Rope of Silicon Movie Club

RopeofSilicon Movie Club: 'The Great Silence' (1968)

Where he goes, the silence of death follows

Jean-Louis Trintignant in The Great Silence
Jean-Louis Trintignant in The Great Silence

A mute gunfighter by the name of Silence (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant star of the Oscar-nominated Amour) lives by a code that he won't shoot a man until that man draws on him first. This code is put on display as a group of bounty killers lay in wait and Silence guns them all down except one. This one, comes running out from behind a tree, surrendering, asking Silence not to kill him saying he's through with bounty hunting. Silence obliges by shooting off his thumb, guaranteeing he'll never pull a trigger again. In the first three minutes, director Sergio Corbucci has given us a character we want to now a lot more about.

Corbucci's Django was one of the many inspirations for Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, but as much as the film's title character may have come from Django, inspiration was found in plenty of other films, many of which Corbucci features. Corbucci's The Great Silence (Il grande silenzio) is one such film, containing similar themes of class warfare and the long arm of the law serving as anything but a protector of the less fortunate.

Silence's code gives him freedom to kill in "self-defense" and as much as that may protect him from the law, it also proves to be a weakness against less morally driven characters. One such character is the bounty killer Loco played by the great Klaus Kinski who is probably best remembered for his collaborations with Werner Herzog. Here, Kinski turns in a performance as a heartless killer with the kind of verve and zeal we've come to expect.

Loco, as it turns out, isn't necessarily working outside the law either. He's using it to his advantage just as much as Silence, only difference is he's profiting off his killing. The poor people occupying the small town of Snowhill, Utah have been forced to steal to remain alive, but for their crimes bounties have been placed on their heads by an inept sheriff and corrupt local politicians.

While carrying out his duties as a bounty hunter, Loco's lust for killing is sated and he's making off with handfuls of money while he's at it, that is, until the wife of one of his victims is unwilling to take the killing sitting down.

Hired by the widow to take out Loco, Silence finds himself in a situation with a man not entirely unlike himself in terms of their methods, but the blood running through their hearts is very much a different story.

Klaus Kinski in The Great Silence
Klaus Kinski in The Great Silence

Beyond the politics and moral conundrums the film presents, it is most likely remembered for its ultra-bleak ending, which I was not at all prepared for. Tarantino, writing for the New York Times in advance of the release of Django Unchained describes it as follows:

And Il Grande Silenzio has one of the most nihilistic endings of any western. Trintignant goes out to face the bad guys -- and gets killed. The bad guys win, they murder everybody else in the town, they ride away and that's the end of the movie. It's shocking to this day. A movie like [Andre de Toth's] Day of the Outlaw, as famous as it is for being bleak and gritty, is practically a musical in comparison to Il Grande Silenzio.

Silenzio takes place in the snow -- I liked the action in the snow so much, Django Unchained has a big snow section in the middle of the movie.

Tarantino mentions de Toth's Day of the Outlaw, which I also watched in preparation for this Movie Club entry and Tarantino hits it on the head when comparing the two films. In fact, reading Corbucci was inspired by Day of the Outlaw when he was writing The Grand Silence had me expecting something far darker. For as bleak as Day of the Outlaw is, and as much as the themes find similarities, the snowy setting stands out more as a comparison than the dark nature of the two stories.

Speaking of the snow, I was also reminded of a recent Movie Club entry while watching as I simply couldn't get comparisons to Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller out of my head, both for the cold and icy setting, but once again, the themes and dark nature of the story.

One of the criticisms leveled at Tarantino's Django Unchained was to say his homage to the spaghetti western didn't hold nearly the number of political and current day themes many of Corbucci's films featured. Instead many believed he was merely drawn to the look and violence of these films. I disagree with the people that believe Django Unchained is merely blood, bullets, funny one-liners and eccentric characters, but I welcomed the opportunity to see more of what Corbucci's films offered than I may have otherwise been looking for.

The Great Silence delivers in many ways, as a piece of entertainment and as a conversation starter with to discuss from the moral ambiguity of Silence's code and the question of whether or not he is any better than Loco, as he too was operating within the laws of the land. It's a question of what hath God wrought? Silence is the child of murdered parents and his revenge is palpable. He hides behind a code, but does that make him any better than Loco? Our path shapes and molds us. In the case of Silence, has it blackened his heart to a place where there is no coming back?

