3:08 pm Jun. 16, 2012
The John Ford western was the inspiration for many other genres and subgenres, especially horror and science fiction.
So it's fitting that Quentin Tarantino has named his new homage to the spaghetti western Django Unchained, after Django's titular antihero. Like Tarantino's films and the spaghetti western genre in general, Django is pure pastiche, a hybrid genre film pulled together from various other generic tropes. Django, directed by Sergio Corbucci, is a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy; it's a riff on A Fistful of Dollars, which in turn is a revisionist remake of Yojimbo, which is an homage to John Ford's westerns.
When the trailer for Django Unchained was released last week, hawk-eyed viewers took great pleasure in noting Django star Franco Nero's cameo appearance. Nero and Corbucci by extension have become emblems for Leone and Eastwood-free spaghetti westerns. Film Forum is showing one of Corbucci's more original and certainly more eccentric westerns this Sunday as part of their ongoing spaghetti western retrospective. The film in question is The Great Silence, a strange but welcome example of the spaghetti western's versatility as a mutant subgenre.
The Great Silence is an atypical spaghetti western in the sense that Corbucci doesn't emphasize black humor and surreally sadistic scenes of violence as much as he does in a film like Django.
Much has been made of the innovative and singularly strange changes Corbucci made to the established template he was dabbling with in that film, like, say, the red-hooded Klansmen. A gatling gun that Nero's honorable bounty hunter hides in a coffin he carries around with him has become a symbol of sorts for the spaghetti western.
The spaghettis are simply more violent and more weird than the classic American westerns. Spaghetti westerns are also more divorced from a discernible historical context than most westerns are. You can at least tentatively tell when and what part of the country you are in when you watch most classic westerns. But a spaghetti western like Django takes place in an imaginary Somewhere that's almost always located just on the fringes of Settlement Town, USA.
The Great Silence is an unconventional spaghetti western that takes place, as an intertitle imperiously announces, one "Winter [in] 1899," in Snowhill, Utah. This is, in other words, a film set in a specific historical moment. And yet it has no more respect for rules than any other spaghetti western: Amorality and a fatalistic air of pessimism dominate Corbucci's film.
Silence (Jean-Lous Trintignant) is a "bounty killer" who is better than his peers because he only kills wrongdoers. This sets him apart from the other bounty killers who circle the townfolk, hoping to collect rewards on Utah residents who were forced to steal or kill each other in order to survive the year's famously harsh winter.
The Great Silence is about the high cost of living in the middle of nowhere for Snowhill's inhabitants. Pauline (Vonetta McGee) begs Silence to avenge her husband after the aptly named Loco (the intimitable Klaus Kinski) collects the bounty on her husband's head. Silence, a character made up to look like Nero's Django, agrees, but is ultimately unable to do much. He's a reactive fighter, waiting for Loco and his gang to make the first move. In fact, Silence, like everyone in Snowhill, including the pompous but right-minded Sheriff Burnett (Frank Wolff), manipulates the law to get what he wants. This is even true of Loco, who feeds his bloodlust by legally collecting bounties.
Loco, Sheriff Burnett and Silence all adhere to the law for distinctly different reasons--money and kicks, revenge, and to administer "justice."
Corbucci comes right out and shows his disapproval of Loco by comparing him and his gang visually to a flock of vultures. But like Burnett, Loco is also being manipulated by Policutt (Luigi Pistilli), a rich and very influential figure whose money talks louder than either of the town's morally decisive characters.
Silence, the most amoral character of the bunch, is just as beholden to the law. For example, he starts a fight with Loco but deliberately tries to get him to attack first, flicking a match and then a lit cigarillo into Loco's drink. Rules are rules.
The Great Silence stands up as well as it does today because it takes that intense cynicism we've come to associate with the spaghetti western and given it a new context. Tarantino would do well to draw on as much of that sort of innovation as he can.