This week I revisited an old favorite of mine, Sergio Corbucci’s unforgettable 1968 ‘Spaghetti western’ The Great Silence. I originally came to know of The Great Silence after reading how it influenced Quentin Tarantino’s own bleak and ultra-violent The Hateful Eight. The influences are numerous and unmistakable, from the nihilistic themes right down to the snowbound setting. Tarantino’s film boasts more finesse, more wit, more engaging banter. But underneath all its rough edges, Corbucci’s old classic is still more raw and hard-hitting, with a long-lingering sense of loss.
On its surface, The Great Silence deals with stock characters typical of the ‘western’. It includes a lone avenger, bounty hunters, isolated frontier settlement, distinct officials representing law enforcement and bureaucracy, and exploited people. However, what distinguishes this film from other genre entries is its look and ‘feel’. It is the way it transforms and reconfigures the tropes traditional to the western. While the defining traits of these ‘western’ characters remain identifiable In The Great Silence, the moral spaces that these characters occupy, significantly differ from other (arguably more prominent) westerns by the likes of Sergio Leone.
The West of the ‘Western’ (The Great Silence)
The ‘western,’ more than any other genre, is quintessentially American. It is something deeply tied to the very identity of a nation. It must be mythical rather than historical. The ‘western’s true historical value lies in reading into its forms, tropes, and more than anything into its powerful myth-making exercise. Its nomenclature ostensibly derives from the American frontier, the westward expansion, an excursion into the ‘Wild West’ so to speak, the stuff of imagination and excitement. It also props up America as a new kind of civilization, a new kind of ‘West’. This new West has reinvented values that connect it to and distinguish it from the European Occident.
A new kind of colonization, only in this case the ethos of colonization blended with the national identity. The myths took shape in the traveling Wild West shows, larger-than-life retellings, and embellished personal braggadocio through such times when America was largely a sideshow in world politics. European colonial powers were at their peak in their race for empire and rivalry. Europe would continue to dominate history through the next decades right up to WWII. Following this, the United States would finally come of age in earnest – in its long process of assuming the mantle of ‘world police,’ and vindicating its capitalist-political-military nexus as the ‘way of the free.’
The ‘western’ would largely decline as a popular draw while the American nation went through the turmoil of a distant war and civil disobedience. But the genre had served its foundational purpose by then, the myth had become fully embedded. In the fermentation chamber of the ’30s and ’40s, the western had transitioned big-time from Myth to History on the big screen. From John Ford’s classic Stagecoach to The Searchers, unapologetic racial violence had been further whitewashed into an apologetic necessary evil serving the larger cause of family, prosperity, and nationhood. The proxy theaters of Cold War – blood-soaked Indonesia, Vietnam, Cuba, Chile, Argentina, El Salvador, Nicaragua, not to mention the USA itself – would go on to show only too well the extent to which US-backed political (often genocidal) violence and the manipulation of truth could go into manufacturing this narrative of neo-colonial freedom and neo-imperial humanism.
It is this revered myth of the ‘land of the free’ and ‘home of the brave’ that The Great Silence attacks and unravels – a myth that the ‘western’ as a genre had long propped up in the American psyche. A myth of exploration and adventure, of law and order, of well-meaning fighters and upright officials. that helps conceal the genocides and violence that went into founding this ‘new’ nation on old ground. The sadism and violence that the state apparatus kept feeding into it to reinvent this narrative of adventure and freedom, time and again on newer soil in other frontiers of the globe, even as the film was being shot. The Great Silence never got a theatrical release in the US at the time. But it might have more to do with than merely its pessimistic overtones.
It has the power to unsettle the myth of the western and the ‘western’ nation as much as the individual viewer. Any understanding of the self-righteous American ‘machismo’ that equates its love for the gun with its proclamation of liberty is incomplete without understanding just how inextricable the ‘western’ is from this mythical hypocrisy. It is not for nothing that the quintessential ‘western’ hero, John Wayne, was also instrumental to the anti-communist hysteria in his country. In Wayne, the bloody psyche of a nation, an appeal to the heroic, and a whitewashed myth as history became immanent as perhaps never before.
Morality as choice vs. Morality as weakness in ‘The Great Silence’
In The Great Silence, there is an inversion of the moral equation in the roles one would expect from a western. ‘Silence’ (Jean Louis Trintignant) is a gun-for-hire who hunts down bounty hunters and metes out justice for the miserable folk conveniently killed in the name of the law. He occupies the position of the hero. The film is clearly sympathetic to the plight of commoners who turn into outlaws or as the powerful brand them for their own self-serving motives. As such, it is a far cry from a typical western where there is a clear demarcation of good and bad into convenient action set pieces. Bloodthirsty brigands are typically set up as antagonists to a cynical but honorable bounty hunter. He does his bit in restoring and solidifying the rule of law on a lawless frontier.
