The Great Silence

Director: Sergio Corbucci
Jean-Louis Trintignant, Klaus Kinski, Frank Wolff

In my personal life, I have a number of requirements for various and regular occurrences in my life. For example, when it comes to my three meals a day, I not only require that my food be tasty to my fussy palate, I also require that I get at least the minimum amount of nutrition my body requires each day. But the aspect of my life where I most strongly stick to requirements is, as you've probably guessed, when I sit down to watch a movie. Actually, come to think of it, I don't have that many requirements. Most of the time, I have only one requirement when it comes to a proposed movie watching experience that crosses my path, and that is whether the proposed movie is a real movie or not. So many people have misinterpreted as to what I consider to be a real movie, so I'll explain it again. A real movie is a movie that is both interesting and entertaining to watch. Certainly, B movies like Dog Soldiers and Drive are real movies. But so are more thoughtful movies like That Championship Season and Breezy, because the filmmakers took what could have been boring stuff and made them interesting and entertaining. As long as a movie is a real movie, I will sit down to watch it, often even if there are signs that the movie might not be all that good. And that's even if there are attributes to the movie that might throw off other viewers. I don't mind if a movie is in black and white instead of color - I have learned that black and white can sometimes enhance a cinematic story. I also don't mind if the movie happens to be a silent movie - silent movies can be entertaining, as silent movie filmmakers like Buster Keaton managed to accomplish. And while I do prefer to watch a movie presented in its original aspect ratio, I will watch a movie even if it isn't. To me, it's better to see an incorrectly presented movie than to never see it at all.

There's another attribute about movies that isn't a deciding factor for me whether I will choose to sit down and watch it or not. And that is if the movie is downbeat in nature, even enough that it doesn't have a happy ending. Over the years, I have seen a number of downbeat movies that I have admired and were glad to have watched, like the Rock Hudson movie Seconds. I realize that I am in the minority when it comes to choosing to watch depressing movies. In fact, I can understand why Hollywood filmmakers nowadays almost always make the situations in their movies happy by the time the closing credits start to roll. Audiences are for the most part resistant to a movie that has the whiff of being depressing. Just take a look at the Mel Brooks movie Like Stinks. While that movie did have a happy ending, experts theorized that the movie flopped at the box office because of its title, and that conclusion got Brooks to moan, "I thought Americans understood irony. I was wrong." One interesting insight I once read about audiences rejecting depressing movies for the most part came from legendary exploitation film producer Samuel Z. Arkoff. In 1969 his studio produced Angel, Angel, Down We Go, a movie that concerned (among other heavy topics) people dying in skydiving accidents and people going insane. "The movie was not a candidate for the 'Uplifting Picture of the Year' award," Arkoff later admitted. Needless to say, the movie flopped, and looking back on the box office failure, Arkoff said, "The problem with Angel, Angel, Down We Go was that the characters just weren't sympathetic. Life is tough, and the front page is even tougher; people don't want to walk out of a theater feeling worse than when they came in. With Angel, Angel, Down We Go, that is exactly what happened."

So as I said in the previous paragraph, I can understand why most movies that are made nowadays have a happy conclusion. In fact, if I was a movie producer and I was proposed a movie project that was downbeat in nature, I have to admit that I would be hesitant to risk my dollars by The Great Silenceinvesting in it. But I am not a movie producer - I am a movie critic that likes all kinds of movies, even downbeat movies, as long as they are real movies. When I first learned about The Great Silence, I felt I had been informed about a movie that had both attributes. With it being a spaghetti western, I concluded that the movie would be a real movie. And reports I read about the movie strongly suggested that it was downbeat in nature - unlike just about any other spaghetti western - but all the same it was considered to be one of the greatest spaghetti westerns ever made by fans of the genre. I first got a bootleg of the movie, and when it finally became available on DVD in North America, I immediately upgraded. That should tell you what I thought of the movie, but if not, well read on. The events of The Great Silence take place in the mountains of Utah in the small town of Snow Hill. The town sheriff (Frank Wolff, Once Upon A Time In The West) had earlier been ordered by the state governor to restore order in the town, as well as to enforce a government amnesty given to the outlaws in the area. These outlaws, as we soon find out, only broke the law in order to feed and take care of themselves and their families. The husband of town resident Pauline (Vonetta McGee, Blacula) was one such outlaw, but ended up being killed by crazed bounty hunter Loco (Kinski, Crawlspace). Loco and his fellow bounty hunters have for some time been hunting the area's outlaws under the guise of the law for profit, and they are not going to let an amnesty stop them. Seeing this, Pauline has contacted a man known simply as "Silence" (Trintignant, Under Fire), a mute gunfighter who is the best hope to stop Loco and the other bounty hunters. "Silence" is soon shown to be an expert gunfighter, but it's also shown that he has quite a challenge on his hands.

