The phenomena of Spaghetti Westerns was coming to a close in 1969, correspondingly so was the last labored breaths of the American western. Two films would emerge that year stamping a final melancholy and nihlisting coda to the genre. The better known of the two is Sam Peckinpah's amazing The Wild Bunch, the lesser known of the two is Sergio Carbucci's The Great Silence.
Both films share many similarities. The era of "the old west" is coming to an end as technology and commerce flood into the plains following the end of the American Civil War. Law was coming too and the days of a six-shooter-slinging, justice-dispensing sheriff who answers to no one were all but over.
Civilization had come to the fringe, and the fringe was being cut off. Peckinpah's film followed the last desperate raid of a gang of old time outlaws heading for the more familiar, and thus less civilized, lands of revolutionary Mexico. But the future had come to the once wild southern land as well, and as they say, you can't outrun progress. Corbucci's film takes a different, albeit smaller, track through these last days of lawless men and open frontiers and in the process manages to deconstruct both the art of the spaghetti western and the psyche of the genre's fans.
Enter Silence (Jean-Luis Trintignant), a lone rider struggling through snow as deep as his horse's haunches. Silence is ambushed by a handful of bounty killers. He kills them all except one, who surrenders. Silence shoots off the man's thumbs, preventing him from ever again taking up arms.
Wait a minute… In a spaghetti western it's usually the bounty killers that the audience is presented with as heroes, and virtually every film from the original Fistfull of Dollars to the final Django films, to the Trinity movies, this one trait has remained a constant. Bounty killers work outside the law (often portrayed as ineffective if not overtly corrupt) and fill in the gaps between those needing justice served and those most in need of being killed, usually bandits.
Corbucci has already changed the tone of the spaghetti western by turning this constant a full 180 degrees.
Silence, we learn after someone from the hillside shoots the thumbless and bleeding bounty killer, hates guns for hire. A group of starving bandits stream down from the snowy hills to scavenge the clothes from the dead men. These bandits are Civil War deserters, Union if I am not mistaken, and have taken to the hills of Utah to await a long rumored general amnesty. However, while they wait, their bounties remain an attractive target for bounty killers. As we learn later, each man isn't worth all that much, but together they are worth the time to bring in.
The bandits inform us that Silence, who is mute, would not have killed the last bounty hunter as he could no longer fire a weapon. We also learn that Silence will never, ever, shoot first. The bandits are not as unified as they were before the winter set in either. Many of the men have family in nearby Snow Hill and want to return home and, as some say, await a fair trial. Other are simply exhausted by the cold and hunger of their life on the mountain. But their leader, Walter, insists that if they don't stay together then the bounty killers will pick them off one at a time.
Silence departs, but his horse succumbs to the cold.
Enter Loco (Klaus Kinski), and his partner Charlie (Bruno Corazzari), are waiting in Snow Hill for the men to come down from the mountains, and they know it is only a matter of time before the cold forces them down. Right now the bandits are too many and too well armed to be taken. And, almost as if on cue, the bandits begin to disperse where Loco and his partner kill them.
A grieving mother pleads for Silence to find and kill Loco to avenge the death of her son, which he does. He heads for Snow Hill and the eventual showdown with Loco in defense of the mountain bandits.
So far just about everything sort of seems like standard western fare, and for the most part it is, until we really get to the meat of the story. The governor has appointed a new sheriff to Snow Hill and his job is to protect the citizenry AND make life hard for the packs of bounty killers roaming from town to town. The governor promises that amnesty is coming and that the sheriff should do everything he can to bring the deserters back to town and thus end the cycle of violence. This is as magnanimous gesture as it seems, the governor knows that he won't get many tax paying homesteaders if there are a dozen killings a day in every town so cleaning up the need for bounty killers cleans up the entire state, brings more people, and more progress, to the west.
Overall it's not a bad strategy. The governor assigns Sheriff Burnette (Frank Wolf), a former military man and by-the-books lawman who can quote chapter and verse from the state code of laws.
Sheriff Burnett is ambushed by the bandits who force him to surrender his beloved horse for meat and is told to get down the mountain. He also tells the bandits that amnesty is coming and that they should sit tight until he comes back for them with news.
The sheriff flags down a passing stage coach (it's late because of the storm) and shares the carriage with Silence. The stage is on the way to the town of Snow Hill. On they way they also pick up Loco who has three dead bodies in tow.
This gives us the first real conversation between all of the principle characters in the film (except Silence, he's mute) and get our first real glimpse of Carbucci's take on the end of the wild west, that is, that it's over. Progress pushes even the strongest men (Loco) further and further away from society and that resisting only gets people killed.
In town the Sheriff immediately comes to odds with the mayor of Snow Hill over the whole shooing the bounty killers out of town and bringing the fugitives back plan.
And the movie stays here in this little political time warp for the better part of two hours as the sheriff and Loco square off about the best ways to deal with wanted men. Loco is a realist. He understands that men with a price are probably guilty and, as all bounty killers have done in the past, sees his role in society as a sort of private police force. The sheriff is of the new way where law is to be respected and followed and always operate for the common good of the common man.
Loco knows that Silence is coming for him as well, but he also knows that as long as he doesn't let Silence goad him into a fight, then there will be no danger.
The sheriff begins hearing rumors about Silence, a man who, wherever he rides, the silence of death follows him, and knows he is coming to Snow Hill. Silence becomes involved with the widow of one of the recently killed deserters and in the process regains some of his humanity.
Silence arrives in town to face down Loco but finds an adversary that will not rise to his challenges. This allows the sheriff to come up with a plan to shoo Loco out of town and lure the bandits back to town with a wagonload of food. Sheriff Burnett informs the bandits that he is personally taking Loco out of town and that there is ample food available. The deserters are overjoyed at the prospect of leaving their snowy hill for town.
Loco tricks Sheriff Burnett into releasing his handcuffs. Loco promptly kills the lawman and gathers his gang who capture all of the remaining bandits during their snort lived feast. Loco sends some men to beat up Silence and inform him that if he doesn't present himself at the saloon all of the hostages will be killed.
This leads to the inevitable conclusion to the plot.
I am going to stop there for fear of spoiling anything else.
Sergio Corbucci created a masterpiece with The Great Silence. The plot, cinematography, the overall bleakness of the theme, and the attention to detail are amazing. I was enraptured by all 120 minutes of the film. While The Great Silence relies on tried and true spaghetti western mechanics, and techniques (post production sound for example), Corbucci manages to transcend the material and take the film from being one of the hundreds of westerns produced in Italy into art. Shot entirely in snow (shaving cream stood in for snow in the town sequences) the film almost radiates cold, and you can't have bleak without cold.
Corbucci also captured the desperate and almost psychopathic way that those schooled in the "old way" will cling to what they know rather than embrace what's coming, but I suppose that is human nature.
Overall The Great Silence is the single best spaghetti western I have ever seen and everyone who is a fan of the genre, or of the traditional western, should beg, borrow, or steal to get their hands on this film.
But it's not a happy story.