s that.

Silence is a vigilante—a sort of Old West Batman who protects the innocent and defends justice. He carries a cutting-edge “Broomhandle” Mauser C96 pistol (the basis of fellow rogue Han Solo’s DL-44 blaster, don’t ya know). Unlike Han Solo, however, Silence never shoots first. He only fires in self-defense. He’s also fond of showing mercy, merely shooting the thumbs off of his opponents in order to take them out of the gunfighting game.

Upon entering Snow Hill, Silence is hired by vengeance-craving widow Pauline (American actress Vonetta McGee, who would go on to fame in the blaxploitation genre with
Blacula, Shaft in Africa and Detroit 9000). Pauline’s husband was just killed by Loco because local banker/justice of the peace/all-around jerk Henry Pollicut (Luigi Pistilli) put a price on his head (mostly because he wants to sleep with Pauline). Sheriff Burnett would be perfectly fine if Silence put a bullet in the troublemaking Loco. But Loco is an expert at skirting the letter of the law. Plus Silence’s personal code of honor won’t allow him to draw first. And the bounty killer’s icy temperament precludes Silence’s plan to goad him into a gunfight.

In many ways
The Great Silence is the prototypical Spaghetti Western, a perfect distillation of the themes, plots and visual cues present in all Italian shoot-’em-ups. The tone is bleak and cynical. The score is by Ennio Morricone (who did everything from 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars to 2015’s The Hateful Eight). Our main character is a tightlipped, stubble-bedecked stranger in the same mold as genre stalwarts Django and Sartana. By movie’s end we just know a wounded, Christlike Silence will be squaring off against his evil opponent. But The Great Silence subverts a number of tropes, even within the Spaghetti Western genre. Visually speaking, desert sandstorms are traded for mountain snowstorms. Storywise, Loco shares almost equal screen time with Silence, giving the film an unexpectedly evenhanded back-and-forth between hero and villain. The inclusion of an African American actress in a prominent role is unusual for both Westerns and Spaghetti Westerns and hints at some of the topical metaphors Corbucci was making with this film. And finally, there’s the film’s “controversial” wrap-up, which … well, let’s just say it’s not the kind of thing you’d see in a John Wayne movie.

Cold-hearted and unsentimental in the extreme, Corbucci’s long-lost masterpiece is essential viewing for fans of Western movies—particularly those of the non-American variety.
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