Director: Sergio Corbucci
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Klaus Kinski & Vonetta McGee
The small village of Snowhill, Utah is in an upheaval through the winter of 1898. The winter has been so brutal that the poorer citizens have to steal in order to survive. Living in the mountains, they become branded as outlaws by the sheriff. With a reward for their capture – dead or alive – bounty hunters are enjoying the luxurious life. That is, until the deadly assassin Silence is hired by the African-American resident named Pauline, who wants revenge for the death of her husband at the hands of the head bounty hunter, Loco. Silence got his name because wherever he goes the silence of death follows. However, Loco learns of Silence’s one weakness. Silence will only shoot his victims once they have already drawn their gun, allowing him amnesty from the law due to the right to defend oneself. Meanwhile, a new sheriff arrives in town, sent by the governor to restore order to Snowhill.
I’ll start off with the most obvious changes in Corbucci’s classic from the standard western. The landscape is covered in snow, which is highly unusual for the genre. Ennio Morricone captures the silence of the snowy mountains flawlessly with his extensive use of glockenspiel and harp, but maintains his rugged western feel.
The film has a great political message throughout. Rather than depicting the characters as malevolent outlaws, they are all working within the law. It is the government that has failed in this film. The bad guys are the outlaws who are essentially hired by the government to kill off outlaws. The outlaws themselves in this case are only trying to survive, and were put in this position by the government’s irresponsibility. Even the good guy is on an equal footing as the bounty hunters, killing under the protection of the government. In this way, The Great Silence is a step ahead of all other westerns of its time by giving each character an incredibly strong personal history created by the corrupt government.
One quick addition that I must include to the idea of a greater background to the characters is the fact that Silence is actually a mute. While nearly all heroes of the Western genre are the silent types, none of them have any particular reason to be. This film actually includes a sequence as to why he doesn’t talk, and how that came to be.
Corbucci is also ahead of his time for his casting of a woman of African descent as the lead female, and as the love interest of a white man. This was highly unusual, considering it was filmed not after but during the Civil Rights Movement, and during the same year as interracial marriage became legal in the United States.
And now, SOME SPOILERS.
The film is notorious for having a very bleak ending. First off, it’s essential to note that this is only one of two endings filmed, though it’s also the only one people have much access to. Even so, the murder of Silence at the end was clearly the finale that Corbucci wanted, as many have analyzed Silence as a representation of Christ. In the end, Silence does not defend everyone in life from the corrupt, just as Christ in human form was unable. A link has also been made between Silence and Che Guevarra who had fought unsuccessfully to defend his people. One of the main analyses that indicate these two links is the fact that just before he is killed, his hands are destroyed. This of course could refer to the crucifixion, but can also relate to Che Guevarra, whose hands were chopped off and sent to Fidel Castro after his death.
This is by far my favorite Western I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, my knowledge of the genre is severely limited. Still, I would recommend this to fans and newcomers to the genre alike. Bravo, Corbucci!
Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):
- Jean-Louis Trintignant had agreed to do the film in order to help out the producer, who was a friend of his.
- The snow in the town of Snow Hill was created by gallons of shaving cream.
- Jean-Louis Trintignant agreed to play in a spaghetti western under the condition that he did not have to learn any lines for the role. That's why the main character conveniently became a mute in the story.