The Great Silence Blu-ray Review (originally published 2018)
On an unforgiving, snow-swept frontier, a group of bloodthirsty bounty hunters, led by the vicious Loco (Klaus Kinski), prey on a band of persecuted outlaws who have taken to the hills. As the price on each head is collected one by one, only a mute gunslinger named Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) stands between the innocent refugees and the greed and corruption that the bounty hunters represent. But, in this harsh, brutal world, the lines between right and wrong aren't always clear and good doesn't always triumph. (From Film Movement’s official synopsis)
Like all of Italy’s cinematic fads, the spaghetti western movement was destined to burned itself out. If other recent fads were any indication, it only had about a decade to make its mark. What had began as a direct imitation of classic Hollywood formulas blossomed into a purely European artistic endeavor, anchored in political subtexts and dynamic imagery. As the 1960s drew to a close, the genre’s most popular innovator, Sergio Leone, had made his ultimate statement on said genre with 1968’s Once Upon a Time in the West (Italian: C'era una volta il West) and other filmmakers turned to comedy and left the market dominated by dopey shenanigans of Terrence Hill (aka: Mario Girotti) and Bud Spencer (Carlo Pedersoli). The Euro-westerns’ other greatest (or at least most enduring) champion, Sergio Corbucci, continued churning out films of varying quality through 1975, but even his career took a downward turn following the release of his magnum opus – 1968’s The Great Silence (Italian: Il grande silenzio; aka: The Big Silence). Once Upon a Time in the West represented the spiritual maturity of the spaghetti western, while The Great Silence represented its most cynical and painful death. The Great Silence is such a relentlessly bleak spiral into finality that it really belongs at the end of spaghetti reign and is best contextualized outside of the similarly great films that followed. The grand spectacle of Once Upon a Time in the West flows evenly into the subversive ideas of the politically-driven Zapata westerns and satire-driven comedy westerns – both subgenres that Leone himself invoked with 1971’s Duck, You Sucker! (Italian: Giù la testa; aka: Fistful of Dynamite) and 1973’s My Name is Nobody (Italian: Il mio nome è Nessuno, co-directed with Tonino Valerii), which Corbucci had helped define. But, if we follow this thread to its real-world endpoint, the spaghetti tradition petered out with a whimper, as the Hills & Spencers of the industry moved onto spoofs of cops & robbers antics. The Great Silence offers a logical, albeit heartbreaking closure for regional westerns and marks a definitive end for one of mainstream Italy’s most incendiary eras. In order to further discuss The Great Silence’s thematic impact, political meaning, and subversion of tradition, I do have to delve into spoilers. Contemporary westerns tend to be similar enough on the plot spectrum that spoilers don’t really apply, but the value of The Great Silence is tied to narrative developments, so I’d recommend those that haven’t seen the movie skip to the video section of this review.
Taken at surface value, The Great Silence is a rather ham-fisted denouement. Other revisionist westerns had killed off their central protagonists, most spectacularly in the case of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), where an entire crew of antiheroes is obliterated in a hail of bullets. But these were still heroic and ultimately glorious circumstances, in which the good guys (or antihero guys) at least win the moral victory. The Great Silence ends with the gut-punching shock of its title character losing the climatic shoot-out and, as he dies, the villain orders the deaths of every single person he was trying to rescue. Corbucci was never above empty narrative tricks, but he put so much care into the mood and tone of this meditation on futility that The Great Silence’s notorious finale simply cannot be dismissed as mere shock value. The major statement is the same one revisionist westerns had been making since the ‘50s: the myth of the American West is inaccurate and the pop culture heroes it spawned never really existed. Corbucci had already specialized in this type of anti-traditionalism as far back as Minnesota Clay (1964) and Django (1966) – movies that end with the protagonists being killed and/or mutilated – but, in these cases, the doomed hero still achieves his goal and saves the day (mostly). Corbucci took his anti-traditionalism more literally with Django by setting it in a gloomy mud-caked town, instead of attractive, John Ford-like desert vistas. He takes this concept even further with The Great Silence by confining the action to snow-swept mountains. It’s still technically the American West, but not the brand peddled by decades of pulp mythology.
The deeper meaning to The Great Silence’s utter nihilism is political. Corbucci skewed militantly left-wing, but, unlike contemporary leftist directors and Zapata western pioneers Damiano Damiani and Sergio Sollima, he rarely made conspicuously political westerns. With some exceptions (1968’s The Mercenary and 1970’s Compañeros in particular), he opted to make more ambiguous anti-authoritative westerns. What sets The Great Silence apart is the way it subverts traditions in the service of its anti-authoritative needs. The key here is the choice of the character’s vocations. Throughout genre history, bounty hunters and other mercenary types tend to be the protagonists. They aren't great people, but the people they’re hired to combat are invariably worse. Sometimes, a hunter’s bounty is a good man or at least a kindred spirit, as seen in films like Solima’s The Big Gundown (Italian: El Chucho Quién Sabe?, 1966), where a shrewd lawman and the misfit bandit he’s tracking band together and bring down a greater evil. At a minimum, bounty hunters usually learn to respect life by the end the film. Corbucci rejects these ultimately upbeat ideas by casting his protagonist and antagonists as bounty hunters, then wrapping the plot around the moral quandaries of their vocation.
