R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: The Great Silence

In retrospect, I came to love Spaghetti Westerns kind of late. As a type of osmosis from my father, I’ve loved Westerns all my life, but he was always hesitant to recommend the Italian versions. I think the films simply took him out of reality too much to really get into them in the same way he could identify with your standard John Wayne outing. Thing is, the guy still loved Clint Eastwood films with a passion so there was never a shortage of “Man with No Name” type films around. We were constantly watching The Outlaw Josey Wales or High Plains Drifter which made an indelible impression on me.

Because of my father’s disdain for Spaghettis though, I stayed away from them for a long time. Fast forward to my first semester in college and I am on a HUGE Clint Eastwood kick. I’m going out and buying every film I can get my hands on, but I’m hesitant to purchase The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, even though all of my friends are recommending it. Of course, after watching the film, my opinion totally changed. Spaghetti Westerns weren’t goofy, as my dad had stated. They were awesome, operatic films that pushed the envelopes that had been set for the genre by Howard Hawks and John Ford.

The films looked and sounded different too. Instead of the back lots of Hollywood or the Monument Valley of The Searchers, we got vistas from the wilds of Spain. While these did service to stand in for the Mexican border as well as provide Spanish extras by the hundreds, the locales still seemed alien and foreboding. Also different was the music, often provided by maestro Ennio Morricone, which was a hundred miles away from the familiar and heroic themes of The Magnificent Seven or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

Unfortunately, unlike many genres that I’ve really sunk my teeth into, Spaghetti Westerns are kind of rare in comparison. Of course every fan of the genre knows the films that started it, Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name Trilogy or Dollar Trilogy starring Eastwood as his mythic antihero. They had style, and immediately set themselves apart from their American counterparts by making the lines blur between their black and white hats. Feasting on Leone’s style doesn’t last very long though, as past this trilogy is merely one more movie in the genre, Once Upon a Time in the West. Then the well runs dry.

While on my latest Spaghetti Western kick, due in part to Kill Bill making me hunger for more of the films, I finally discovered another Sergio, this one named Corbucci. For those who haven’t seen the director’s first foray into Spaghettis, Django, the film is very much on the same level with Leone’s first two Dollar entries. The movie is fun, with Franco Nero as his Clint Eastwood stand in, and a small army of villains for him to take out. It was the next Corbucci film that I watched that really set the director apart, even within this rebellious genre.

The Great Silence Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Klaus Kinski, Vonetta McGee, and Frank Wolff. Directed by Sergio Corbucci

From the outset, you can see why the The Great Silence stands apart from every other Spaghetti Western. Oh sure, a graceful Ennio Morricone score rings out on the soundtrack. A lone rider is shown, making his way in the vast wilderness, trying desperately to make it to his destination. This is a corrupt world, where officials keep the locals in check by putting rewards on the heads of those who oppose them. Bounty hunters are employed to murder innocents. Few heroes are around to take up for the weak. All these plot devices fit perfectly within the framework of this Italian genre. Here’s the big difference; snow.

Now while this may seem like a simple difference on the surface, this is a hell of a way to set yourself apart from the rest of your contemporaries. Where’s 99.9% of this genre takes place in European deserts, standing for the North American southwest, this film would use the snowy peaks of Italy in place of arctic-like conditions of 19th Century Utah. In the town of Snow Hill, where much of the film takes place, tons of fake snow was used to set dress the location, which was actually quite temperate. Normally, this would look pretty terrible and obviously fake, but Corbucci was a director of great skill. The director uses the snow and terrain as if they were another character in this film. The wilderness closes in on all sides in this film, making the terrain treacherous and claustrophobic.

Those that were lucky enough to see John Hillcoat’s amazing new Australian Western, The Proposition, can see how terrain can be used to create tension within a film and give a mood that permeates throughout the entire proceedings. In the same way Hillcoat used the Outback, Corbucci uses the colder climate to saturate the screen with dread. Brilliantly done, the director flawlessly hides the fact that shaving cream was used for the fake snow used throughout the town the movie takes place in.

