When you hear the term “spaghetti western“, the first thought that will naturally come into your head is Clint Eastwood as the “man with no name” from Sergio Leone’s famous trilogy A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For A Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966). And why not, those films are some of the best not only in the western genre but in the cinema period. But there is a wealth of material to be discovered beyond those three films, with one of the greatest examples being Sergio Corbucci’s 1968 masterpiece The Great Silence.
Set in the mountains of Utah just before the Great Blizzard of 1899, the film fits in with the revisionist movement that was in vogue at that time with films like The Wild Bunch (1969) and McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) portraying the old west as a place of terrifying violence and crime, as opposed to the more traditional westerns about prospering and building America and being under the successful badge of the law.
Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a mute gunslinger, a hero of sorts who is being employed to kill the vicious Loco (Klaus Kinski), the leader of a group of bounty killers determined to hunt down and kill anyone with a price on their head, despite their supposed crimes. Both converge on a town called Snow Hill, which is occasionally besieged by bandits who steal food and drink (and occasionally a horse to eat) and is also run by a corrupt judge originally responsible for Silence’s inability to verbally communicate.
What results is an unremittingly bleak film that tears apart the fables and myths of the old west to show a place and time of unremitting hostility, where the only law is corruption and vice. The Great Silence replaces the rock and roll of Leone’s films with a veneer of melancholy and injustice, set to a typically beautiful but sad Ennio Morricone score. Through the comparing of the two leads of Silence and Loco, the film subverts the standard character and narrative settings of westerns and ultimately and brutally denies us the hope and justice we are conditioned to look for in these kinds of stories.
Anchoring the film are the two main performances of Trintignant and Kinski, an interesting combination given that the former is mute, and the latter barely stops talking. Both have lots of charisma, even the despicable Loco, and the scenes where both are acting silently are magnetic, especially with Corbucci’s big close-ups of Kinski’s sky-blue eyes. Without spoiling things further, his charismatic nature almost makes things worse with how the film eventually pans out, again subverting classical western tropes and themes.
The supporting cast is fine, with a small but vibrant performance from Vonetta McGee as a widow who hires Silence, Frank Wolff as the idealistic sheriff, and the snivelling Luigi Pistilli as the corrupt politician Pollicut. The cinematography by Silvano Ippoliti is magnificent, elegantly using the surrounding snowy mountains as a fittingly wistful setting for the film. And then there’s Ennio Morricone’s score, which infuses a further melancholic beauty into the film, giving it a true sense of humanity as he so often did.
Eureka Entertainment has blessed this release of The Great Silence with a new 2K restoration of the film. The image at the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 is wonderful, if not perfect, which is understandable given that these were regarded as B-movies and as such not privy to the budget and treatment of more prestigious pictures, but it captures Ippoliti’s imagery wonderfully well, and it’s the best you’ll have ever seen the film. Both English and Italian audio tracks are available and both feature excellent clarity and impact, with the fierce gunshots clashing forcefully against Morricone’s enveloping score.
Supporting the film like a mountain-full of bandits are the bonus supplements, starting with no less than three brand new audio commentaries. First up is spaghetti western expert Howard Hughes and filmmaker Richard Knew, then there’s Sam Peckinpah expert and DVD producer Mike Siegel, and finally the great filmmaker and writer Alex Cox, recorded live at a screening of the film in Portland earlier this year. All three are fascinating and don’t make each other feel especially redundant, which can happen with multiple commentary tracks.
Several featurettes are also included, starting with an informative interview with Austin Fisher, author of the book Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western. Then we have Cox on Corbucci, a typically irreverent video piece from the director set in a snowbound hut, where Cox talks about The Great Silence and the director’s career, pulling no punches – it’s a shame they couldn’t include his introduction from the 1990 season of BBC2’s Moviedrome, where the film was shown for the first time in the UK under the title of The Big Silence. A great inclusion is a period documentary on the spaghetti western genre called Western, Italian Style, which includes footage of The Great Silence being shot, as well as thoughts from Corbucci. There’s another featurette called Filming Silenzio, which it appears is the full footage from where the material in Western, Italian Style came from.
There are also two alternate endings for the film, one is a definite change from the film ending, the other somewhat ambiguous. Supposedly the endings were requested because of the nature of the film’s ending, but it would be ridiculous if they were used. There are also trailers and stills galleries, as well as a booklet featuring two fine essays by Howard Hughes on the making of the film and Klaus Kinski’s work in the genre.
The Great Silence is an important film; perhaps, somewhat controversially, the very best of spaghetti westerns. Eureka’s package is fantastic, starting with a wonderful transfer to the many special features that all provide fascinating insight into this wonderful film. Magnificent.
The Great Silence is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.