Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Spaghetti Western Film Review: The Great Silence

Another spaghetti western review. This film really is a true great. Originally appeared at: http://suite101.com/article/spaghetti-western-classics-the-great-silence-a319917

And please remember that my debut novel 'Stumbles and Half Slips'  is out, from Epic Rites Press. Also available from Amazon.com.

Sergio Corbucci's masterpiece is certainly a candidate for the greatest Spaghetti Western ever made, with Klaus Kinski and Jean-Louis Trintignant on form.


 'The Great Silence' sounds much better in its Italian title: 'Il Grande Silenzio'. Often hailed as perhaps the greatest Spaghetti Western, it is certainly one of the most pessimistic films ever made, and shows a cynical, heartless vision of what usually happens when people stand up to the men of violence.

Sergio Corbucci's Spaghetti Westerns

Director Sergio Corbucci's Spaghetti Westerns had been a pretty impressive, though certainly inconsistent bunch up to this stage. What is clear throughout his Westerns from 'Django' onward that his sympathy is with the downtrodden. It is how they go about achieving liberation from the men of Law that really interests him, and his portrayal of the revolution and his action man revolutionaries who spark often solitary uprisings.

There are some bravura acting performances here, despite the at times inconsistent quality of the English audio and dialogue. Jean-Louis Trentingant is awesome as the eponymous hero, in a role which he only agreed to play if he had nothing to say.

Klaus Kinski as Loco

Whilst the Frenchman's acting is superb and sparse, it is Klaus Kinski who really steals the show. The German plays a bounty hunter who is far more Gestapo than Desperado, with his pencil licking, lists and rational totting up of numbers killed and dollars due. His cool good manners and insistence on always acting "all according to the law" add to the image of Teutonic exterminator, despite his Spanish name of Loco.

What perhaps helps exaggerate that perception somewhat is the snowbound, mountain setting, more reminiscent of Poland than the usual deserts of the Spaghetti West. The villagers here are maltreated by Loco and the bounty hunters, whilst a band of ragged rebels subsist in the wilderness near the town, holding out for an amnesty which never arrives. The poor steal as they starve in the town and are branded outlaws, and as such fair game for the bounty hunters. So the cycle of oppression continues in a film which, typically for Corbucci, is a direct attack on capitalism and exploitation.

It is hinted that the outsiders may be Mormons, although that doesn't somehow ring true. What is clear is that they are rebels who are regarded as sub-human by Loco and his gang. Loco also demonstrates a mercenary racist streak when he comments ruefully that the world must be a pretty poor place when a black man's life costs as much as a white man's.

Vonetta McGee Blaxploitation flicks

That remark is delivered after he has killed the husband of Pauline, played wonderfully by Vonetta McGee, a later star of Blaxploitation films. She delivers a performance here of great sadness and subtlety, acting opposite Trintignant in scenes which show a budding trans-racial love affair made all the more poignant by the incessant cold, which the audience can almost feel through the screen.

What is certain is that director Sergio Corbucci is very much on the side of the outsiders, expressing his revolutionary sentiments, albeit jaded ones here, once again. This film tells the story of so many real revolutions, literally iced by the men with the warrants and the weapons. Corbucci would present solutions in some of his later Westerns, such as 'The Mercenary' and 'Companeros'.

The duality of the relationship between Kinski and Silence makes interesting viewing. They are so similar, these men of violence. Both act according to interpretations of a code, with neither firing first in confrontations. Both also accept the same amount of money, $500, from patrons for undertaking to kill each other.

There is good dose of revenge, of course, linked to Corbucci's general anti-capitalist position, with Luigi Pistili's villain justice of the peace, Pollicutt, being a an intensely revolting man, as well as providing Silence's ultimate motivation for his involvement in the film's concluding violence.

Clint Eastwood, Jesus, Martin Luther King and Che Guevara

Clint Eastwood tried to steal the guts of the film for his vapid imitation 'Joe Kidd', a film whose lack of commercial success contributed, Alex Cox speculates, to 'The Great Silence' being given only limited release in English language speaking markets. 'Joe Kidd' is certainly no masterpiece, but many would argue that 'The Great Silence' certainly is.

There are some typical Corbucci trademarks here: the disabled hero, the revolutionary politics (the film was dedicated by the director to Jesus, Martin Luther King and Che Guevara) and the misogyny and racism of the villains. But there is also perhaps a greater sensitivity and depth to the direction than there is some of his more action orientated works.

Saddest film ending ever

Without giving too much away about the ending of the film, it is wise to be prepared: this is not a film that is going to leave you feeling that your faith in human nature has been reaffirmed. You should probably also know that the ending was considered far too brutal and hopeless for some Asian and North African audiences, for whom an alternative, highly contrived and unrealistic ending was constructed (see below).

But it is a film from which one can take messages of great truth, and is a film which ultimately works so well because of its beautifully realised pessimism and its statement that even if a hero sacrifices himself it does not very often change the world.

 Zack Wilson's debut novel 'Stumbles and Half Slips'  is out, from Epic Rites Press. Also available from Amazon.com.

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