The movie’s archetypically taciturn hero, played by the French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant between roles in “A Man and a Woman” (1966) and “My Night at Maud’s” (1969), is totally silent — rendered mute in childhood when his vocal cords were slashed by mercenary marauders. Silence, as he is called, is a hired gun and potential liberator; the über-villain is a bounty hunter gleefully personified by Klaus Kinski camping it up beneath a priest’s flat-brimmed saturno hat and a blond Beatle wig.
From a distance, the two enemies are indistinguishable, lone horsemen plodding through the snow. A new sheriff (burly Frank Wolff, veteran of late 1950s drive-in cheapsters like “Beast From Haunted Cave”) complicates the conflict, in part through his irrelevance. The bandit families, who sometimes suggest the ravenous extras in the original “Night of the Living Dead,” waylay the sheriff for his horse, which they plan to eat. Early on, there is a terrific scene in which the hired gun, the bounty hunter and the lawman are fellow travelers on the same cramped stagecoach, not fully aware of one another’s identities.
Affirming Trintignant’s status as French cinema’s prince of romance, the cast is rounded out with the fiery Vonetta McGee, in one of her first movies four years before “Hammer” and “Blacula,” both 1972, elevated her to blaxploitation stardom. Their impossible love, unusual not as interracial but for its tenderness and sexual heat, sets up for an ending so shockingly pessimistic that it has been said to have precluded the movie’s American distribution and was changed for its second run in France. (The available version has the original ending.)
A vocal spaghetti western aficionado, Quentin Tarantino paid homage to “The Great Silence” with his snowbound 2015 western “The Hateful Eight.” Indeed, reviewing “The Great Silence” in The New York Times last spring, A.O. Scott wrote that “in 2018, it’s possible — and perhaps inevitable — to view ‘The Great Silence’ as a footnote to the oeuvre of Quentin Tarantino, whose admiration for Corbucci is well documented.”
Be that as it may, Corbucci was inventing something new. He was a politically committed artist working in a popular form. “The Great Silence,” according to the filmmaker Alex Cox, an equally enthusiastic partisan of Italian westerns, was meant as a statement reflecting the despair Corbucci felt following the death of Che Guevara.