If you’ve seen Sergio Leone’s THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, then congratulations! You’ve seen the greatest movie ever. But even if you’ve seen every Western that Sergio Leone made (which you really ought to), you’ve still only scratched the surface of the vast reserve of wonderfulness that is Italian Westerns. Another Sergio – surname Corbucci – made some of the best-regarded of those movies.
Sergio Corbucci’s THE GREAT SILENCE is about a mute gunslinger nicknamed “Silence” (Jean-Louis Trintignant, maybe not a household name but a terrific actor and still starring in major movies at 82), who tries to help a small community who have been besieged by a band of vicious criminals, led by the cooly genocidal bounty hunter “Loco”, played by the ever-disturbing Klaus Kinski. Loco collects dead bodies like a hunter collects pelts, while Silence only kills in self-defense – to be fair, he does provoke a lot of dickheads to draw down. That way it’s legal. Silence kills bad guys. Loco is the worst guy. Inevitably they’re going to meet up. Sounds like a movie we may have seen a few times before, right?
The main element that drew me to THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY when I first saw it, the element that got me into Italian Westerns for life, and the element that THE GREAT SILENCE has in abundance, is the otherworldly quality of it all. There’s a beautifully weird disconnect that happens when Italian filmmakers use international actors to shoot stories about the American West in (usually) Spain. THE GREAT SILENCE is one Italian Western that doubles down on the otherworldliness. The story takes place in Utah, on a wooded frontier blanketed with snow – even the horses have a hell of a time getting anywhere. The characters are bundled up in layers of animal hides, brown and grey spots in an oppressive blanket of whiteness. And the score by Ennio Morricone is one of the most haunting you’ll ever hear, even by the haunting standards set by the maestro.
THE GREAT SILENCE will stick in your guts, and that’s good because it leaves you with a few things to think about. Corbucci wasn’t the most political of Italian-Western directors (that’d be the third Sergio, Sollima), but there is some clear subtext here if you’re interested in looking for it. It may or may not mean much that the voiceless hero is a Frenchman – maybe Trintignant was just plain the best guy for the job – but I’d say it certainly means something that a blond, blue-eyed German is the monster of the piece, and Loco’s every action in this film bear out that hunch. His monstrousness is familiar, is all I’m saying.
Moreover, it says plenty that the romantic interest, Pauline the vengeful widow who sets Silence on his collision course with Loco, who is the man who killed her husband, is a black woman – Vonetta McGee, who went on to star in several grindhouse-friendly films including BLACULA, DETROIT 9000, and SHAFT IN AFRICA, and in my well-educated opinion is only second to Claudia Cardinale in the ranks of most beautiful women ever to headline a “spaghetti” Western. Race isn’t an issue to Silence, who proves his open mind by engaging in probably one of the earliest examples of interracial love scenes on film, but it most certainly is to Loco, who, in addition to his many other crimes, is blatantly racist. Corbucci couldn’t be drawing the line between good and evil any more clearly, which is why the movie ultimately becomes quite literally a punch in the heart zone.
Non-spoiler warning: THE GREAT SILENCE has probably THE down ending of all time. I’m not going to get into it, but trust me on this one. It’s almost unbearably sad, but it’s also resolutely unique and entirely unforgettable. If you think you can handle the heartache, then I couldn’t recommend this movie any more highly.
THE GREAT SILENCE is screening from Sunday September 9th through Tuesday September 11th at Cinefamily in Los Angeles. This is the world’s only surviving 35mm print. If you want to see this movie theatrically, this is the time.
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