Italy, France, 1968
Directed by Sergio Corbucci
With Jean-Louis Trintignant (Gordon – Silence), Klaus Kinski (Tigrero), Frank Wolff (Gideon Burnett), Luigi Pistelli (Henry Pollicut), Vonette McGee (Pauline Middleton), Spartaco Conversi (Walter)
There is first the whiteness, an extensive and blinding whiteness, the whiteness of snow piled up high and spread everywhere. Shots, often of the medium and close kind, unflinchingly, harrowingly, show horses floundering in the depth of this snow, even collapsing, unable to move forward and to bear the weight of their riders. Animals and humans are doomed to trudge, exhausting themselves, getting lost. And the cold bites them relentlessly – feeling cold is a complaint that becomes swiftly a leitmotif of the lines, and getting warm looks a constant challenge, heaps of clothes barely delivering relief and fires often looking weak. The narrative lasts only a matter of a few weeks: set in the dead of winter, it does not let enough time go by to witness the advent of spring and the days unfold often under an overcast sky (despite a sunny establishing shot), when they are not shrouded by the falling snow. It takes place mainly in a town whose name conspicuously matches the clime and the geography: Snow Hill, in the state of Utah.
This is thus a rare, fascinating case of a snowbound, wintry western story – no sun, no heat, no dust, but a dreadful, never-ending glacial, harsh world. It is the stage of a brutal, pervasive violence playing out in a complex way with many players. Beyond the lonesome rider standing at the center of it all, there are first a brave law enforcer unfortunately lacking means and authority, stubborn but isolated, freshly arrived in the town, sheriff Gideon Burnett, then bandits who are essentially poor folks who had to fall back on robbery and a life in the wild to survive, struggling under the constant fear of getting arrested or killed and the impact of an unforgiving nature, led by a tough but decent middle-aged guy, Walter, then bounty hunters who roam the land to catch and often kill as many outlaws as possible, the dismal source of their revenue and the dubious justification of lives unashamedly devoted to violence and savagery, lived with the confidence that since they get the society rid of criminals their penchant for reckless gun fighting would be excused, a bunch of merciless trigger-happy brutes embodied by the lead character of Tigrero, and finally a vicious capitalist of the Wild West, owner of a thriving, in fact indispensable, general store, trying to get wealthier, reckoning to be entitled to do what he wants with the people’s town, and asserting his authority by holding the position of justice of peace, which implies the payment of bounties, Henry Pollicut.
What drives the plot is not a man’s action but the vow of a woman. Pauline Middleton saw her husband, a typical case of destitute fellow who had the bad idea of making the ends meet by lapsing into crime, killed by Tigrero, who cut a deal with Henry Pollicut, not just to get a bounty but also to help the shady shopkeeper getting a woman he has long coveted. The African American has decided to avenge her man, wishing the death of Tigrero and refusing to please Henry Pollicut. To reach her goal, she asks the rider viewed as the best shooter of the state, well-known for his pursuit of bounty hunters and his sense of social justice, to come to Snow Hill. Gordon, also known as Silence, arrives at the same time than Gideon Burnett, who is to start his assignment, and Tigrero, who is to get the money owed for his killings.
Tension rises slowly between men who sense there are a danger for each other and clearly despise each other, though the plot is rather busy pitting the law enforcer against the bounty hunter but delays and then cuts short the expected confrontation between Gordon and Tigrero. The delay allows a romantic subplot to develop, the love affair between Pauline Middleton and Gordon, with the time spent at the widow’s house the occasion of a flashback vividly explaining how Gordon became Silence, that is a mute person, and why he is so keen to get the society rid of the bounty hunters (when he was still a child, his throat was maimed by a vicious bounty hunter chasing his father). But it is also a clever intellectual move: as the sheriff finds a way to jail the bounty hunter, and reckons to bring him to justice in another town, the film illustrates the political confrontation between two opposite views of law and order and the workings of a polity, Gideon Burnett defending fairness, rules, and institutions, Tigrero praising the right of the strongest and harshest.
The narrative becomes grimmer and grittier, violence getting widespread and stakes rising high. The first to fall is the sheriff, suggesting order and justice can only be brought by the courage and skills of the lonesome rider. The bandits get trapped, seemingly doomed by the bounty hunters Tigrero has rallied, making the poor a useless force in the grand moral and physical battle and instead a group hopelessly in the light of fire. And doomed they would prove to be, massacred after Gordon and Pauline have been killed in a fight that is quite extraordinary. At first it promised to fit with the spectacular, heroic, nail-biting, clash allowing good to prevail over evil, the adored trope of so many westerns, from the American tradition or in the Italian (more precisely European) style, have eagerly displayed, bringing on the expected happy ending – but then no, the nightly, sordid confrontation takes place in shockingly treacherous circumstances and becomes an and hopeless mess. Tigero’s long, fiery, cruel stare, cropping up in the montage with an ever growing intensity, stoking a deep-rooted malaise, sees the challenge through and directs the most disgusting massacre that a camera can shoot in swift, graphic, awesome detail.
This is the last element making “Il grande silenzio – The Great Silence” such an astonishing and singular western: the candid depiction of unbound violence and evil prevailing, the heartbreaking loss of the good fighter, the realization hope has no place and impunity has every opportunity. Western as sheer horror: the genre film becomes the bluntest way to denounce blind violence and the horrid and unfair role of bounty hunters, and its conclusion, conveniently taking place at the end of a long, dark, cold night, is chilling and sobering, causing grief and dismay, making the audience queasy and depressed. It is quite hard to forget.