From the Back Row: The Great Silence

The Great Silence (Silence)

“Once, my husband told me of this man. He avenges our wrongs. And the bounty killers sure do tremble when he appears. They call him Silence. Because wherever he goes, the silence of death follows.”

From the Back Row is going to be my editorial of choice that I’ll dive into every once in a while when the mood strikes me. The purpose is simple: highlight some lesser known films that I feel deserve far more attention and discussion than they receive, and hopefully inspire a few people to queue them up on their on their online rental service of choice. Today we’ll take a look at The Great Silence, the 1968 classic spaghetti western from director Sergio Corbucci.

The Great Silence follows the story of a mute gunslinger-for-hire in late 19th century Utah named Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) – a man who always draws second, but shoots first – who agrees to help a group of outlaw Mormons and a woman (Vonetta McGee) who wants to avenge her husband’s death at the hands of a ruthless gang of bounty hunters. Between Silence and Loco (Klaus Kinski), the psychotic leader of the bounty hunters, lies an honest sheriff (Frank Wolff), a man who despises the idea of bounty killing and only wants to see justice.

The Great Silence (Kinski)

It’s one of the bleakest and most cynical spaghetti westerns I’ve ever watched. While Sergio Leone’s visual style and characters were admittedly far more influential to the genre, his stories and plot structure were rather conventional – this is what separates The Great Silence from Leone’s classics and most other great westerns. As soon as the first frame of film comes on the screen, only a snowy emptiness to be seen rather than the usual dusty, hot deserts, you know you’re in for something completely different, completely unconventional. It’s depressing. It’s cold. The romance of the west is completely demolished. In that respect, it’s not so dissimilar to Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Similarly, while most westerns have you fantasizing you were in the gunslinger’s shoes, this one makes you shudder at the thought, and not just because it looks cold.

As the appropriately named Silence, Trintignant (a superb actor who reportedly only agreed to star in a spaghetti western if he didn’t have any lines, thus the muteness) is able to express so much without ever speaking a word and creates for us one of the coolest and most memorable protagonists in any western ever. Same with Kinski, the undeniable legend that he is, who creates one of the most ruthless and despicable, yet chillingly human bad guys this side of Fonda’s Frank.

The incomparable Ennio Morricone scores the film, and as expected, you’ll be humming along with it long before the movie’s end. It’s fairly simple and repetitious compared to some of his other, better known work, but it’s effectively pounding and contributes heavily to setting the atmosphere of the film. As for Corbucci, with this, he only solidifies the fact that he’s the greatest spaghetti western director out there besides Leone (you can check out his better known cult classic Django or his spiritual sequels to The Great Silence, The Mercenary and Compañeros for further evidence). The distinctive atmosphere of the film, the lingering and haunting shots of a snow-covered Utah, the icy stares from both Silence and Loco, the final, climatic gunfight – they will be on your mind for days afterwards.

The Great Silence (Snowy Terrain)

Jonathan
Jonathan is a writer and teacher constantly in pursuit of his fortune and glory. In the meantime, he graciously volunteers his genius to the internet, providing his insight on cinema and showering lessons of life upon all of those who stumble into the third row.

19 Comments

  1. Nope, Corbucci is a director with a large body of work that I've never really tapped. You've really sold me on THE GREAT SILENCE (that still with the horses and snow alone went a long way!!!) I might just slip that into my next amazon order.

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  2. Do me that favor, Kurt! Spreading the gospel of The Great Silence is what I do and I'd love to hear your thoughts on it. I've seen a lot of westerns in my day – I like to think of myself as a western junkie even – and I'd place this one right below the likes of Leone's best. Corbucci's other westerns I've seen are good, but this is just on a completely different level.

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  3. As soon as I watch this, I'll let you know. I'm a western junkie too so I'll get there. (And probably sooner than later!) Cheers.

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  4. I enjoyed the alternative ending where Silence has the bizarre metal hand, and the sheriff comes back from the dead to save the day.

    For those who enjoy 80's trash, the official Django sequel that was created in the 80's is a pretty great film. As for Django, a great film, but it doesn't hold a candle to the Great Silence.

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  5. I hated the alternative ending. Just terrible. I read somewhere that it was for the North African market, because they thought they wouldn't deem the original ending acceptable.

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  6. It is on my shelf and I'm ashamed to not have watched it yet. I go thru phases gorging on Westerns then sort of avoid them for some time. It's at the top of my pile (along with Shane and My Name is Nobody) when I am in the 'zone' again.

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  7. GREAT MOVIE BUT TRY TO SEE A LITTLE KNOWN FILM CALLED CEMETARY WITHOUT CROSSES…RUNS A LITTLE OVER 80 MINUTES, GREAT LOCALE, PHOTOGRAPHY AND SOUNDTRACK…TIGHT LITTLE STORY OF REVENGE…

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  8. I just watched this. I am officially blown away. The winter photography in this is as chilly and brilliant as the willingness to go all the way with that ending. Oi! No wonder the film was never shown in these parts on a cinema screen.

    Corbucci beat Pekinpah (Wild Bunch) and Eastwood (Unforgiven) to the punch in 1968! Wow!

    Anyone know of any other snowbound westerns that look as good as this one?

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  9. Note the hero in the film, named SILENCE, is played by the great Jean-Louis Trintignant who turned in one of the best performances in 2012 as a 90 year old in Haneke’s AMOUR.

    It should also be noted that THE GREAT SILENCE is Michael Haneke’s favourite Western, and probably there reason why he cast Trintignant for the film.

    Which is amazing.

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