This is REKT, the column where each month one Cinepunx staffer recommends films to the rest of the fam. We may be stoked, or we may be wrecked. This month, it’s Joe Yanick’s turn to do the damage. Editor in Chief Liam O’Donnell here with his thoughts on The Great Silence.
That moment when our hero seems to have no hope, to truly be in dire straits, and any number of endearing and possibly ridiculous side characters shows up and saves them? I love that moment. The side kick, it turns out, is not dead; or the other village will show up to help us; or the message went through and our back up is here. This is, for me, such a satisfying moment. It is very often unearned, and too often reflects a sort of easy sentimentalism that is in fact disrespectful to both the audience and the story itself. Too often, until this moment, the world has been a near facsimile of reality, where violence matters and actions have consequences and then in this last emotional and dark moment, the universe changes. Suddenly, rules need not apply, because the heroes must win and we must have our cathartic release. WHOOPEE! I want to be above it, to hate it, to explain why this sort of storytelling is cheap and stupid, and sometimes I am. I don’t often feel that, though. Much the way I will jump at any and all jump scares presented to me, I will almost always give in to the emotional release of a last minute rescue. Let the guardian angel swoop in and save us; that is what I want.
So why do I love The Great Silence so deeply?
Sergio Corbucci might be best known to modern American audiences for his film Django, thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s version (sequel? remake? who cares), but many fans of Corbucci will point to The Great Silence as his true Western masterpiece. Even the maestro himself has described wanting to film a western in the snow before getting the opportunity to make Django; however, predictably the studios felt filming in the snow was simply too much money. Famously, it was this idea, of filming in an environment that represented the stark reality of the American west, that lead the director to make Django so muddy and dirty — of course, after he was explicitly told snow was too expensive. As for The Great Silence, it is hard to imagine this cold and dark tale filmed anywhere but in the snowy climes it was filmed, the Italian Alps standing in for “Snowy Hill, Utah.” The film’s often extravagant and colorful characters seem to shine that much more in contrast to the overpowering white of the films outdoor and studio locations. These characters range from the standard to the unexpected. Frank Wolf as the goofy and yet surprisingly competent sheriff is someone we have spent time with, gruff and impatient but basically good. There is a joy when he finds legal, and even non-confrontational ways to upset the unjust order of class domination that has come to rule the life and death of his territory. Yet, it is difficult to imagine a world where Sheriff Burnett and Tigrero might both occupy space together.
Wolf brings charm to this character one might dismiss as “stock,” but certainly he must be doing something magical to be on screen with Klaus Kinski as he chews not only the scenery but the forest itself. Kinski’s Tigrero (or Loco in the English dub) is a sociopath of the highest degree, taking absurd glee in murdering with the blessing of the state. He is bubbling with malice but also humor, his wild eyes taking in the sheer brutality of his world with a sense of total amusement. At the center, of course, is Silenzio himself, french actor Jean-Louis Trintignant, who says nothing but fills his silent avenger with both pathos and righteous anger. The performances of these three men move this story of justice and vengeance forward, but for me it is the least lauded character who gives this world depth and breadth. Vonetta Mcgee as Pauline does not get enough attention, partly because, like many of the women in a Corbucci film, her character is perhaps not given as much as the rest of the cast. Yet, her performance takes a complicated role, that of both mourning wife and love interest for our silent hero, and makes it work despite the obvious contradictions. She plays both wrathful and vulnerable with an incredible humanity it would be difficult to find in the script.
