Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a mute bounty hunter in turn-of-the-century Utah. He has become, out of necessity, what he hates: bounty hunters killed Silence’s parents and slashed his throat. Attempting some sort of balance, Silence kills other bounty hunters, and likes to provoke them into trying to shoot first so that he can kill them legally. Some hero. And yet this is the hero we get in The Great Silence, a midnight-dark “spaghetti western” by the director Sergio Corbucci, perhaps best known for 1966’s Django. That film was filled with pain and gore and a dismal view of humanity, but at least it allowed its eponymous protagonist to triumph. The Great Silence is made of bleaker and deeper stuff. It’s been called “great” and “Corbucci’s masterpiece.” It just might be.
Corbucci liked to fill his westerns with discomfort and unpleasant weather. Django was dank and muddy and cold. The Great Silence was partly shot around the Dolomites, a cruelly stunning Italian mountain range, blanketed with snow at the time. The film’s recurring image is of a lone horse and rider trudging through deep snow. I’m not sure what seems more godforsaken, less hospitable to human survival — this chilly snowscape or the Monument Valley desert locations used in many American westerns. At times the icy locale has the look of a frozen hell or an ashy post-apocalyptic world, and if you ignore the details tying the story to 1898 it could easily be taken as a nightmarish future á la Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. (McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is nothing if not a nihilistic Corbucci western set in ghastly print.)
Silence’s major opponent is a cold-blooded killer known as Loco or Tigrero depending on which version of the film you’re watching (I prefer Tigrero). As played by Klaus Kinski, Tigrero isn’t really all that dark or evil; he is simply a creation of the world he lives in, and so he survives by his considerable wits and his willingness to kill. Those hoping for a juicy, manic Kinski performance, like the ones he always spat out for his frenemy Werner Herzog, may be disappointed — Tigrero scarcely bats an eye even when someone shoots his hat off his head. Blonde and blue-eyed, Tigrero can be taken as the Aryan menace whose shadow darkens the globe, but really I think Corbucci (who co-wrote the script with three others, including his brother Bruno) is after a more general complaint about capitalism and its ruthless logic in which men make money by spilling blood. In the words of the old Don in The Godfather Part III, “Finance is a gun. Politics is knowing when to pull the trigger.”
There’s something of a romantic subplot, when the widow Pauline (Vonetta McGee), whose husband has been killed by the bounty hunters, hires Silence to go after Tigrero. Eventually they fall into bed, itself a bit of a radical gesture in an era when Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was a huge deal, and that guilty-white-liberal classic wasn’t a tenth as erotic as Corbucci allows the interracial tryst here to be. So there is some mitigating soft and human beauty here, not just the harsh splendor of the icy mountains. It helps to give The Great Silence a bit of texture. Corbucci knows that nothing is gained by showing a world that’s completely, irredeemably repulsive and inhuman, because we also need some sense of what has been lost in this post-morality universe, what scraps of love or passion must be clung to in order to render life bearable.
We need that most of all because of the denouement Corbucci leads us to. The Great Silence is notorious (and heralded) for its defiantly unhappy ending. There is no Django here to save the day; there is only a mute gunfighter with a mangled right hand, and he tries to step up anyway, but his efforts don’t guarantee him success. They are met, you could say, with a great silence — the quietude of the indifferent land, the noiseless dark of the water under a frozen lake, the void of an absent God. The alternately traumatic and mournful score by the master Ennio Morricone seals the aesthetic: this is a world where men are either killers or corpses, or both, and the great silence swallows up prayer as well as gunfire.