However, in The Great Silence, the bounty hunters led by ‘Loco’ (Klaus Kinski) are anything but honorable. They have the benediction of law on their side, which gives them the space to manipulate it to suit their base instincts. The narrative already gives them the edge. Since the law prescribes their bounty to be ‘dead or alive’ Loco murders his targets in cold blood. It does not matter how defenseless they are.
Together with unscrupulous men in power like Pollicut (Luigi Pistilli) the film shows this unholy nexus of lawmakers, capital, and bounty killers shining in their capacity to brand vulnerable poor folk as outlaws and then brandish the letter of law to undermine their human rights, annihilating them. The power here is real and historical, not mythical and transient like those of larger-than-life celluloid outlaws. But the ‘western’ as a genre rarely (if ever) cared to excavate this obvious immorality (and inequality) in the vocal and upright stance of nation-building.
For Loco and Pollicut, morality is a weakness before the American concept of ‘manifest destiny.’ The Great Silence’s power lies in that, unlike most westerns, it does not take America’s ‘manifest destiny’ as granted. Instead, the film shows how lust, greed, and power can coalesce to produce the necessity of such a concept to satiate such primeval behavior. It shows ‘Manifest destiny’ is an unstoppable force that can destroy actual human lives as well as the humanity in those who wield it in service of greed.
Against this stands the figure of Silence, who is not averse to violence himself, far from it. But his violence is always in response to the violence of oppressors, both literally and symbolically. He is enlisted by the powerless to avenge their loved ones. People who were destroyed by the abuse of law: a mother grieving her son, a widow grieving her spouse. Silence’s trademark is to provoke his opponents into quick-drawing their guns and using their action to justify shooting them down. Silence never draws first, thereby tweaking the legal frame, mocking its abusers.
Thematic Structure of The Great Silence
This maneuver puts in relief something fundamental about him, and the film’s thematic structure itself. Silence’s strength, his moral ground of fighting for the oppressed, is defensive in nature. He waits for a move to make his counter-move. And that renders him vulnerable after a point. Because there is an incontestable idea of justice he holds to his motives. For someone like Loco, morality is something he uses against those who hold it, just like the hollow laws that he uses only to break them.
Silence’s morality both succeeds and fails him. It fails him in life, which he loses. He loses the violent game he is so good at. Ironically, his own style is ultimately employed to checkmate him, in a mirror to the empty laws that are used to hold his morality hostage. But his morality succeeds his natural life, all that remains of him after his demise into which he voluntarily strays. The build-up to his showdown with Loco shows this duality of Silence, a man, and a theme, of being free in action but bound in mind, of being both powerful and powerless at the same time.
Love as rebellion in ‘The Great Silence’
Despite, or perhaps because of its gloomy denouement, The Great Silence does provide with a sliver of hope. Hope – not so much in the improvement of world order, but in the possibility of finding real human connection. Pollitt and Loco remain in the realm of greed and power, it has forged all their relations. The concept of unconditional sacrifice is lost on them. However, they are quick to turn that feeling in others to their own advantage. But they can never inhabit that feeling themselves. In that space, the film offers some anodyne to the doomed characters and its audience. Love is the only space whose sanctity is inviolable in the film because it is not quantifiable by inhuman greed.
The romantic aspect of the film is highly interesting, not least because of the interracial component and its political subtext. Rather than serving merely as a sub-plot, the love story weaves effectively into the very texture of the narrative. Throughout the film, Pauline (Vonetta McGee) is the object of dehumanizing desire on part of the lustful Pollicutt who attacks her vis-à-vis her race and gender. Her husband falls victim to Pollicutt’s vendetta. It is only in Silence that she finds some respite, who in turn recognizes her pain through his own past trauma. Silence’s backstory is more than just a narrative ploy and practical necessity (Trintignant didn’t speak much English). The snatching of his vocal cords as a child led him to find expression differently. Not just the expression of rage, but love too.
To end with…
In the end, their lives may be doomed, but not necessarily their love. Silence cannot accept running away with his lover leaving behind the refugee hostages to be slaughtered. Even outmatched, he still has to meet his nemesis. As for Pauline, she sees in what transpires a shocking replay of what befell her deceased husband. She chooses to stop the cycle once and for all. She chooses to die fighting rather than continue to live in such an immoral and unfair world. In the end, both Silence and Pauline find human connection in their own ways. Finally, they choose to expire connected to humanity rather than kill their own spirits, and the spirit of what makes life worth living.