In terms of the spaghetti western, by the time the last bullet is fired, it has turned the genre on its head in blood red reality.

I do wonder, however, what came first, the name of the character or the name of the movie. There are stories out there that Trintignant didn't want to learn any lines for the film and thus none were written. The Wikipedia entry for the film then says Corbucci considered the muteness of Trintignant a joke. "Because a western hero never talks much, Corbucci exaggerates this genre-typical must and depicts the main hero as a mute." Can it be both at the same time?

In the film, the widow that hires Silence says he got his name because of the silence of death that follows him? Is that so, or did he get it because Trintignant didn't want to learn any lines or because Corbucci meant it as a joke? Perhaps this is a mystery we'll never solve.

NOTE: Below is an alternate ending to the film that I guarantee you will not prefer to the actual ending.

DISCUSSION RULES

The rules are simple and, if necessary, will update as we go along.

  1. No topic is off limits as long as it pertains to the movie of the week or comes as a natural progression of the conversation.
  2. Keep your comments to a reasonable length. I know the urge to write a lot at once is there, but try to rein it in and get out one thought at a time. That way the conversation will move more fluidly and make sure none of your thoughts are overlooked.
  3. NO BULLYING: This is important, while you are free to disagree, do so in a mature manner. Hopefully I won't have to explain that any further.
  4. Suggestions for future Movie Club titles must be emailed to movieclub@ropeofsilicon.com. Comments on actual Movie Club articles pertaining to future discussions and not the film being discussed will be deleted to make sure we remain on topic.

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  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Kessler/ Kessler

    Very nice write-up, Brad. I also really liked this movie and was even surprised by how much I liked it. I don't have much experience with Westerns and, on the podcast, I've heard that one of Laremy's criticisms of the genre is that they are too slow. I'm not a huge fan of slow pacing, but I didn't think this one was slow at all. Granted, it's only 1 hour and 45 minutes, but I never thought it was too slow and was entertained throughout the film.

    I definitely saw where Tarantino got some of the inspiration for Django Unchained. Both the leads are quiet throughout, though Jamie Foxx has much more dialogue. Silence is also a more interesting character than Django. And, when the camera zooms in on a character's face, it reminded me of when the camera zooms in on Leonardo DiCaprio's face in Django Unchained. The Great Silence is also pretty violent, although it's not even close to the standards of Tarantino's movies. I agree with you when you say that Django Unchained isn't just action and entertainment. There is more to it, but even so, Django Unchained is still entertaining as hell. That's what Tarantino gets right when he takes his inspiration from genres.

    The ending did catch me off guard and I'm still trying to decide how I feel about it. It's tragic and surprising, but I'm not sure what the point is. Good guys don't always win? Bounty hunting is wrong? I don't know. It doesn't make the movie bad or lessen it, but I'm still trying to determine how I feel about it.

    Overall, I really liked The Great Silence and was very glad that I was able to find it and watch it. At first, I wasn't really interested in it and didn't want to see it, but this was a great surprise. Now I really want to see Corbucci's Django.

    • http://everyjohnhustonmovie.blogspot.ca/ Timothy

      I understand how you feel about the ending, but when you look at the alternate one posted above, yes it is more typical, but it also leaves the viewer. The bleak ending they chose to go with leaves the viewer uneasy, because it isn't the "normal" way to end the film. It's this originality that I loved about the film. As for a message, I don't think Corbucci had one. It was just a cool way to end it (I read somewhere that Trintignant came up with it, and Corbucci just went with it).

      • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Kessler/ Kessler

        Good point. I actually just watched it last night and might need some more time for it to sink in. The ending certainly goes against the norm and I guess that itself is a credit to the film. It just really surprised me and I wasn't ready for it.

        Oh, and I also enjoyed reading your comment below! I haven't seen many westerns yet, but it sounds like I need to catch up on them. What are your favorites? The dubbing also threw me off and I actually restarted the movie just to make sure there wasn't a problem with the DVD I borrowed.

