At first glance there is little to distinguish between Jean-Louis Trintignant’s spaghetti western protagonist ‘Silence’ and Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man with No Name’. But over the course of Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence we see, not only a completely new figure emerge from Trintignant’s stubbled, squinty-eyed gunslinger, but a completely separate idea of a spaghetti western from a genre made up of mostly Sergio Leone imitators. Much like Leone, Corbucci’s film is Italian produced, stars various European actors (including Klaus Kinski and Frank Wolff who both appeared in Leone’s films) and is less an American history explored than an American myth forged. But where Leone’s myths turn to the traditions of cinema’s greatest mythmakers, Akira Kurosawa and John Ford, Corbucci’s myth takes on the form of a dark fable, drawing upon America’s bloody history.
Underrecognized upon initial release (and vastly overshadowed by Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West) The Great Silence was rejected by 20th Century Fox’s producer for a potential American release, reportedly having hated the film’s controversial ending. It would however see the light of day in its home nation of Italy under 20th Century Fox’s studio label and over the years accumulate an impressive cult status as well as some glowing critical revaluation. 50 years later, it even receives a pristine 4K restoration making its even most barren images breathe with life.
Set in a snow-laden valley where a small force of disgruntled townsfolk (referred to as outlaws) have retreated to the wilderness to escape a gang of bounty killers who have taken over their small township on behalf of corrupt bankers. A man referred only as Silence (played by Trintignant) happens upon the snowy mountain pass and encounters the bounty killers firsthand who mistake the lonely traveller as one of the outlaws. The error turns out to be a fatal one when Silence draws his pistol and downs several of the bounty killers in the blink of an eye, leaving only one alive. The survivor runs out of the brush with his hands in the air. Silence—in an act of either cruel egotism or biblical retribution—shoots the bounty killer’s thumbs off, before riding off.
The film proceeds to follow two of the outlaws who—tired of hiding in the cold, desolate brush—return to their homes after hearing about the arrival of lawyers. One of the young outlaws enters his mother’s hut and is met by one of the lawyers, a flaxen-haired Loco. Loco, not actually a lawyer, is really the cruel, treacherous leader of a gang of bounty killers luring the unsuspecting outlaws out of hiding; by the scene’s end Loco shoots the young outlaw in front of the distraught mother and afterward sardonically blurting out, “Try to understand, madam, it’s our bread and butter. ”
The intro of Corbucci’s The Great Silence sets the unrelentingly bleak and treacherous tone for this subversive, atypical western. Loco (an electric Klaus Kinski) plays a villain role at once embedded in a longstanding western tradition of the cackling gunslinger, but he is also a villain ingrained deeply into the film’s social themes. He, much like the corrupt bankers who have hired him, arrives on scene with a smile and bearing gifts before sweeping the rug from one’s feet. He poses a much more dangerous threat than a fast draw and a loaded gun, but the growing threat of capital—a force that invades from the inside and ravages with empty promises, legal loopholes and barefaced opportunism.
In The Great Silence, capital and legality play unusually large roles in a genre defined by lawlessness. But Corbucci uses the tenuous boundaries of law and lawlessness to greater explore the moral divisions of his characters, particularly between Silence and Loco. Clearly, Silence is the character designed to attach our sympathies to. Played by the unusually rugged, handsome Jean-Louis Trintignant, Silence commands the screen with his ability to out fast-draw any challenger and come out with his hands clean. But when he comes across the wisecracking Loco he finds a new challenge that can’t be simply be solved with a fast-hand.
The irony of Corbucci’s film is that Loco’s atrocities and misdeeds are all committed within the bounds of the law—these include the killing wanted unarmed men, stacking their frozen corpses onto stagecoaches and even leaving their bodies lying, unburied. In a scene of marvelous absurdity and psychological tension (replicated in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight), Silence confronts Loco as the gang leader is playing cards. He provokes Loco by flicking a lit-match into his drink, attempting to get the man to draw his pistol. Loco doesn’t so easily succumb to the temptation. He—like Silence—is equally aware of the law of self-defence and refrains from responding. This confrontation results in among the genre’s most baffling stalemates, brilliantly delineating between right and wrong by showing how any man, whether good or evil, can manipulate written laws to support their own cause.
Strangely, Loco becomes a distorted mirror image of Silence; both kill in exchange for payment, both work under their own definitions of law and order, and by the end of the film, one is just as willing to die for his beliefs as the other one is willing to kill. Sergio Corbucci strangely identifies with both men, both in their own ways represent something deeply embedded into people—Loco very clearly manifests as our inner most desires and Silence as our strongest held ideals. Both—in a conflict that becomes as metaphysically philosophical as bloodily physical—are locked in a Mexican standoff of contradicting social and moral codes.
Sergio Corbucci ends his film with a fatalistic standoff that still fosters a mostly unwarranted animosity from even its most devoted audience base. Corbucci’s ultimate suggestion is that even the strongest ideals, virtues and beliefs one holds will eventually be snuffed out by our undying need for money and the material—perhaps too candid for some to accept at face value. The film ends with a ending title card designed to soften the supposed blow its conclusion leaves, but if the intent of the ending was to be anything less than cataclysmic and shattering then the idea of a reaffirming side-note just seems counterintuitive. Corbucci’s ending, nevertheless, remains a class of artistic nihilism shared only with Sam Peckinpah.
No doubt, Sergio Corbucci himself isn’t nearly as tactile, graceful or skillful a filmmaker as his contemporary Sergio Leone, but where Leone’s command of style and craft complimented his devotion to the form, storytelling and overall magic of cinema, Corbucci’s terse, elemental and rugged direction compliment a world shook by corruption and evil, and plagued by treachery so pervasive it enfolds as powerfully through its cold setting as does its even colder characters.