Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence belongs to a small but beguiling subgenre, the “snow western.” The decision to set a tale of gunslingers and pioneers in such a harsh climate is about more than just seeing snow accumulating on Stetson hats or the contrast of freshly spilled blood steaming on a pure white background. It takes a genre that’s already often about solitude in an unforgiving climate and cranks it up to existentialist, almost gothic levels.
Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the gunslinger nicknamed Silence because of a brutal childhood tragedy that left him mute. He’s hired by Pauline (Vonetta McGee) to take on a band of vicious bounty hunters led by Loco (Klaus Kinski) who are terrorizing her tiny, snowbound farming community at the behest of a vicious and corrupt banker (Luigi Pistilli). If the plot itself doesn’t sound as if Quentin Tarantino directly lifted it for his own snow western, The Hateful Eight, many of its particulars do, from the preoccupation with bounty hunters to the scene in which a stagecoach in a blizzard picks up the new sheriff (Frank Wolff), who’s been stranded without a horse in the snow.
Corbucci has a reputation for having been more salacious and sensationalistic than his more famous spaghetti western counterpart, Sergio Leone. The bloodshed in The Great Silence isn’t mere indulgence, though. To be sure, this is a violent movie–especially in the early going, the bodies pile up at an alarming rate–but never gleefully so. It all comes from a place of pessimistic anger on Corbucci’s part about the amount of evil that can be done by those cynically donning masks of righteousness. The villains here, the banker and bounty hunters, are all acting well within the boundaries of the law, even as they destroy lives for profit.
And yet, Corbucci’s hard-edged cynicism and his fascination with lead and blood are counterbalanced by a surprisingly soft lyricism in the telling, replete with ellipses and lovely dissolves. It’s not exactly McCabe & Mrs. Miller in this regard but it did come along three years earlier than Altman’s snow western. With the help of a typically stellar score from Ennio Morricone, The Great Silence is one of the prettiest, most thoughtful movies you’ll ever see with a body count in the dozens.
Film Movement’s Blu-ray comes from a new 2K transfer and is loyal to the physical source. The Great Silence looks terrifically filmic. The decision to tamper as little as possible maintains tactility and transports the viewer to the late 1960s but, to be honest, some more hands-on restoration could perhaps have eliminated the odd hair in the gate or the conspicuous lattice-work of what may be a visible filter on the camera during the opening sequence. The Blu-ray offers both Italian (with English subtitles) and the English dubbed version.
Special features include a survey of Corbucci’s work by director Alex Cox (Repo Man); a 1968 documentary on Italian westerns; two alternate endings, both of which have been restored in 2K and one of which features commentary by Cox; and an essay by film critic Simon Abrams.