Retro Review: ‘The Great Silence’

When one usually things of westerns, even the spaghetti variety, they immediately think of bleak desert plains. But in 1968, Sergio Corbucci one of the finest filmmakers of the “Spaghetti Western” movement challenged this with one of his best films The Great Silence. This films sees its antihero protagonist on a quest for bloody revenge, not under the oppressive sun but in the unforgiving cold of Utah during the Great Blizzard of 1899.

Following the murder of his parents at the hands of bounty killers, a boy has his throat cut so he can never say who did it. Now a mute known only as Silence, he wants revenge on the bounty killers. Making a pseudo-home for himself in the besieged community of Snow Hill, Silence goads his victims into drawing first so he can gun them down in what is legally self-defense each time. When a particularly nasty bounty killer murders a man at the behest of Snow Hill’s corrupt banker, the widow Pauline hires Silence to do what he does best. But in going after Loco things do not go as the antihero planned.

The world of the Great Silence is dreary and cold both environmentally and in the film’s very soul. This bold decision from the director behind spaghetti classics like Django and Navajo Joe pays off in spades. Anyone here expecting warmth or mercy would be wise to leave as here anyone can get gunned down because someone else wants to survive or simply over a petty grudge. Amplifying this atmosphere is the score from the great Ennio Morricone who considers this to be among his best work. It is fitting that the closest thing they have to a hero in this God forsaken wilderness is Silence. Armed with a world weary gaze and a fast draw, he travels the snowy landscape leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. The fact that Jean Louis Trintignat was able to tell so much of the character’s story without dialogue is a testament to the strength of his strong brooding performance. This makes notoriously troublesome actor Klaus Kinski a perfect foil to Silence as a smarmy killer who is always looking for his next paycheck.

One of the things Corbucci was intent on while making the Great Silence was to break traditions of the wester genre. Far less interested in telling the story of the strong-but-silent loner turning up to clean-up a town, this was a film that the director wanted to use to express his own cynical and pessimistic view of the world. This is why we have a “hero” who wears villain-inspired black and a stalwart sheriff who only ends up dead for trying to take down the bad guy. Ultimately we get a haunting ending wherein neither Silence nor Pauline enjoy getting their revenge and instead are gunned down by Loco and his posse in a somber climax.

While the Great Silence is undoubtedly one of the greatest westerns ever made it rarely receives the credit it deserves. This is largely due to the fact that spaghetti westerns not directed by Sergio Leone are not taken seriously becoming more cult classics than true classics. That being said, in recent years more and more people have come to see this picture for the masterpiece that it is. It is a bleak but powerful film that subverts expectations and gives audiences a film unlike any other of its kind.