Silence meets the standards – he is a stalwart crack shot who brings out the best in the people around him without uttering a word. He’s a legend among the downtrodden outcasts of society, he’s driven by vengeance, shoots with the utter perfection of a god, and even carries a special kind of gun. Loco, on the other hand, bucks the charming rogue type that usually balances out the soft-spoken hero. Instead, he’s a cold, apathetic enforcer. He’s the embodiment of toxic capitalism, driven by efficient profit margins and even his most sadistic acts are a means to an end. In his world, dead human beings are a commodity and he’s not above tweaking existing laws to increasing his numbers. Other western villains are driven by sinful behavior (lust, greed, wrath, envy), Loco’s pathological refusal to take any of the horror personally makes him a singularly frightening character, as well as the perfect vessel for Corbucci’s anti-authoritative message. Without any flashy, supernatural gunfighting skills, special weapons, a silver tongue, or even a particularly compelling ethos (“Survival of the fittest” is the closest thing to a motto he has), he manages to utterly and completely destroy the hero, as well the Christ metaphors and false legends of righteous vengeance he represents.
I’ve read claims that Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful 8 (2016) is somehow a loose remake of The Great Silence. Though it’s true that Tarantino is known for lifting ideas and images from his favourite films and, indeed, Corbucci’s film had already inspired parts of Django Unchained (2012), the parallels are mostly textural. Tarantino’s characters don similar costumes, the major protagonists of both films meet during stagecoach rides, the story is framed by a similar snowstorm (probably not the same historic Great Blizzard, though, since Hateful 8 is set in Wyoming during the 1860s and Great Silence is set in Utah in 1899), and each movie ends on a bleak (though entirely different) note.
The Great Silence is so rich and thoughtful that I had to pick and choose a few things to talk about here. I’ve explored merely a few of a litany of connections to Corbucci’s other work, his more unusual inspirations (including Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath, 1963), or the importance of the central heroine being a person of color, as portrayed by Vonetta McGee. This is an important and rewarding film, but also a brutal and challenging one that I recommend viewing within context of other westerns – Italian or otherwise – in mind.
The Great Silence never had a major theatrical release in North America, then, as far as I can tell, it never made VHS either, at least not in any official capacity. It was released on stateside DVD by Fantoma/Image in 2004, though fans could also import a number of editions fromEurope and Japan. The earliest Blu-rays came from TC Entertainment in Japan, but that version was 1080i and taken from a 25fps source. Film Movement’s new North American debut’s biggest competition is the German BD from Filmjuwelen. I don’t have that particular disc at my disposal for a direct comparison, but I assume that each disc’s transfer was taken from a different source. Film Movement’s 2K restoration was done in Italy (the advertising material doesn’t mention where), which can be scary, given the country’s history of machine noise and overly yellowed remasters. Thankfully, I see none of that here. The transfer has a lot of challenges that are built into the original material. Like most Italian B-movies, it was shot cheaply, quickly, and on subpar film. This means that it is predictably grainy and never quite as sharp as its big Hollywood counterparts. It’s also shot largely in the snow and during the day, which creates blow-out problems. Fortunately, the remaster is sharp enough to bring out finer grain texture, in place of clumpy noise, and, unlike DVD versions, the brash whites do not lead to substantial edge enhancement. The few particularly colorful sequences we do get are pretty dim in terms of their hue vibrancy, but this fits the film’s bleak tone well. The darkest interiors lose quite a bit of detail and the shadows have a brownish quality, but, again, this was part of Corbucci and cinematographer Silvano Ippoliti’s design. One issue I’m not sure I can explain is the honeycomb-like pattern that appears to be layered over some of the brightest outdoor shots (almost all appearing in the first couple minutes). This might be a print damage problem or some kind of digital compression I am unfamiliar with, but, given the way it moves with the camera, I’m going to guess that it is a reflection on the lens. Perhaps it is caused by sunlight reflecting off of the snow?
The Great Silence is presented in mono and its original Italian and English dubs. Unfortunately, for those of us that actually enjoy the English dub, only the Italian track is uncompressed LPCM (the misframed, 1080i Japanese BD is the only way to get an lossless English dub option). We’ll have to settle for a nice, but notably compressed Dolby Digital track. As I’m sure most of you are aware at this point (since I mention it on a nearly weekly basis), almost all Italian releases from the era were shot without sound utilizing multi-lingual casts (in this case, the leads are French, German, American, and Italian), who tended to speak either their native languages or English on set. In this case, I just prefer the English dub performances. Some of the actors dub themselves in the language and the guy dubbing Klaus Kinski is especially charming in the role. Generally speaking, the lack of compression does make a noticable difference in terms of overall volume and the clarity of the sound effects (gunshots in particular). Ennio Morricone’s melancholic score, which tends to buck the rock ‘n roll, mixed genre approach he took with his Sergio Leone movies, also sounds considerably sharper on the LPCM Italian mix.
Cox on Corbucci (14:46, HD) – The director of Repo Man (1984) and Walker (1987) discusses spaghetti western history and pays tribute to one of his favourite directors with emphasis on the importance of The Great Silence.
Western, Italian Style (38:01, HD) – This slightly condescending 1968 documentary, directed by Patrick Morin for American television, covers spaghetti westerns from an outsider’s point-of-view and is included here for its plethora of footage from the set of The Great Silence. It also appeared on Blue Underground’s DVD release of Sollima’s Run, Man, Run (Italian: Corri uomo corri, 1968) and parts of it were used for David Gregory’s 2005 documentary The Spaghetti West.
Original trailer and 2018 re-release trailer Trailers for other Film Movement releases
Alternate endings – Corbucci did shoot two alternative happy endings for the distributors that were too afraid to put out his nihilistic vision; though, from what I understand, neither was ever used (spoilers in each description below):
Alternate ending 1 with optional Cox commentary (2:01, HD) – In this version, Sheriff Gideon Burnett appears suddenly (back from the dead) and rescues Silence from his grisly fate.
Alternate Ending 2 (4:31, HD) – In this second alternate ending, Silence is killed, but Loco’s men opt not to murder the people he was trying to rescue.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Full-sized versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab. Note that there will be some JPG compression.