#583: The Great Silence

Sergio Corbucci’s bleakest Western has a lot to say

june gloom
4 min readFeb 17, 2024

Initial release: November 22, 1968
Director: Sergio Corbucci

Every time Sergio Corbucci made a western, he’d tell himself it was the last one, he wasn’t going to do anymore. And every time he finally finished one, he got to thinking about the next one, and would call together his frequent collaborators to work on it. He just couldn’t keep himself away from it, and so he’s made good westerns, he’s made bad westerns, and he’s made The Great Silence, a masterwork in Italowestern cynicism.

It’s the winter of 1898/1899, one of the most brutal winters in American history, and Snow Hill, Utah, has become a town of Law and Order. Of course, “law and order” in Snow Hill means that Mr. Pollicut, a wealthy, corrupt banker and justice of the peace, commissions bounties on his starving neighbors, who are forced to steal for survival, so he can take their property after they’re killed. When a mute gunslinger, who has his own history with Pollicut, rides into town, it looks like things might turn around… but the problem is that the man who does Pollicut’s dirty work, Tigrero, is a particularly vicious character, and things soon come to a head…

While Corbucci had made himself — and Frank Nero — famous with 1966’s Django, The Great Silence is the movie that he’d really wanted to make. He had it in his head to do something with a snowy, windswept background, something he couldn’t do with Django due to weather conditions (and so instead he made that earlier film filthy and mud-splattered, earning it the distinction of being the first of Corbucci’s “Mud and Blood” trilogy, the second of which is The Great Silence, with The Specialists to cap it off.) And so with The Great Silence, we’re treated to a bitter cold landscape, a frozen mountain nightmare far from the dusty expanse of the high desert. It’s not a setting that’s commonly seen in westerns, but it’s popped up from time to time: Cut Throats Nine, The Hateful Eight, even The Revenant if you count that. (And of course, snow features prominently in Red Dead Redemption.) It’s a good setting, a colder take on the western that blends in survival film trappings to create a different vibe, a deeper sense of isolation. It works for the other films, and it works for The Great Silence.

Django ended on something of a bittersweet note, with an amoral hero, a lightly comedic tone, a plot pretty much ripped off from Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (itself ripped off from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo) and an iconic opening theme. The Great Silence doesn’t bother with any of that. The rare sight gag or two doesn’t take away from this film’s overriding nihilism. From the messy first encounter to the shockingly dark finale, this film’s interior world is not a world of happy endings. A lot of gunslinger heroes were popular and came back to appear in later films — Django, the Man with No Name, Trinity, Sartana, among others. Silence, however, wouldn’t be coming back — not after Tigrero (played impeccably psycho by real-life maniac Klaus Kinski) kills everyone left alive by the end of the film except his own goons.

It’s a shocking, horrifying ending; Silence dies in the final confrontation without ever getting off a shot, and Tigrero turns around and massacres the entire town. Our only solace is that Pollicut is already dead… but it doesn’t matter, does it? Nothing Silence or his few friends do matters. There’s a reason The Great Silence was set at the very end of the 19th century, the very end of the era of the wild west, a time when bounty hunters, outlaws and gunfighters were on their way out. The frontier had been closed in 1890; everything after that was just an ellipsis, trailing off…

And perhaps that was the point. Law and order, or at least the law and order of evil, corrupt men, prevailed in Snow Hill, Utah. The film ends with a final note saying that the massacre prompted calls for an end to the bounty hunting system; I couldn’t find any reference to any real-life massacre in Utah, but I did, however, find a Wikipedia article about the 1898 Wilmington Massacre, a grim moment in North Carolina history when white supremacists attacked and deposed the duly-elected, biracial, local government of Wilmington, North Carolina in a coup d’etat, burned down black-owned property, and murdered anywhere between 14 to over 300. I don’t know if Corbucci was thinking of this particular incident — probably not — but it does fit in with the broader political overtones of Corbucci’s films. Sometimes — hell, let’s be real, most of the time — the bad guys win. Sometimes, the hero just dies.

What more needs to be said?




june gloom

Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [she/her]