Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah painted some bleak and cynical portraits of the West. They gun down children, show the futility of civil war, pile corpses in wagons, and survive by whatever bloody means they have to. It’s my humble opinion that Sergio Corbucci might make them both look like Walt Disney with The Great Silence. (PG-13 Disney, mind you ….)
The plot of Silence is typical spaghetti – mysterious gunslinger rides into corrupt town, aims to clean it with bullets, rival bounty hunters get in his way – but is far more hellish. Corbucci once again makes a greater use of landscape and weather than most Westerns do (Django was one of the few that embraced mud and dank, Silence is the rare one that replaces the bleakness of the desert with the inhospitable winter). But there’s no thrill of the wild here.
Leone took a certain glee in painting his fictitious “age of the bounty hunters”, and Corbucci embraced that spirit in Django, but here he creates a West of punishment and horror. It feels more like Purgatory than faux-history. There’s no world outside of his Snow Hill. Characters ride in and out of it, but they don’t seem to go anywhere or have any awareness of a world outside their town. There’s no greater plan for civilization – at one point the newly appointed sheriff speaks grandly of eliminating the bounty hunter in favor of law, order, and peace. Everyone looks at him as though he’s speaking Greek.
He might as well be for all the odd anachronisms running through this movie. The “bandits” harassing the town and dreaming of “amnesty” are inexplicable, particularly since their greatest crime seems to have been running into debt at the general store. Leone would probably have made them ex-Confederates, Peckinpah may have vaguely linked them to Cripple Creek or the collision of ranchers and farmers, but Corbucci’s references are practically medieval.
The smirking Loco (Klaus Kinski) mentions that killing them is necessary for the greater good because they love to get up in pulpits and preach. If they do so, they will infect the world with their message, and then what will become of us? Their “message” is open to interpretation. It’s widely argued that Corbucci intends them to be Communists, but the medievalist in me can’t help but see them as Protestants or Anabaptists, particularly since the political references are so muddled. It’s a fascinating and weird backdrop, particularly since he ends with a title card that all but links them to the Spartans at Thermopylae. (Go tell the American passerby ….)
For all its deadly seriousness, Corbucci can’t help but throw a bit of satire in with his hero, Silence. This gunslinger isn’t just spare with his words, he’s actually a mute due to medically implausible (and pure grindhouse) circumstances. I’ve heard differing reasons as to why — Jean-Louis Trintignat didn’t want to learn any lines, it’s a mockery of Clint Eastwood and his tight-lipped imitators – but they ultimately pale in comparison to the actual character.
Silence is a tragic figure, and inspires more pity than admiration in the audience. You admire Blondie’s snarl. You just want to give Silence a hug, which actually makes its romantic subplot the most believable one I’ve seen in the genre. Silence and Pauline (the ethereal Vonetta McGee) are both wounded and battered people who wind up clinging to one another in Corbucci’s endless, miserable snowstorm of violence and despair. (The fact that it’s an interracial romance and the film doesn’t even blink an eye is also pretty wonderful.)
There’s a lot of tonal similarity to McCabe and Mrs. Miller, except McCabe and Mrs. Miller are characters you don’t expect to have happy endings. They’re the weak of the West. Silence and Pauline are its noble backbone, the barrier between it and the cruel chaos of men such as Loco.
I hesitate to say too much about The Great Silence because it’s best experienced fresh. It’s a sucker punch. It’s the Western I wish I could have seen after watching every single one made before and after it. This is a genre killer far more than Unforgiven is. Rumor had it once that Eastwood wanted to remake it in the 1970s, but I find that impossible to believe.
Even his darkest movies have faith in humanity. There’s hope even in Unforgiven’s pre-credits crawl. There’s no optimism in The Great Silence. There is just what the title implies – a void where no actions (good or ill) matter.