So, I love the world of characters in The Great Silence, but I also love the story it tells. A town choked with debt under the thumb of an evil banker and business man, whose men have fled en masse to become outlaws in a desperate attempt to survive. Into this mix we have the Sheriff, sent by a governor seeking to establish state control, wresting it away from a class of “bounty killers,” men willing to kill for the reward alone. Yet not alone, for the Sheriff finds there is already an avenger on the scene, a silent gunman who will not draw first, but will always shoot first. His silence comes not from some tough facade, but from a history of trauma, he being the survivor of his parents’ massacre again at the hands of bounty killers. There is a lot of pain, struggle, and death in the film which could collapse under the dramatic weight of it all, and yet the film manages to find humor and action in the midst of it. This is in no small part to Frank Wood’s charming Sheriff as well as the pure insanity and menace of Kinski. Kinski’s performance might add to the general tension of the narrative, but the performance is so grand and extravagant that it also lends some sense of mirth, keeping the film from seeming dire alone. Do not let the ridiculous blood and goofy side gags distract you, The Great Silence is still a very serious film. Few films have contained such a clear-eyed view of the forces at play: economics, greed, state control, lawlessness, and even gender, without itself being a message film. Corbucci doesn’t appear to have an agenda to sell his audience, but he knows what the West was, and it was often ugly. This is no more evident, this clear eyed look, than in the ending of this film.
I remember when I first saw this masterpiece, and I can honestly say I was not ready. I had what could be called honestly an “unfair bias” against Westerns. I had seen Eastwood’s Unforgiven as well as a cornball ’80s western I still have some affection for, Silverado, and of course like any good Evil Dead fan I had sat through The Quick and The Dead, but only out of love for Raimi (though I now appreciate that film a bit more). However, it was my friend (and regular Cinepunx guest) Sean Bennis-Sine who finally said to me, “You have to see a Spaghetti Western before you decide what you think, I have just the one.” That night we watched The Great Silence, and my life was in a small way changed. Yes, part of what sold me was what I listed above, not least of which being the pure and possibly unholy force that was Klaus Kinski. Still it was not only that, but Corbucci’s camera as well. The wide shots of the barren country side, the way it moved across the scenes of desperation and violence, the floating and movement it brought to the film. There is an intensity and darkness to this film, something that demands your attention and your consideration. It is a thick steak or a strong coffee, something that is good but cannot be quickly digested. Yes, it is pulp of a kind, but it is not easily dismissed. Still, I was unsure what to make of it. I had never seen a West like this, a place of such intense struggle, and such a clear example of justice needing to be dealt. The West of The Great Silence, despite some of its more theatrical and amusing flights of fancy, is still a world that jives with our own. Folks strive to live and no one cares. Justice is hard to come by, and when the state seeks justice it is too often simply to maintain control. The state itself, the governor of the movie, is more interested in order than actual justice. So the people look to more extreme means, those of banditry on one hand or vigilantism on the other. Is Silenzio just? Is he righteous? Does it even really matter? He is all the people have, and this alone makes him sympathetic. The Great Silence is unafraid to show this, to highlight the ways this capitalist system thrives on death and greed, while still focusing on telling a compelling narrative. Also, that ending.
I am not sure what it is about the way The Great Silence denies me the exact things I so often want that drives me so crazy, that makes me love it more. The Blu-ray has two special features on it that might be of interest here, both alternative endings which promise a more hopeful world. One, in fact, is the very ending that I can tell you, some 15 years after I first saw the film, I was definitely hoping for. Instead of the stark ending in which all of the characters we care about end up dead, and Tigrero walks away triumphant, they filmed an ending where the charming Sheriff rolls in last minute and saves everyone. I think, had I seen that ending first, I would love it. I didn’t though, and I am glad I didn’t. I want that feeling that despite the reality of our world, of the decisions we have made and the injustices and dark forces in front of us, that it will all be OK. A goofy and yet surprisingly capable force will sweep in last minute and save us, and I will cheer and high-five anyone near by. The Great Silence, in its actual final form, reminds me that this is highly unlikely. The way the world really works is that the greedy and evil walk away unscathed. They win. If I want this to be different, I can neither wait for a deus ex machina to sweep in, nor can I face these forces alone, guns blazing. I have to find another way, or we will all lose, and only Klaus Kinski will walk away, smiling and sinister.