According to Alex Cox, the reason Django (1966) director Sergio Corbucci set his superb Spaghetti Western The Great Silence in snowy mountains rather than the genre's more familiar dusty plains was simply that he wanted an excuse to take himself off skiing. From this decidedly unambitious starting point, a great masterpiece was somehow drawn, the Dolomites standing in for Nevada and providing sublime scenery as well as several unusual plot points: bounty hunter Loco (Klaus Kinski), for instance, is able to leave the corpses of his prey buried in the snow confident that they will remain freshly preserved until such time as he chooses to return for them to claim his reward money. Robert Altman and Sydney Pollack would follow Corbucci's example soon after with the release of McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and Jeremiah Johnson (1972) respectively, but neither quite captured the sheer mortal cold of the mountains in quite the same way. Even in the rather scratched and grainy 35mm print of the film I saw at London's Barbican last night, the agony of Corbucci's scowling gunslingers as their trigger fingers trembled with frostbite was palpable.
The title refers both to the eerie natural silence of a landscape muffled by snowfall and to the film's hero (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a mute avenger since his throat was cut as a boy who moves wordlessly about the world delivering bad men to the next, the greatest silence of all. Silence only kills in self-defence, waiting for the aggressor to draw first to ensure that he's never legally at fault for the cadavers piling up in front of him. This Man With No Voice is a formidable righter of wrongs, but he hasn't reckoned on the nihilistic glee of Loco, a vulture endlessly amused by the blank indifference of a godless universe, and the avarice and lust of banker Pollicutt (Luigi Pistilli), a cruel man with designs on Vonetta McGee's spiky local widow.
For Cox, writing in his book 10,000 Ways To Die (2010), Silence's decision to finally confront Loco at the film's bleak climax is an "atheist's sacrifice", a gesture made in full knowledge of the probable outcome and without even the consolation afforded to Christ on the cross, the promise of eternal life in the hereafter. Corbucci's wife Nori later revealed that her husband had been inspired by the recent deaths of Che Guevara and Malcom X when making The Great Silence, reading into their assassinations the pessimistic moral that the revolutionary who dares to take on a powerful and corrupt elite is always ultimately doomed to failure, no matter how just their cause or radical their method. The house always wins. But Corbucci saw a tragic nobility in the very hopelessness of their idealism, giving their inevitable destruction and defeat an inherent greatness and value. As Cox elaborates: "Both men walked into the lion's den, knowing they would most likely die, knowing they would not see their dreams realised, doing it anyway because it was the right thing." In death, even Silence makes a sound because his sacrifice is a powerful legacy to leave behind.