TRIP SLAYMAKER ’18
Setting a western in a snowy landscape may seem like a simple way to change audience expectations. Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence is one of the great spaghetti westerns of the sixties not just because it was the first set in snow, but because it subverts nearly every touchstone of the genre. The story of The Great Silence is much more cynical and brutal than many of the American westerns that preceded it. The titular hero of the story is played by Jean Louis Trintignant: everyone calls him “Silence” because of an incident in his childhood that left him completely mute. Trintignant must act with the force of his expression and body-language alone, and the absence of lines for his character gives him a great, brooding power. Opposite the film’s hero is the bounty hunter “Loco,” played by Klaus Kinski. Kinski’s wide reptilian eyes and calmly attentive demeanor make him terrifying. His character is deranged and fascinating- he seems to enjoy nothing more than torturing and terrifying innocent people.
Though Trintignant’s Silence has no qualms about killing in the name of vengeance, he is more honorable than his nemesis. Instead of killing unprovoked, he tempts his prey into drawing their weapons first, before shooting them in self defense. One gets the sense that even if the man could speak, he would have little to say to anyone.
Loco arrives in the town of Snow Hill hoping to collect the bounties for a refugee band of outlaws. These are innocent people on the wrong side of law for fairly arbitrary reasons. They live on the edge of town struggling to survive in the snowy conditions without much food. If he had his way, Loco would kill them all and present their bodies to the authorities in order to collect a large reward.
Quickly falling in love with the local beauty who summoned him to town (Vonetta McGee), Silence spends the rest of the film trying to foil the murderous (but completely legal) bounty killings of Kinski’s Loco. He thinks of his work as a simple municipal mechanism. When asked why he never takes his bounty alive, Loco explains that he only wishes to prevent these criminals from exploiting the weakness of the court system: “It’s my patriotic duty to exterminate them.”
As compelling as the film’s non-verbal hero is, and as much as the audience hopes for justice for the innocent group of outlaws, Corbucci has other plans. In the film’s truly shocking ending, The ravenous and scene-stealing Loco murders not only the long-suffering outlaws, but also Silence himself, the would-be hero of the movie. It’s a shocking decision, jarringly presented without romanticism. These are meant to be viewed as pointless deaths, not the result of a hopalong adventure, but symptomatic of a societal problem.
Even with the knowledge that there is no moment of “good conquering evil” in The Great Silence, viewers with interests in film cannot help but be transported by Corbucci’s dazzling direction, the bizarre and unforgettable performance of the great Klaus Kinski, and one of the very best scores of the genre by legendary composer Ennio Morricone. Fans of Quentin Tarantino may also recognize a vast number of visuals from this film in his 2015 movie The Hateful Eight— Silence was the clear source of that film’s style and setting. The Great Silence will play at Cinestudio April 1-4.