April 30: How the (Not) West Was Won — A Western not made in America.
When you’re looking for a happy movie to start the day with, let me not recommend The Great Silence, a film that Sergio Corbucci created after the deaths of Che Guevara and Malcolm X.
But let me definitely recommend it any other time.
Between Minnesota Clay, Django, The Mercenary and Navajo Joe, Corbucci contributed more to Italian Westerns than nearly anyone short of Leone. But he was getting tired.
Corbucci said, “Every time I make a Western, I say “This is the last”. I get tired and nervous; I hate the horses and the desert. I go back to town wanting to make a film about a man who drives a car, uses a phone and watches TV. But once I’m there, I start thinking how nothing is finer in the cinema than a horseman, with the setting sun and a red sky. That makes me want to carry on. And I think up another Western with my actors. ”
So one more cowboy movie. But this time, in the snow.
Italiam Westerns had made their way, well, west thanks to casting American actors, which worked thanks to dubbing. Marcello Mastroianni had the idea of playing a mute gunfighter and told Corbucci that he had always wanted to appear in a Western. Just the fact that he didn’t know English may have held him back. So when Corbucci first met Jean-Louis Trintignant — Franco Nero turnd it down to be in Django — he discovered he didn’t speak English. So instead of dubbing, he could play the hero in this movie, Silence.
For the villain, who is a worse human being than Klaus Kinski? Corbucci took this further by asking him to base his role on Gorca, the vampire played by Boris Karloff in Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath. Bava’s movie would influence this film in many ways. Kinski was Kinski on set, having an affair while his wife and child were there; also he told Frank Wolff — who played Sheriff Gideon Burnett — “I don’t want to work with a filthy Jew like you; I’m German and hate Jews.” Wolff responded by strangling Kinski.
The Great Silence also has a cast of noted Italian actors, including Luigi Pistilli (Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key), Bruno Corazzari (Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man), Raf Baldassarre (the tour guide in Eyeball) and Mario Brega (a butcher who went into acting; he’s Corporal Wallace in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). They’re joined by Vonetta McGee, who dropped out of pre-law at San Francisco State College and moved to Rome. This was her first movie and she was invited back to America by Sidney Poitier, where she became a blaxploitation star. She’s also in Repo Man, probably because not only is she a great actress, but because Alex Cox is a big Italian western fan.
The movie that emerged is set up like a traditional Western — Loco (Kinski) and his men are bounty hunters who have hunted a group of people unfairly condemned as criminals; they use the law of the bounty to cover the fact that as capitalists they love money and as maniacs they love to kill. Silence should be the strong and silent man who rides into town, cleans things up and rides back out. But he’s different because he uses a gun — a Mauser C96 semi-automatic pistol — that gives him an unfair advantage over his enemies, men who he stops by shooting off their thumbs, keeping them from doing any more violence.
Yet even his heroism, even his love for a good woman — Pauline (McGee) — can’t save him. But in 1968, just the fact that a white man and a black woman had a love scene was subversive (as subversive as the hero being ultimately ineffectual). Corbucci said, “People don’t go to the cinema to see love scenes. Buñuel was right when he said the most embarrassing thing, for a filmmaker, is to point a camera at a couple kissing. Nothing is more banal than a kiss. Generally you can’t have love scenes in stories which are action-based – though in The Great Silence I shot quite a beautiful love scene between a black woman and a mute. There was something very beautiful and very morbid about it. This was the only love scene I ever included in a film of this genre…”
Yet Alex Cox said that the real moral of this movie is that “sometimes, even though you know you’ll fail, you still do the right thing,” which might make Silence, even though he fails, the most noble of all Italian Western heroes.
That said, Corbucci also delivered two other endings:
In one, Silence is shot by Loco’s henchman in both of his hands before he can draw his gun. Instead of killing his enemy, Loco tells his men to leave. The fate of everyone is left up in the air.
Yet there’s also a happy ending. Seeing as how this would be released over the holidays, Corbucci had a different ending where Loco draws before Silence initiates their duel. Yet the sheriff has survived, helping Silence to kill the other bounty hunters, showing that he has created a metal sleeve to protect his hand, just like Clint Eastwood did in A Fistful of Dollars. Silence agrees to be a deputy and everyone leaves happy.
But that doesn’t work, does it?
The Grand Silence didn’t play the UK until 1990 and the U.S. until 2001. When it was screened for 20th Century Fox boss Darryl F. Zanuck, he was so offended by the ending that he nearly swallowed his cigar and refused to release it in the U.S. In Italy, a viewer was so upset by the closing that he shot the screen with a gun.
So maybe wait to watch this until later in the day and not immediately upon waking up like I did.