Saturday, April 03, 2010

Silence is Golden

There's something wintery about the anti-Western. Altman felt it in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Sydney Pollack felt it in Jeremiah Johnson, and you get it full-bore in Sergio Corbucci's The Great Silence (1968), a film that razes the Western to the ground and sows salt in the soil.

The movie is set in Utah somewhere during the period thought of as the Old West. I can't pinpoint it any closer than that, because the movie is strangely anachronistic. Utah is a territory in the film--Utah became a state in 1896--but our hero, Silence, carries a broomhandle Mauser rather than the stock guns of Western gunfighters. The broomhandle Mauser was first manufactured in Germany in 1896. So there's a disconnect. Further, the events of the film are based in part on the Mountain Meadow Massacre of 1857. As with most other Westerns, I prefer to think of this film as an abstraction of history, but this one seems even more anachronistic than most. Silence's gun of choice also Europeanizes the film, which may have been its intent.

In any event, our hero, Silence, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant without any dialogue, falls in with a group of "outlaws" who are being hunted by bounty killers. And by "outlaws", I mean Mormons, though the movie never uses the word. The bounty killers are led by Klaus Kinski's Loco, who'd rather bring 'em in dead than alive. It's a pretty stock set-up. What happens at the end of the movie is NOT stock. At the end, Loco draws a wounded silence out into the open by holding the captured outlaw families hostage. Silence has been sheltering with Vonetta McGee's Pauline, a widow whose husband was killed by Loco, presumably as part of the same bounty on anyone who wasn't a white Christian. She follows him to try to stop him. In the showdown, Silence, Pauline, and all of the "outlaws" are massacred. The end.

Sergio Corbucci's spaghetti westerns are all laced with with a Marxist point of view, and this one is no different, though it's more pessimistic than most. This movie is a critique of the Western's notions of heroism, when in Corbucci's worldview, the West was settled at gunpoint by genocidal murderers. This, at least, has some basis in history, and it may be why the rest of the movie is so ahistorical as a means of softening the blow. The heroic gunfighter prevailing against all odds, Corbucci seems to be saying, is bullshit.

As if to emphasize the point, the landscapes in this movie are bleak snowscapes. We first see Silence on his horse struggling through snowbanks, which eventually unhorse him. This is a kind of fimbulwinter for the West, a prelude to the twilight of the gods. It's the end of the world. The movie it most reminds me of is Hideo Gosha's Goyokin, which indulges in the same motifs of bare trees, snow, and crows. The symbolism is the same in both movies.

The silence of our main character, and his European-ness, are presumably both representative of Europe at the time the film was made. America was indulging in massacres anew in Vietnam in the name of its ideal of democracy, and Europe didn't have a voice in the matter. I could see Corbucci making the same film again in the 2000s.

For what it's worth, the studio behind The Great Silence compelled Corbucci to film a "happy" ending for the film, which is included (appropriately without a soundtrack) on the Fantomas disc. This ending just goes to show that an ending doesn't need to be happy to be satisfying, because it's just ridiculous.

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