note: article contains spoilers
When I saw “Django” for the first time I was very much surprised by the grotesque violence and the oppressively bleak atmosphere of the film. I’ve known of its director beforehand and I knew that he did some very dark stuff in his films, but that still didn’t prepare me for “Django”. And now that I’ve seen “The Great Silence”, another very well known western by Corbucci, I have to admit that I feel like watching “Django” did not prepare me for it, even though the two films do share quite a few similarities. But this, of course, is a great thing.
It is not that “The Great Silence” is a more violent film because I’m pretty sure that “Django” has a higher bodycount and that the images in that film are more shocking. And it is not that this is a more oppressive film in its atmosphere, although it comes mighty close. It even has good and morally strong characters, which “Django” did not really have – and yet “The Great Silence” is still a more disturbing film in every possible way. This is simply because story-wise “Django” is a considerably more conservative western.
“Django” went out of its way to rebel against the established western aesthetic by debauching it in a way, but “The Great Silence” goes a step further. Not only does it debauch (in a good way) the western aesthetic but it also does the same to the narrative of the western. Of course the role of revisionist genre movements like the spaghetti westerns is to subvert the status quo, but I’ve never quite seen it done to this extent. It almost feels like “The Great Silence” is doing to spaghetti westerns what spaghetti westerns did to the American westerns, and the end result is something really unique and to be honest quite refreshing.
I am pretty sure that this is the first time I’ve seen a western where not only does the bad guy win, but all the efforts of the iconic silent anti-hero completely backfire. There is not even a moral victory. And not only do his efforts backfire but also the efforts of Sheriff Burnett, who is the only truly heroic and morally upright character in the whole film. It also says a lot about this film that the only moral man is also comedic relief, but what other role would a John Wayne-like figure have in this world? It’s too naïve and idealistic and dimwitted to survive. But at least Django got to walk in to the sunset, and all Silence gets is a bullet in the night. See what I mean when I say a step further?
But this subversion is not just apparent in the final moments of “The Great Silence”, it’s there throughout. Take for example the morality of our mute anti-hero, Silence. At first he seems to have quite a rigid moral stance as we find out that he will only shoot people in self defense. But as the film goes on we see Silence actively provoking people to draw their guns just so he can shoot them down. How does this make him any better than the bounty hunters in this film, who simply kill people for money but without being show-offs or hypocritical about it? Yes they are the bad guys, obviously, but they are exploiting the law and murder people for profit while Silence is exploiting the law (under the reason of self defense) just to murder anyone who looks at him wrongly.
And if that is not enough of proof that this movie is rebelling against any and every established feature of any kind of western then just look at the goddamn thing. Silence’s love interest is a black girl, the film is completely set during winter and all outdoor shots are done in knee-high snow. No dusty towns, no tumbleweed and no Monument Valley.
This is obviously a film that is very intentionally subversive, almost contrarian in its design, but what makes it so good is that it uses this to its absolute advantage. It plays with our expectations and then just opts for the most shocking and surprising option. Ultimately this makes “The Great Silence” a much more capable film than “Django”, because it essentially tells a better story in an unrelenting way. It shows that Corbucci knew this genre in and out and that he absolutely knew what he was doing here, which in turns makes him a bit of a provocateur. And while the ending of his film might not be triumphant or even cathartic it does come with a heavy dose of solemn irony, which is quite refreshing when westerns are concerned. Well, I guess that's the only predictable thing about this film.
Original title: Il Grande Silenzio
Jean-Louis Trintignant - Silence
Klaus Kinski - Tigrero / Loco
Frank Wolff - Sheriff Burnett
Vonetta McGee - Pauline
Luigi Pistilli - Pollicut
Original language - Italian