        • http://everyjohnhustonmovie.blogspot.ca/ Timothy

          If you're into studio western's, Rio Bravo and The Searchers are great. Unforgiven is also a great western. If you want more spaghetti westerns, Leone is a great place to start (Man with no name trilogy, Once Upon A Time in the West). McCabe and Mrs. Miller is also excellent. I confess that I have to see more, but there are so many...

          • http://www.everyeliakazanmovie.blogspot.ca/ IngmarTheBergman

            I think Rio Bravo is a very different kind of western than The Great Silence. This one is very dark in comparison.

  • http://everyjohnhustonmovie.blogspot.ca/ Timothy

    I have always enjoyed western's. Many typical ones of the genre, such as Rio Bravo and The Searchers, I've liked, but there was something so studio-esqe about them, that a true feeling of dread was never conveyed (although the feeling produced from these films can still be quite enjoyable. When I first saw The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, I thought "Now that's interesting!". From then on, I was hooked on spaghetti westerns. The bleak feeling these films produced was unrivaled, and although they all had flaws, the grittier feel was still something I heavily enjoyed.

    I had basically limited myself to Leone, as his films were the most accessible to find, especially when compared to finding this film. I didn't quite know what to expect from this film, but by the opening scene, which Brad mentioned, I was hooked. I found the similarities between Loco and Silence incredible. One is obviously good, and the other obviously evil, but they both functioned within the law. They were never doing anything illegal, but they were twisting the law beyond recognition just to get what they desired.

    I really enjoyed this film, and I always get a kick out of nihilism in film, and this film was no exception. The bleak landscape and characters bleed together into a cocktail of depression (it doesn't help that the version I saw was in bad quality). However, the film is not without problems. The dubbing is a bit odd, and it threw me off in the beginning, but I soon got used to it. Klaus Kinski was very good, but he portrayed his character in an incredibly over the top way that blends quite nicely with Trintigant's reserved performance.

    My thoughts too went to McCabe and Mrs. Miller when I saw it, but perhaps that is because they are both set in the snow (few westerns are), and because they both have bleak endings, although this film's is a little bleaker. The theory that Silence is, well, silent because Trintigiant didn't want to say any lines, but this also makes the film special by never letting you fully understand his intentions. My thoughts also went to Once Upon a Time in the West, as both feature a basically silent protagonist, and a despicable villain.

    Finally, I thought that this was an exceedingly entertaining western, despite it's tone. The ending was excellent, and my favourite part, as I kept thinking "no..they can't do that? Right?". Overall, this re-invigorated my interest in the genre, and I look forwards to checking more similar films out in the future.

  • http://www.criterion.com/my_criterion/27913-criterion10 Criterion10

    I unfortunately missed this while it was on YouTube, so I haven't seen the film yet. I'm hoping to change that, although it appears that it is a little difficult to find. Might have to order from Amazon (finally appears to be back in stock).

    Also, Brad, I think you mentioned previously that you knew your next selection for the Movie Club, but were going to wait until today to do so. And so may I ask, what film is it?

  • Beautifulm

    I agree with Timothy on the ending. It certainly isn't what is expected, but it may be part of the reason the film is good.

  • http://letterboxd.com/gman/ G-Man

    Didn't get around to watching this, but plot sounds intriguing. Will have to watch and weigh in with my thoughts.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Fan/ Fan

    To me after a while it felt more like a drama. And the ending was very shocking I didn't expect it at all. Most spaghetti western end with the main character outwitting the protagonist or it ends with a grand duel where the hero triumph over the villain. Even having unprecedented obstacles in the way being injured or hurt like in His Name Was King where Richard Harrison's character King's prominent hand was injured yet he still overcame the odds and kills Brain Foster the villain, also played by Klaus Kinski,in the duel. Also in Django where Django gets his hands stomped on but at the final duel he annihilates his enemies. But I have been thinking about the ending of the Great Silence, I think the ending is meant to be a tragedy because Silence is a tragic character having his family murdered in front of him when he was just a boy, but lucky because of a botch attempt on his life he didn't share their fate. But he later gets his revenge on the man who had his parents murder. So his story is done he got his revenge... the revenge on Loco is on Pauline request. But even Silence and Pauline's romance came from a improper circumstances her husband has just been killed she has no money to pay Silence other than paying by sex. He's a walking contradiction he kills bounty hunters because he hates them, but essentially he is a bounty hunter. He's a hired gun, a bounty hunter killing bounty hunters so he is very much like Loco. Maybe the endings message is what goes around comes around, because at the final duel Silence was first shoot by the guy who is avenging his brother death and then Loco came out there to finish him off. It a very bizarre kind of way to end a spaghetti western not your usual way of ending a spaghetti western where the heroes win. However it is a great film and very unique western. A great selection for a movie club.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Fan/ Fan

      Oops. I meant "antagonist" not "protagonist".

