Blood stains the snow in Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence, a 1968 western that is as bleak as its uncharacteristic locale. It explores the fragile formation of justice in untamed lands, pitting a mute gunslinger against a squad of callous bounty hunters. The action is underscored by Ennio Morricone’s score, which is chillingly forthright.
Fans of the spaghetti western genre will recognize Corbucci’s name, of course. He delivered Django in 1966 and seems to be moving in another direction with The Great Silence, at least in terms of how he builds his heroes. In this outing, there are no attempts at crafting an immortal presence incapable of downfall.
The Great Silence is based on the Utah town of Snowhill and the year is 1898. The poor have turned to robbery to get by, which in turn has produced several bounty hunters looking to collect money for turning in these criminals. Loco (Klaus Kinski) is a particularly prolific bounty hunter, using trickery and his sheer meanness to bring in bounties.
After Pauline (Vonetta McGee) loses her husband to Loco’s gun, she hires the mute gunfighter Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) to take down the bounty hunter. He arrives in Snowhill along with the inept Sheriff Gideon Burnett (Frank Wolff), who tries and fails to bring about some semblance of law and order.
Loco and his bounty hunter friends have been living high on the hog for quite a while. They aren’t doing anything illegal, despite a distinct lack of moral character, and they achieve their goals by any means necessary. Sheriff Burnett really doesn’t have a case against them when he arrives at Snowhill, which makes the job he’s been tasked to do by the worthless governor (Carlo D’Angelo) all the more trying.
Snowhill is one of many American locales in a time of transition, with no better method for handling crime and punishment than the cold steel of anyone and everyone who can pick up a gun. Loco is really, really good at it and he piles up the bodies, taking them with him to hand off to the sheriff when he’s owed his bounty.
Silence is also a gun for hire, like his rival Loco, but he’s separated from the “bad guys” by an implicit moral code. He only shoots in self-defence, which means Loco and Co. have to rely on a bit of trickery to lure the bastard into a gunfight. It also means that Silence gets to be the traditional hero to an extent, quick on the draw and all that.
It also means that Silence gets the girl, which in this case is a pretty sweet prize. McGee is starring in just her second motion picture and she’s already a stunning presence, with eyes that sweep Silence into submission. The love scene is beautifully photographed by Silvano Ippoliti, providing a rare moment of love and affection in an otherwise bloody existence.
Trintignant is good as Silence, delving into his emotions without words. The story goes that the actor didn’t want to have to learn any lines for the part, so his character was made into a mute via some sort of childhood brutality. Whatever the truth is, Trintignant embodies the typical cowboy film hero and takes it a step further with the muteness. The strong silent type is literally silent.
Corbucci’s sympathy lies with the outcasts, robbers and Mormons in The Great Silence, which makes this a compelling spaghetti western. It’s not about good guys and bad guys, but it weaves a tale that concerns justice as relates to the poor. When people are driven to steal in order to eat, even Jesus had mercy in his heart. Loco and his pals are crass entrepreneurs, sensing weakness in the driven snow.
Would anyone fault Loco and the bounty hunters on legal grounds? Certainly not. They are upholding the prevailing law, in a sense. And the application of moral law is tricky business, sometimes requiring good men to do bad things. In Corbucci’s world, there are no payoffs to this course of action. It’s not a clear path to heaven or salvation.
Despite the fact that Silence upholds his own moral code for the sake of the classless and devastated, it doesn’t matter. The Great Silence is what results when reverberations of gunfire ring regardless of righteousness. The law allows for the barefaced and brutal annihilation of civilians and desperate men, after all, so what could possibly be wrong with a little bloodshed?