The camera pans across a desolate mountain snowscape, a lone bandit clad in furs with a rifle peers out from behind a blizzard-dusted pine tree. A figure clad in black on horseback slowly moves across the empty expanse, plodding along to the sparse guitar strums; the extreme long shot highlights the overwhelming negative space of the frame.
Suddenly, the camera zooms out to reveal the immense wilderness swallowing the man on horseback, craggy mountain bursting out of the earth. More bandits emerge and point their rifles at the mysterious figure on horseback, their intentions not yet known. As Ennio Morricone’s sparse score subtly loudens, the man on horseback’s face is finally shown, looking like a rougher version of Game of Thrones’ (2011- ) Robb Stark (Richard Madden).
Suddenly, the score drops as a murder of crows scatter in the sky. The man on horseback surveys his surroundings while the wind howls around him; he knows he is being watched. The camera tilts down slowly as the man reaches for his revolver. Swiftly the still unnamed man on horseback draws his weapon and fires six rounds in quick succession. The bandits are dead before they can fire a shot.
The opening of Sergio Corbucci’s 1968 Il Grande Silenzio (aka The Great Silence) is typical of spaghetti westerns, especially those scored by the legendary Ennio Morricone. Despite the languid pacing of the opening sequence, there is a dynamic kineticism that permeates the film, augmented by what is perhaps one of the finest cinematic scores ever created. The film also follows the model for spaghetti westerns: revisionist genre films which de-romanticize classical Hollywood westerns while at the same time deeply respect them. Viewers can expect a bevy of European actors mouthing English lines which are then overdubbed by cheap American voice talent. The result is surprisingly enjoyable (just like Hong Kong chop-socky flicks from the 70s) and becomes largely unnoticeable to the viewer 20 minutes into the film.
The Great Silence has a story that is hard to not like. The film focuses on a mute bounty hunter nicknamed Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who only kills when his target draws on him first, usually provoked by Silence. Silence is a mute because he witnessed his father and mother murdered by crooked law enforcement and financial interests who realize he must not be able to tell of what he has seen and subsequently has his throat slit.
With Godlike speed and precision, Silence easily dispenses of numerous foes throughout the film. However, his main antagonist, a bounty hunter named Loco (Klaus Kinski), recognizes Silence’s tactics and refuses to draw his weapon.
The final third of the film focuses on the showdown between Loco and Silence and Klaus Kinski steals the show with a powerhouse performance. Indeed, Kinski may be one of the finest facial actors in cinematic history, and viewers would do well to pay close attention during the climax of the final sequence where Kinski is at his most diabolical. In fact, the ending of this film is so powerful, daring, and refreshing that it immediately separates itself from its peers, joining the likes of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) and The Wild Bunch (1969) as one of the most gritty, raw westerns ever made. Viewers looking for non-High Noon (1952) Gary Cooper-style westerns should most definitely look elsewhere.
As previously mentioned, the film’s kinetic energy masks the moderate 105 minute run time; the Great Silence never feels like it is losing energy and even moments of relative calm serve as useful punctuation marks to an otherwise rhythmic film. One thing that will catch viewers’ attention is the garish and goopy blood that is in abundance, so keep that in mind when considering it as a movie night option (although nothing in the film is worse than the gore on the Walking Dead (2010- ). Also of note is the film’s setting; rather than the traditional deserts and mesas of (spaghetti) westerns, the Great Silence embraces the wintery altitude of the Utah frontier.
Viewers looking for a diamond-in-the-rough or those who are interested in exploring the less heralded films of the spaghetti western cycle could do far worse than the Great Silence.