  • Dan

    Making some great choices for this movie club. Saw a print of The Great Silence at Film Forum not too long ago and it's a damn classic. KINSKI.

  • Winchester

    I watched it a couple weeks ago and I did enjoy it but I have to say probably not to the extent that I would revisit again anytime soon.

    Visually I liked the snowbound and wintry photography. Sort of unusual in a Western to have it so heavily featured. I suspected that it would likely transpire to have been an influence on 'Django Unchained' on viewing it though. I wasn't keen on the dubbing on the version that I watched strictly speaking and some of the side performances were a little over the top and a bit distracting in their exuberance. These are kind of side issues though. I was also a little distracted by Kinski's hair and makeup.

    Thematically I thought there points of interest, I'm not all that versed in Spaghetti Westerns as the genre has never appealed to me especially and this film didn't necessarily change that, but the kind of basic idea that was often repeated in the script is the idea obviously that the scenario the film supports is a kind of commentary on the state a little. I thought. Kinski's character prefers to murder his bounty when he could if he wanted to take them alive. However, these people are only criminals by extent of the fact that the deprivation they are experiencing is forcing them to become criminals to basically stay alive...........................and this makes them criminals punishable by death. Which Kinski doles out in exchange for a profit. And as he notes repeatedly (as do other characters if I recall) everything he does is correct 'according to the law'. That's the key phrase of the film. So it's kind of sanctioned murder that's completely un-necessary. But he's legally serving justice.

    (I'm kind of rambling a bit here I think)

    Silence also works within the law to permit him to kill, only insofar as he waits until someone fires on him and gives him the cover of 'self defence' as he goes. Again, he doles out legal murder in his quest so there is a kind of parallel between the two men. Even as one is presented as the villain and one is presented as the 'hero' of the film, acting in a manner whereby justice is served by him.

    They are a kind of weird inversion of each other. Is inversion the word I mean?.........I dunno for sure but certainly it's hard to kind of see them as total opposites entirely. Yet one we view as our hero.

    At least some kind of commentary on the law and the state seemed to me to be going on even if I can't entirely verbalise here just what entirely I think that was. I did read one interpretation which I think was part of that Wiki link that Corbucci was also commenting on the supposed futility of revolution (via the bleak ending where everyone who stands up against the 'law' gets massacred including the man they thought could save them) whereby again the state triumphs in the end over the people who would fall under it's laws.

    There's definitely something of interest underneath it all. I liked the ending itself I have to say. It felt like it fitted in with the preceding film (certainly more than the revised happy ending which is hilarious for all the wrong reasons) quite well and makes the film stand out a little.

    I did find it interesting, but again I'm not totally sure that I would go out of my way to rewatch it either.

  • http://www.everyeliakazanmovie.blogspot.ca/ IngmarTheBergman

    Westerns aren't my genre, and I generally am not a fan of Kinski as an actor. Therefor, I probably would have never watched this if it weren't weren't for you, Brad. But it was a great film, and I'm glad I did!

    I'm very fond of how The Great Silence and some other westerns such as Django Unchained, True Grit and McCabe & Mrs. Miller (if I am remembering correctly) set their films in the winter, in the snow. It adds a lot to the overall feel of the film I find is often lost in average westerns.

  • Evilin Garnett

    I had ordered this and looked it up here to try and jog my memory for why I ordered it. How lovely to read the end of the movie before I saw it. The phrase "spoiler alert" would have come in handy. I really think there should be 2 pieces on every film a "before" review to help you decide if you want to see it, and an "after" when you'd like to see what someone else, hopefully someone knowledgeable, says about it.