Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence depicts an environment of extreme scarcity, one where the powerful shamelessly gorge themselves as the average citizen turns to extreme measures simply to survive. If once there was justification for the violence committed across the film’s snow-blanketed Utah, now men embrace violence simply for the pleasure of it—leaving no morally superior side when the government dispatches bounty hunters to clean up the frontier. Indeed, both the outlaws and the bounty hunters at the center of Corbucci’s film are so prone to senseless violence that they’re as likely to war among themselves as with each other.
Even the film’s hero, Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), lacks conventional righteousness. Left orphaned and mute in a childhood attack, Silence roams the landscape spoiling for a fight. His method of never firing at anyone unless a gun has been pulled on him is less an ethical principle than a blunt exploitation of a legal loophole: to fend off murder charges on claims of self-defense. When Silence finds himself in the same northwestern region as the outlaws and bounty hunters, he proves more than willing to kill and maim both. Silence finds a worthy adversary in Loco (Klaus Kinski), the deranged leader of the bounty hunters, a man who deduces Silence’s strategies and finds ways to constantly, chaotically defy them. This infuriates Silence, all the more so when he discovers that Loco works for Pollicut (Luigi Pistilli), the man behind the attack that killed Silence’s parents and left him mutilated.
Corbucci makes haunting use of The Great Silence’s snowy landscape, crafting a purgatorial area of endless white. This vision of the Old West contains none of the promise of freedom that even the western’s most revisionist entries indulge before then subverting. The outlaws’ cynicism is a testament to the despair that rules this region, where neighbors steal from each other and the local governor (Carlo D’Angelo) would rather kill his constituents than provide for them. The closest thing to comfort in the film lies in Silence’s budding relationship with a widow, Pauline (Vonetta McGee), though their romance has a tinge of desperation to it, as each uses the other for support to stay just above the miasmic cloud of hopelessness that surrounds them.
The Great Silence concludes with perhaps the bleakest ending in the history of the western genre, a final confrontation doomed from the outset but that the hero still performs out of a sense of existential obligation. Silence’s shootout with Loco’s gang has none of the sense of noble sacrifice endemic to western martyrs. His doomed standoff only feels like a farce—just another body placing itself before Loco’s psychotic killing spree. Released at the end of a year of global unrest, of popular rebellions against political, military, and bureaucratic shackles, Corbucci’s film epitomizes a pervasive liberal dejection over the Vietnam War and conservative rule, a sense of bewilderment and confusion about morality no longer feeling relevant.
The Great Silence is so drained of color its practically monochromatic, and Film Movement’s 2K restoration highlights the extreme contrasts of Silvano Ippoliti’s cinematography. Snow is always rendered in pure, brilliant white, yet clear color separation prevents other objects in the frame from being washed out. Grain distribution is thick throughout, particularly in exterior shots using natural light. Meanwhile, the film’s interior shots boast exceptional clarity of skin tones and background color gradation. The Italian soundtrack is crisp and features wide spacing of sound elements, with added emphasis on the long stretches of silence throughout the film’s confrontations. Sound effects, like the sharp whistle of spaghetti-western gunfire, as well as the busy strings and percussion of Ennio Morricone’s score, erupt regularly over the track without ever giving way to distortion. The disc also comes with the film’s English dub, though oddly not in lossless audio, and it suffers from a tinny, canned sound and numerous artifacts of hissing and pops.
Two alternate, studio-mandated endings, both more upbeat than what made it into the final cut, are included on Film Movement’s disc. Filmmaker Alex Cox contributes an interview in which he extols the virtues of The Great Silence and Corbucci in general. Like his intros for films broadcast on BBC’s Moviedrome, Cox’s overview of the film and its maker is succinct but nonetheless effusive and even poetic, moving beyond mere platitudes and observations to ruminate on the deeper subtexts of this film, Corbucci’s career, and the spaghetti western as a genre. There’s also a short 1968 documentary, "Western, Italian Style," about the rising popularity of spaghetti westerns and its impact on the Italian film industry. An accompanying booklet contains an essay by critic Simon Abrams that places the film’s nihilism within a global political context and also includes behind-the-scenes details, such as accounts of Kinski’s typically nightmarish antagonism on set.
Sergio Corbucci’s nihilistic western receives a stellar home-video release, boasting a restored transfer that renders its icy beauty in crystalline detail.