Monday, April 28, 2014

The Great Silence

The Great Silence, directed by Sergio Corbucci (who also made Django), was released in 1968. It contains four elements that must have made it quite shocking at the time: its setting, its main character, its romance, and its ending. If you want to be surprised by the movie, read no further because I'm going deep into spoiler territory. I don't think I can discuss the film without going into greater detail, so you have been warned.

In the snowy mountains of 1898 Utah, bounty hunters ruthless enforce the law, gunning several so-called outlaws (Wikipedia says they're ostracized because they're Mormans, but I must have missed that when watching. Another article says it's because they've been forced to steal because of the harsh winter, which we see in evidence when they steal the sheriff's horse to eat it, but they were already outlaws by then.) in cold blood, men who were most likely starving and often in front of their families.  The widow of one of the dead men (Vonetta McGee) wants revenge against the man who killed him, Loco (Klaus Kinski), an especially dangerous and cunning bounty hunter. To this end, she engages the services of gunslinger known only as Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a man with a dislike of bounty hunters who provokes them into drawing first so he can kill them in self-defense. However, Loco, perhaps the smartest villain of any Western ever, refuses to take the bait.

This is not a romantic portrayal of the Old West. The Great Silence is a Spaghetti Western, that is to say an Italian-produced Western, and like many Spaghetti Westerns, the film has a raw grittiness that is counter to most examples of the genre Hollywood churned out at the time. It's also quite violent at times (Silence tends to shoot off men's thumbs to keep them from ever using a gun again). Unlike most Westerns, Italian or otherwise, The Great Silence is not set in the wide open plains or open-air desert; it's set in a cold, dank wintery mountain top. Roads are buried under feet of snow, and horses struggle to trot through. Corbucci includes a number of striking images that show just how desolate and miserable this place is, the snow often used for white-out effect as these dark men in black clothing are the only things visible in the frame. At times, it's rather beautiful.

Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, a similar type of character in Sergio Leone's work, was famously a man of few words. Silence takes this archetype to its logical conclusion; he's mute, unable to speak as a result of a cut throat when he lifts up his scarf to show the scar. It's a risky move, but it pays off. The fact Silence never speaks adds to mystique and presence, forcing others around to do all the talking. This is a man who won't be reasoned with, who won't back down, and who doesn't feel the need to explain himself to anybody. Wherever he goes, we hear, he leaves behind only the silence of death.

Eventually, Silence and the woman who hires him, Pauline, hit it off and have a love scene. What makes this especially interesting for its time is the fact that Silence is white and Pauline is black. Certainly, in the forty-plus years since this movie came out, the idea of an interracial couple is no longer as taboo as it once was, but for 1968, that's a fairly progressive and bold development, so kudos to the filmmakers for including it.

The fourth shocking element I referred to is the ending. Last chance to stop reading if you don't want to know before watching. As can be expected by anyone who has seen other Westerns, The Great Silence comes to head with a final showdown between Silence and Loco. Silence, injured and weakened, heads out to confront Loco at a saloon, where Loco has tied up the outlaws and threatened to kill them all if Silence doesn't show up. The two enemies square off, and at the moment of truth, Loco wins. Silence is gunned down. Pauline grabs his gun to avenge the second man she's loved, and she's killed, too. Then, Loco and his other bounty hunters execute the prisoners and leave town, intending to return later to collect the reward. The end.

Holy Hell! I can't think of any Western where the villain has so convincingly won and with such finality. Sure the heroes may have been killed, but they took the villains down with them or achieved some measure of moral victory or paved the way for their eventual defeats. Here, Loco wins and gets away with it. I couldn't believe it when I saw it. I was stunned. It's so bleak, so dark, but also logical; with how it's set up and all the other factors in play, Loco had to win. I can only imagine what the audiences raised on John Wayne thought when they first saw it.

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