||To the uninitiated, the Spaghetti Western means Sergio Leone, who may not have been enormously prolific, but what he did make shook up the filmmaking world to such an extent that his influence is still being felt to this day. The Good The Bad and The Ugly remains the most famous Italian Western ever made, and to an extent the famously imitative film industry in Italy lived in its shadow for some time, and not merely because it was trying to emulate the great man's style and plotting to garner a measure of his profits. But it was not as if Leone was the sole purveyor of distinctively European Westerns in his lifetime.
Heck, he wasn't even the only Sergio making them, as there were at least two other major talents working in the genre with that name, Sergio Solima and Sergio Corbucci, his contemporaries. They were more variable in their results than Leone, but Corbucci in particular was worth examining, for he directed, among other things, one of the major cult Westerns of the nineteen-sixties - two, in fact, for Django in 1966 was arguably an instance of the style going about as far as it could in that era as far as brutality was concerned. Banned in some places, but a major hit in others, it spawned sequels and unofficial entries in a loose series.
That magpie of cult cinema Quentin Tarantino made Django Unchained as a semi-tribute to Corbucci's creation decades later, and the name of Django was, at last, out there in the popular consciousness, not just a reference in Jamaican ska records or adapted into the title of lesser efforts as a cash-in. But what of The Great Silence, or Il Grande Silenzio as it was originally named, the Western Corbucci helmed a couple of years after his major hit? The same tone was there, that strong implication that this genre was not for family audiences anymore, a matter that saw the whole raft of horse operas decline over the course of the seventies.
By that time, nobody was making black hat/white hat morality tales with gunfights and brawls the way they used to, and if Kirk Douglas gave it a go with The Villain, or Terence Hill was still plugging away with his comedy versions for Europe, they were the exceptions, as everything had to be as serious as possible now, ironically because Mel Brooks had laughed them all off the screen in 1974's Blazing Saddles which despite the best efforts of Clint Eastwood stopped them being taken as sincere works when that had largely been relegated to nostalgia. Yet was anybody nostalgic about Django? Possibly. The Great Silence, however, was a different kettle of fish.
It visibly resisted that warm glow of remembrance, and not simply because it was set in the snowbound wastes of Utah, either (it was actually shot on a film set outside Rome, with shaving foam filling the streets to give that snowy effect). You can tell the story is not going to end well for the characters, most of them at any rate, from practically the first few scenes, there's such an ominous tone to the proceedings. Our hero was Silence (or Silenzio), making the title something akin to The Great Gatsby, if you think about it, and he was played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, a French star who had recently enjoyed international success in 1966 with A Man and a Woman.
Had that been Trintignant's main claim to fame, a coffee table book of a movie where glossy imagery was the most important aspect, he could have been dismissed as a lightweight, but he had proved his worth in arthouse pieces before and since, and in a curious way The Great Silence might be regarded in that rarefied bracket. For a start, there was the quirk that Silence, as our leading man, did not speak, supposedly because he had his throat cut as a boy, but actually because Trintignant didn't know any English and believed that was necessary to star in a Western (that's the oft-repeated story, anyway, but had he never heard of dubbing?). Therefore we had a mute gunfighter as our hero, standing up against a plague of bounty hunters, established as a national problem in the early stages and eventually we can well believe why that's so.
The bounty hunters who were the most pressing here were led by already seasoned bad guy Klaus Kinski, who was a bad guy in real life too and appeared to channel that corrupted attitude into the characters he played. This was his most starkly realised of his Western villains, though his Tigrero smiles, he is not an appealing man, he is there to exploit and murder his way to success, though the main reason Silence is a better man is that he does not always kill those who get in his way - he just injures them. Also in the cast were Frank Wolff, the American star who found fame in Italy was not enough to prevent his tragic end, and Vonetta McGee, unusual in a Western for being a black actress with quite a bit to do, essaying the love interest for Silence but in addition giving us that important moral centre rather than being set dressing. But that despair ran through the film, leading to an overwhelmingly bleak conclusion: if you liked a feelbad movie, The Great Silence was up there with the classics. Does that render it more serious than My Name is Nobody, for example? For its fans, it assuredly does.
[Eureka release The Great Silence on Blu-ray with loads of features, see below:
Limited Edition (3000 Copies Only) | O-Card Slipcase | Reversible Poster featuring the film's original artwork | Set of 4 facsimile lobby cards | 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from a 2K restoration undertaken and completed for the 50th anniversary of the film’s original release | English and Italian audio options | Optional English Subtitles | Brand new audio commentary by Western expert Howard Hughes | Brand new audio commentary by filmmaker Mike Siegel | Audio commentary by director and Spaghetti Western aficionado Alex Cox, recorded live at the Hollywood Theatre, Portland in 2021 | Brand new interview with Austin Fisher, author of Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema | Cox on Corbucci - filmmaker Alex Cox talks about Sergio Corbucci [15 mins] | Western, Italian Style - 1968 documentary [38 mins] | Two Alternate Endings (both fully restored in 2K), with optional audio commentaries | Trailers | Stills Galleries | PLUS: A Collector's Booklet featuring new writing by Western expert Howard Hughes.]