Not to be outdone, much of the dread from the film also comes from Klaus Kinski’s Loco, a bounty hunter killing many innocents who greedy politicians have convicted. He’s a deceitful and underhanded man, desperate to collect his bounties by all means, even kidnapping men’s families to draw them out and then killing them on sight. Kinski was very popular in Spaghetti Westerns at this time, but this was by far his most villainous character. I find it interesting that he is not dressed in scraggly garb, such as he is in say, For a Few Dollars More as the character known only as Wild. Here, Corbucci puts Kinski in fine furs. He’s profited from the death and misery he’s caused. He’s got no reason to stop. He’s almost above the law as he’s in the pocket of a local magistrate.

Then out of the wilderness comes a man to stop him. Like the antiheroes of Eastwood and Nero, Jean-Louis Trintignant rides into town as Silence, a hero made mute as a child by bounty hunters aiming to kill his father. He sports a huge scar on his neck similar to that of Eastwood in Hang’em High. This character takes the “strong, silent type” to the extremes. Silence’s actions speak louder than any words could, taking down unscrupulous bounty hunters by the score, even taking the thumbs of those that have given up.

Considering that Trintignant was not actually the first man to be cast in this role, its hard to imagine what this film would have turned out like. Apparently the part was supposed to go to Corbucci’s regular leading man Franco Nero, but he had to drop out due to a scheduling conflict with another film. It was Trintignant apparently that suggested the character be mute. This was apparently because the actor didn’t want to learn any lines, but this really makes the character striking. Surviving only on Trintignant’s charisma, Silence flourishes as this film’s hero. Dressed in ragged furs with a bullet belt similar to that of Chewbacca in Star Wars and carrying an 1896 9mm Mauser Broomhandle (that might as well have been an M-16 the way he uses it), Silence is an avenging angel getting retribution for families who have lost loved ones. Trintignant had one other huge contribution to the notoriety this film possesses, but I’ll cover that towards the end of the column.

What’s really great about these two characters is how very much alike they really are. Even Loco, who has very few scruples, has his own code of ethics which he shares in common with Silence, such as not ever being the first to draw a gun. Silence, for all his righteousness is really only one step away from being a Bounty Hunter himself. This makes for an interesting dichotomy. They each just fight for different reasons; Loco for money, Silence for justice and vengeance.

It is important to note that with the main character of this film being mute, it was essential to the film’s success that Corbucci put a strong cast around him. The town of Snow Hill, where most of the action in this film takes place, is full of lively characters, from the underhanded officials to prostitutes with hearts of gold. Vonetta McGee’s haunting eyes convey so much hurt as Pauline, a woman who has suffered from the murderous rampages of Loco. She takes Silence in, begging him to bring Loco to justice and take revenge. In a film filled with butchery, these two characters show the film’s only moments of genuine tenderness.

The most memorable character outside of the film’s leads is Frank Wolff’s Sheriff Burnett. Some may remember Wolff as Brett McBain, the Irish farmer who is massacred along with all his family by Henry Fonda’s Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West. As Snow Hill’s do-gooder sheriff in this film, Wolff is able to show off his very formidable comedic side which another nice counterpoint to the film’s violence, which is in great abundance.

Corbucci makes his violence much more brutal than that of Leone. In its place is hard hitting savagery that’s almost more akin to the works of Dario Argento. People lose fingers and all of the violence has horrible consequences. This isn’t goofy Action film logic on display, but grim carnage.

Heavy Spoilers
Finally, the movie’s ending is without peer as the grimmest in this entire genre. Those looking for a happy ending will not find it here. Never have I seen evil triumph in a film in such a way as it does here. According to imdb.com, it was Trintignant who actually came up with the film’s finale. Another ending was shot and used in some country’s that demanded an upbeat ending, but watching it on the DVD of the film, you can see how much more powerful the film is with the ending it already has.
End Spoilers

The Great Silence stands as a masterwork by a director that has been largely overshadowed by the genre’s lone superstar director. Sergio Corbucci may not be remembered by as many fans as his contemporary, but he will go down as one of the best directors of Spaghetti Westerns. If you’ve tired of wearing out your Dollar Trilogy seek out this great film. It’ll stay with you more than you think is possible.

Picture Credits: amazon.com, imagesjournal.com