The Spaghetti Western cycle of films was very much an Italian invention, created as a response to the classical traditions of the Hollywood genre, which had reached a point of formulaic repetition that demanded radical innovation and a daringly fresh approach. It would be dismissive and wrong to suggest that the Italian’s bastardised the western genre and cheapened it so that many of the films can still be viewed as exploitation films today, as this would detract from the invaluable contribution many of the film makers like Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci made to cinema in general. Corbucci as a film maker continues to be overlooked as the genre seems to be strongly associated with Leone who’s brilliantly audacious Dollars trilogy did so well to imitate the visual language of Akira Kurosawa’s wandering Samurai anti-hero, and help kick start a series of low budget, savage and revisionist westerns for an international audience. Corbucci made a number of Spaghetti westerns in the 1960s and actually worked almost parallel with Leone, using many of his regular collaborators like the composer, Ennio Morricone, to create a vision of the west which was as equally brutal, sadistic and nihilistic as that of Leone’s. Though Leone would go on to prove he had far greater skill as a film maker, Corbucci’s greatest contributions to the genre were Django (1966), and his 1969 political western, The Big Silence, which is considered by many to be his best film. Corbucci was a self proclaimed Communist and much of his work has been interpreted as discrete leftist critiques of capitalism which take up an unusually bold Marxist ideological position that very few of the Spaghetti westerns are able to lay claim to.
From the outset, the film appears like a simple tale of revenge but as the narrative slowly unfolds, a complex political and social commentary emerges on the nature of killing, capital and lawlessness. The French actor, Jean Louis Trintingant plays a mute bounty hunter called Silence, who is summoned to the wintry and desolate town of Snow Hill in Utah so he can help avenge the murder of one of the outlaws. However, Silence is faced with a town that is controlled and ruled by the local banker, Pollicut, who has coerced the monstrous killer, Tigrero, played by a terrifying Klaus Kinski into maintaining his hegemonic rule over the poor and oppressed, namely the women, who in the dubious traditions of the Spaghetti western are represented as prostitutes. Corbucci said that he made the film as a response to Leone’s romantic glorification of bounty hunters in For a Few Dollars More, and Corbucci’s unequivocally uncompromising ending clearly strikes a note of some deeper political significance.
The production values and technical aspects of many of the Spaghetti westerns were dubious and Corbucci’s camera does seem slightly incompetent at times, but it is exactly these nakedly visible qualities that were able to provide the genre with a raw energy and general sense of discontinuity that proved them to be so popular with audiences. Trintingant famously agreed to do the film on the basis that he not be asked to learn any of his lines in Italian, which is why the character of Silence becomes a clever play on the archetype of the stranger with no name that had been established by Leone in A Fistful of Dollars. Corbucci’s departure from the conventions of the genre was also illustrated through the change in locale, with the narrative framed against a breathtaking and bleak winter landscape that would influence films like Pale Rider and Unforgiven. Another defining characteristic of the genre was the mysoginist attitude towards women who are subjected towards repeated violence and acts of sexual violation. Leone and Corbucci seem to share a vision of the west in which patriarchy is not only an ideology that brutalises the opposite sex, but also suggests that the only role a woman can possibly occupy within such an archaic society is either that of the prostitute or the wife. The vein of Catholic symbolism running through much of the work of Corbucci was a thematic preoccupation that was evident in the genre, and religious overtones are reflected in the symbolism of crucifixion at the end when Tigrero and his goons mutilate the hands of Silence.
What really makes this film quite something else in terms of the Spaghetti Western is the incredibly grim and despondent ending. In a radical departure from the orthodoxy of the Hollywood western which was grotesquely conservative in how it imposed closure and contained possible readings of a film is rejected by Corbucci who allows Tigrero and his band of merciless killers to massacre the entire town, kill the only positive female character and destroy the supposed saviour. The power of this film comes from a crypto-Marxist ending that is loaded with political importance as the forces of capitalism which seek to profit from the misery of others and the sadistic exploitation of death are clearly shown to be triumphant in a society which no longer values humanity. An alternate happy ending in which Silence teams up with the local sheriff to stop Tigrero was also filmed for audiences in Asia and other countries as the producers felt it would be too grim for their tastes.
The Big Silence is undoubtedly one of the most interesting Westerns made and the truth of it’s politics is what makes it so unique and endlessly fascinating for critics and audiences today.