Despite what I described in the above plot description - which does at first glance seem to be a typical spaghetti western plot - I have a feeling some readers may still be alarmed at my discussion about movies that are depressing, and may be wondering if The Great Silence is indeed depressing. My answer to that is: Yes, it is. Wait, wait, wait, don't stop reading this review and head to another review! While the movie may indeed be depressing, the depressing elements have another side to them that make them simultaneously interesting and even entertaining. For example, take what will immediately strike viewers in the first few seconds of the movie. While other spaghetti westerns filmed in the deserts of Spain, this movie shot in a different location, specifically in the Dolomite mountain range of Italy. And during the winter. Yes, the landscape of The Great Silence is a frozen one, where the character trudge and struggle in the snow as they barely fight off freezing to death. Not exactly a happy place to be, of course, and one may think that this depressing environment really weighs down on the movie. But there is another, stronger, side to this seemingly miserable place. Naturally, it gives this movie a much different look than other spaghetti westerns, and the fresh environment provokes interest in the viewer. Another way this snowy landscape catches the eye of the viewer is that it happens to be hauntingly beautiful. Director Sergio Corbucci (Compaņeros), aided by the cinematography of Silvano Ippoliti (Super Fuzz), presents the snow-covered landscape as having a majesty and an almost brutal strength that comes at times close to overwhelming the characters in the foreground. You will feel the cold and misery, but you can't take your eyes off what you are seeing.

I will admit that the depiction of this wintery environment is not perfect - there are times when you can see the gauze Ippoliti put over the camera lens, and the streets and buildings of the town of Snow Hill look like they have been covered with shaving cream by the set decorators instead of real snow. But for the most part, the look of the movie is sound. Speaking of sound, that's another way that The Great Silence takes something that might be considered depressing but is made to be palatable. That happens to be the musical score by the great Ennio Morricone. Certainly, Morricone's score (which at times shows it was influenced by Indian music) gives the movie a kick during the action moments. But for the most part, the music is more sombre and serious than the music he composed for other spaghetti westerns. The music aches, but at the same time it's so lovely that it can almost put tears in your eyes, the best example being what plays during the movie's love scene. The music often lulls the viewer so much that when a scene of violence suddenly comes up, it comes as a complete shock. The violence in Silence (yes, I know that rhymes) is different from most spaghetti westerns in that it is not "fun". It too has a severe depressing edge to it. Unlike most other spaghetti westerns, we get to see a good amount of blood. And it is not just the bad guys who bleed in the movie; the characters who are considered to be "good" also suffer a great deal in the movie, with an incredible amount of abuse inflicted on them. There's so much brutality (physical as well as mental) you will seriously wonder if good will prevail.

Which leads to another element of the movie that will be considered depressing by many viewers - the ending. I won't spoil things by revealing what happens at the end, except it will leave many viewers slack-jawed and stunned. But I think any viewer with some smarts will realize, after being outraged for several seconds, that this ending was the correct one for this particular western. What we see up to this ending would not fit with a typical western ending. And it's certainly memorable. I think one big reason that the ending of The Great Silence is so powerful is that the various characters we have seen to this point have grabbed us. That's extremely true of the movie's chief antagonist Loco, played by Klaus Kinski. While Kinski played a lot of cruel characters in his career, Loco is a particularly vile person. He shows no love or concern to anyone in the entire film; every action of his is geared towards making money and killing outlaws. He often tortures someone physically or mentally before they die. He is utterly repugnant, but Kinski with his trademark crazed performance helps make the character so depraved that you look on. It's interesting that there are a lot more scenes with Loco than there are of the movie's chief protagonist Silence. This does weaken the movie somewhat, but at least the scenes with Silence are good thanks to the acting of Jean-Louis Trintignant. His role is challenging because his character does not utter a single word during the entire movie. But with his facial expressions alone, Trintignant speaks volumes. We see that the character is constantly in pain (physical and mental), and that helps win him over to the audience since like us he is far from a perfect person. It also makes the movie more exciting, since there is a question as to whether or not he'll succeed in his aims or even just survive. I still won't say what happens at the end, but I will say that if you have any interest in westerns - or are tired of typical westerns - The Great Silence is a breath of fresh air... despite that air also being cold and at times overwhelming.

(Posted August 28, 2019)

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See also: A Bullet For Sandoval, Salt In The Wound, Spoiler