The Great Silence (Il Grande Silenzio), 1968, 105 mins, Blu-ray
It started with Ennio Morricone, as it so often does. He composed music for so many films and television series (over 400) that its probably a familiar tale. Over a decade ago, when I was collecting CD soundtracks during a period when so many expansions and remasters were being released, and I delved into Morricone’s work, I bought many CDs utterly blind, generally based on recommendations online. You could listen to Morricone’s music without any prior knowledge of the films/television shows that it was composed for, and indeed even now, much of Morricone’s music that I know exists for me utterly independent of whatever it was composed for. Haunting music such as his score for The Red Tent/La Tenda Rossa exists for me utterly independent of its film (which reminds me, I really should attend to that). One of the scores I bought was Il Grande Silenzio/The Great Silence, a Western that I had otherwise never heard of. Its score wasn’t really like any of Morricone’s other Western scores that I knew- it’s a far cry from his Leone Western scores, for instance, an utterly different beast- it had a strange, haunting quality; somewhat moody, grim and driven.
Well, now I now why. My goodness, The Great Silence is bleak. It’s monstrously bleak. It’s ending -sorry, but we have to discuss its ending- is such a downer that I actually mumbled “what?!” when I realised it was actually the end and that there wouldn’t be another reel to set things right. I mean, that’s how it usually happens in movies – the hero suffers or fails but he then recovers and makes things right, gives us a satisfying ending. There’s no satisfaction to The Great Silence‘s conclusion.: its frustrating and horrible and yes, its perfect in its way and I guess its the ending that The Great Silence was always relentlessly heading towards but all the same…. is the title of the film a reference to its main character or to the sound of the audience numb with surprise as the end credits roll?
I’ve seen bleak endings to films. That last shot of Gilliam’s Brazil is utterly perfect but its hardly one to put smiles on audience faces, its intellectually perfect but nonetheless a gut punch to a viewers hopes. The Great Silence‘s conclusion is just like that. But goodness, its as bitter and cold and bleak as the film’s beautifully terrifying snow-swept landscapes. But what a magnificent piece of work.
I can’t say that I’m a huge admirer of what we refer to as Spaghetti Westerns, a sub-genre of the Western that references European films, mostly made in Italy hence the ‘spaghetti’ reference and immortalised chiefly by the films of Sergio Leone: A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West and Duck, You Sucker!/A Fistful of Dynamite. There’s something amateur about many of them, likely stemming from the awful dubbing that often distracts me horribly. Indeed, I watched a few months back director Sergio Corbucci’s Django, which was a film he made a few years prior to The Great Silence. Django was a hugely popular film and quite influential, but it still left me a little cold. Ha, that’s quietly ironic considering the setting and denouement of The Great Silence.
But I will say this- The Great Silence informs Django, looking back on it. The Great Silence is a far better, far more mature work. Back when I saw Django -and hey, how is it possible it was as far back as last September when I watched that?- I noticed that Corbucci was considered with some reverence online and I couldn’t figure out why, but I can now. I can see, watching this later film, possibly what Corbucci was aiming for in Django. Sure, some of it is obvious, the mud (Django may be the dirtiest-looking film ever made) clearly a substitute for the snow he couldn’t afford at the time, but in the graphic violence and bleakness its clearly a precursor to what he achieved in The Great Silence.
So what’s The Great Silence actually about, I hear you wondering. In the bitterly-cold Utahn mountains during the Great Blizzard of 1899, bounty-hunters are running amok, making fortunes by hunting down innocent citizens wrongly brandished as outlaws and criminals by the corrupt banker Henry Pollicut (Luigi Pistilli). A widow hires a mute gunfighter, Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), to revenge her dead husband who has been killed by Tigero (Klaus Kinski) a psychopath who clearly enjoys killing, preferring to shoot his quarry dead rather than take the option of capturing his bounties alive.
From that summary you can likely assume how the plot of the film would usually go, but The Great Silence is instead a very subversive piece of work which counters such expectations. Its dark and frustrating and really rather perfect in how it undermines what you would expect it to be. The landscapes are powerfully used, and beautifully shot, and Morricone’s score is haunting and lyrical and imbued with a sadness that in hindsight should have clued me in to what I was watching. Its far from the operatic ode to American cinema that runs through Leone’s work- this is something else, something clearly European, possibly predating the American westerns revisionism that would follow in the next decade (arguably culminating with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven in 1992).
The Great Silence is a mesmerising piece of work and something of a masterpiece indeed. On first viewing I can’t say I appreciated the darkness of its ending but thinking back upon it, it clearly makes the film more interesting than what a more traditional ending of the film would be. It clearly confounds audience expectations, though, and this is obviously why the film wasn’t well-received back in 1968. Corbucci actually appreciated this would be the likely outcome, shooting alternate, happier endings that are included in Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray disc, but they come out of nowhere, countering everything that comes before and so don’t at all work (they are much worse than the tacked-on ending of the original theatrical cut of Blade Runner). The film is just what it is, and thankfully those alternate endings were never used, and their inclusion on disc just reinforces how wrong they are and how right the film is. I’m sure when I watch the film for a second time it will be much more satisfying.
Masters of Cinema’s lovely-looking Blu-ray has several interesting special features that I’ve been delving into, and three audio commentaries that I really want to listen to sometime if ever I get the chance. Clearly the film has become rightly well-regarded over the years since its first release. There is something beautiful in its darkness.