The Great Silence film review
From The Spaghetti Western Database
By Joshua A. Morrow.
“…When the law kills, it’s not murder, it’s punishment…”
Much has been written about Sergio Corbucci’s 1968 revisionist western The Great Silence. Most of the commentary focuses on the film’s bleak tone and nihilistic ending. But like many works of art there are more layers, that a focus on the nature of the ending, often eschews. It is clear both from the initial impact of the film and its legacy (reflected in such films as Quentin Tarantino’s own 2015 western The Hateful 8) that Corbucci tapped into a crucial element of the cultural zeitgeist when constructing his masterpiece.
It is easy to focus solely on the film’s imagery, and what beautiful imagery it is. The film’s cinematographer Silvano Ippoliti has a mastery of wide, all-encompassing nature shots. The initial scenes focusing on a lone figure silhouetted against the blank canvas that surrounds him easily captures the attention as well as the eye. It is easy to see how the film’s setting, and how it is shot, reflect the concepts of man verses nature. In the snow-bound setting of The Great Silence, man cannot defeat his environment, he can only pool his resources and resist its onslaught.
The characters in the film from the titular Silence (portrayed by Jean Louis Trintignant) to the Sheriff Gideon Burnett (portrayed by Frank Wolff) to Loco (portrayed by Klaus Kinski) all have varied interactions with their environment. Silence confronts the snow as if it is something to be conquered, even if he loses his horse along the way. Loco uses the snow and the depths it belies to hide armaments and bodies across the countryside, and the Sheriff himself, is undone, in part due to a cruel stroke of nature, guided by the vicious Loco. All these moments are brilliantly handled by the cinematography that not only looks appealing, but factors into the events that transpire.
The actors themselves all bring nuances to their roles that likely would not have existed solely within the screenplay. Kinski’s portrayal of Loco, in many ways, reflects the modern understandings of psychopaths. He is a truly cruel individual, but he affects an amiable personality that borders on charming for a majority of the runtime. Even though, by the end of the film he is framed as the villain of the piece, it is difficult to separate his soft-spoken and cordial personality from the violent acts he commits.
Where Trintignant shines the most is through his interactions with Pauline Middleton (portrayed by Vonetta McGee). Trintignant’s portrayal of Silence, due to his nature as a mute, relies heavily on body language and facial expressions. A task, which in the hands of a lesser actor would prevent a broader understanding of his character. Silence’s relationship with Pauline is one of the highlights of the film. While they are never able to exchange words throughout its runtime, the chemistry between the two actors is palpable. When it finally comes to a head in a love scene, the tender caresses shared between lovers feel earned.
The fleeting interactions between Silence and Loco reflect the two character’s understandings not just of their environment but their relationship to one another. The film pairs the storylines of Silence and Loco, two rival bounty hunters who disagree on motivations, through their individual journeys prior to the climax. By allowing the characters to be, in essence, foils of each other, the film shows the distinctions between their types of bounty hunting and what it reveals about each man. Their first interactions within the stagecoach fosters an intense feeling of tension. When, eventually, they confront each other in the climax the differences between the men are more defined which further increases their connection and the inevitable conclusion.
These character nuances are interesting within the context of The Great Silence. The characters themselves are not particularly deep with elaborate backstories or goals. It is through the minutia of the details of the actor’s performances that allows the story and the character interactions that unfold to be as effective as they are. That is not to say that the script is lacking, it is not. The actors bring elements to the screen that enhance an already well-constructed script.
The music for this film is, of course, conducted by the great Ennio Morricone, and his presence is felt in nearly every scene. Whether it be dramatic tune to highlight the marching of horses over the snow, the emotionally saturated music that plays in the romantically charged scenes between Silence and Pauline, or the powerful crescendo that underlies the unforgettable climax, Morricone is a master of atmosphere. It is this pairing of the musical ambiance constructed by Morricone with the imagery provided by Ippoliti, all under the deft guidance of Corbucci himself, that allows for the melding of styles to create an environment that the audience experiences rather than simply watches.
While one of the key themes of the film is the nihilistic approach of its ending, it has more to say including a discussion about corruption within political systems. The town’s Sheriff represents the civilizing force who comes to the West to try and reshape it in his own image, while also dealing with the conflict that ultimately ensues. He takes issue with the bounty hunters who conduct their business on the fringes of society and wants to apprehend them so that the law, itself, can be the arbitrator of justice. This contrasts with the delightfully slippery turn of Luigi Pistilli, no stranger to villainous roles within the spaghetti western genre, as the vile Minister of Justice cum money lender Henry Pollicut. Pollicut argues that the Sheriff is only one man and that the bounty hunters are necessary to bring about any form of peace.
Of course, Pollicut proves to be a key element in the corruption of the town of Snow Hill. In one memorable instance, he refuses to help Pauline’s husband, an African American man, from getting a job in the town, causing him to resort to thieving to provide for himself and his wife. Then Pollicut, who rules the town with an iron fist, issues a bounty for him resulting in his death at the hands of Loco. The film raises questions of the connection between crime and punishment, between justice and vengeance, and between the law and vigilantism. But it also shows how corrupt political systems can prevent the civilization that the Sheriff so desperately wants to bring to Snow Hill by trapping its inhabitants in an endless cycle of crime and death. Attempting to break the cycle of poverty, in the world of The Great Silence, only leads to the continuing cycle of bloodshed.
All these heavy themes do not have a negative impact on the film’s enjoyment. It is a bleak tragedy, but there are moments of entertainment that run throughout. It is this contrast between moments of levity and tragedy that makes the film so effective, not just as a Spaghetti western but as a piece of art. Despite the abundant focus upon the more tragic elements of the film, it is never boring to watch and moves along with effective pacing that makes it an easy watch, albeit an uncomfortable one at times.
But the overpowering nature of the climax does speak to an inherent darkness at the center of the film. The fact that the alternate “happy” ending feels disingenuous within the world that Corbucci and his collaborators created further reinforces this point. Much like Pauline’s husband doing everything right and trying to get ahead to protect those who were important to him, not everyone can be successful. In the world of The Great Silence, much like in the world we inhabit, sometimes the heroes win, even more often the villain does, and sometimes all we are left with is crimson blood in the snow.