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Genre-defying Western “The Great Silence” wears its hearts on its sleeve

Updated: Jun 5, 2022


(1) Veteran French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant is Silence, the mute gunfighter who is recruited by a widow to avenge her husband. (2) The Dolomite Aps in Northern Italy sub for the Utah frontier prior to the Great Blizzard of 1899, the pristine snow belies the movie’s dark tone.

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Blu-ray and DVD; 1968; Italian with English subtitles; unrated (extreme violence, nudity, mild language)

Best extra: The essay “Ending the Silence,” by cult-film expert Simon Abrams

THERE ARE ALL kinds of ways to appreciate this rarely seen, unrelentingly grim Italian Western, most of them laid out in an enlightening essay by cult-film authority Simon Abrams.

For one, he writes, director Sergio Corbucci’s (“Django”) pessimism was at an all-time high after the recent deaths of Che Guevera and Malcolm X. There was also something anti-Christian in the inability of Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant, “A Man and a Woman”) to defend the poor—and echoes of martyrdom in the gruesome injuries the mute gunfighter suffers to his hands.

Abrams ties “The Great Silence” to the revered Western, “Shane,” and elaborates on a significant departure. Then, there’s the boundary-pushing romance between Silence and Pauline (Vonetta McGee, “The Eiger Sanction”), the black widow who recruits him to avenge her husband.

(1) Carlo D’Angelo, left, plays the governor of Utah. (2) The rugged, snow-swept mountains create a stark backdrop for the unrelentingly grim story. (3) Frank Wolff is Sheriff Gideon Burnett, who tries to help Silence—and pays for it.


You might add that, with students rioting in the streets, Italy was not immune to the upheaval that shook the world in 1968, turmoil that was reflected in the films of the day.

Or you could just appreciate “The Great Silence” for its influence on Quentin Tarantino, who calls Corbucci’s West “the most violent, surreal and pitiless landscape of any director in the history of the genre.”

At any rate, there’s no way the story could end well and Corbucci, true to form, didn’t pull his punches, especially the final blow that left audiences reeling. The “cruelly anti-climactic finale,” Abrams writes, didn’t sit well with 20th Century Fox co-founder Darryl F. Zanuck, either, who buried the movie before it could be officially released in America.

Now that it’s out on Blu-ray, don’t miss it.

Set on the snow-swept Utah frontier prior to the Great Blizzard of 1899, it pits a group of persecuted outlaws against a gang of murderous bounty hunters led by the barbarous Tigrero (Klaus Kinski, “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”). Silence, mute since his throat was cut as a boy, is their only hope.

“The Great Silence,” though, isn’t about hope, and because the line separating Silence and Tigrero is thin at best, it’s not about good and evil or right and wrong. There’s no arguing that Sergio Leone created the Spaghetti Western template with his 1964 classic “A Fistful of Dollars” (re-released last month in a special-edition Blu-ray), but Corbucci cranks it up to 11.

Film Movement Classics went straight to the source for the film’s 50th anniversary, restoring it in 2K from the original 35mm negative. The new print surprises at every turn. Shot by Silvano Ippoliti (“The Conspirators”), the pure snowscapes belie the tone of the story. The sparkling colors stand in contrast, too. Detail is exceptional, especially in the close-ups.

Vonetta McGee is Pauline Middleton, the widow who recruits Silence to avenge her husband. Their romance pushed the envelope in 1968.

The great Ennio Morricone (“Fistful,” “The Hateful Eight”) wrote the score, and while it’s more subdued than you might expect, its subtleties aren’t lost in the mix. The dialogue is crystal-clear.

Besides Abrams’ essay (DO NOT read it before watching the movie), extras include two alternate endings—neither of which, thankfully, made the final cut—the Italian and English language versions, the 1968 documentary “Western, Italian Style,” and director Alex Cox’s (“Repo Man,” “Sid and Nancy”) tribute, “Cox on Corbucci.”

He calls “The Great Silence” “the most pessimistic Western of all time.”

Add that to the reasons for putting it at the top of your list.

- Craig Shapiro

Klaus Kinski is the barbarous Tigrero, the leader of the bloodthirsty bounty hunters who prey on a group of outlaws.




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