The Great Silence and Companeros
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The end credits for director Jim Wynorski's 1995 Western Hard Bounty contain a thank you to "The Two Sergios."

"It was supposed to be The Three Sergios," explains Wynorski, "but there was a mixup." He is, of course, referring to the top three Spaghetti Western directors -- Sergio Leone, Sergio Sollima, and Sergio Corbucci. Leone was the father of the Spaghetti Western, inventing the genre's style through his Dollars Trilogy, as well as Once Upon a Time in the West and Duck You Sucker. Sollima is best known for his three political Westerns, The Big Gundown, Face to Face, and Run, Man, Run.

Sergio Corbucci led the trio in output with thirteen Westerns to his credit. He is also the first of the three to actually make a Western. His Massacre at Grand Canyon (1963) predated Leone's groundbreaking A Fistful of Dollars by a full year. His early efforts, though, including Ringo and His Golden Pistol, were pretty pedestrian, but his Django in 1966 broke new ground for brutality and baroque style, giving him leverage for more films.

Corbucci's next films, Navajo Joe and The Hellbenders (both 1966) were thin on plot, but they still displayed the high level of style and violence audiences wanted. In 1968, Corbucci strayed from strict exploitation, moving toward a darker, more serious film -- The Great Silence (now available on DVD from Fantoma).
 

 The Great SilenceTOP OF PAGE   

Set in the rugged mountains of Utah (actually The Pyrenees), The Great Silence chronicles the plight of a band of outlaws hiding out among the snow-covered peaks. Their only route out for food and supplies is blocked by a band of bounty hunters lead by the sadistic Loco (Klaus Kinski). Their only hope is a mute gunman, Silence Gordon (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who has his own score to settle with the bounty hunters. We learn, through a flashback, that a young Silence had witnessed his parents' murder at the hands of banker Polllicut (Luigi Pistilli). To keep the boy from talking, the banker ordered one of his men to cut the boy's throat, severing his vocal cords.

This was Corbucci's first real foray into the political arena. The outlaws are merely poor folk who have stolen to survive, winding up with bounties on their heads courtesy of Pollicut. This rich-vs.-poor motif was popular among leftist filmmakers, and Corbucci uses it to great effect, with the banker taking advantage, sexual and otherwise, of the outlaws' widows living in town.

One such widow, Pauline (Vonetta McGee), hires Silence to avenge the murder of her husband by Loco. A sort of romance blossoms, the kind where two lonely people share their misery, and Silence accepts her company in lieu of cash.

Trintignant plays his Silence as an individual who is nearly as miserable as the people he is hired to help. He spends a lot of time brooding, and he's beaten to a pulp in one scene when he deliberately walks into a saloon full of drunken bounty hunters. When he finally does take decisive action, the result is possibly the most downbeat finale in any Spaghetti Western.

Vonetta McGee capably handles the part of the tough widow who will do almost anything for revenge. She shares her favors with Silence, though we never get the feeling she is looking for a long-term relationship. Klaus Kinski plays Loco as a man who enjoys his work and the money that goes with it, rather than one of his patented psychos. Frank Wolff is the slightly bewildered sheriff trying to figure out if Loco's work is legitimate--or if it's murder.

But what really sets this film apart from most other Spaghetti Westerns is the bleak, snowbound setting, expertly captured by Silvano Ippolito's superb cinematography. Everything in the film, including the people, are covered in snow and ice, and it's obvious the crew didn't have to fake anything. Loco buries his victims in snow drifts to keep them fresh until he can retrieve them. The sheriff loses his horse when it becomes trapped in a snowdrift, having to abandon it when he is surrounded by the outlaws who see the beast as food.

Ennio Morricone's haunting score adds to the despairing atmosphere, even though the score is not typical of the genre. He offers a beautiful and melancholy main theme which is woven into much of the score, but there are no galloping rhythms or fancy guitar riffs. Standing alone, it's hard to imagine the score was written for a Western, but in the film it perfectly underscores the cold and sense of hopelessness.

I have minor gripes about the film. For example, some of the camera work is shaky and distracting. Corbucci tended to be a little sloppy here and there, but overall the film is deserving of the praise given it by critics.

The big mystery, given this is considered one of the top ten Spaghetti Westerns by fans of the genre, is why such a good film was never released to theaters in the United States. Until now, most of us have only seen this film on nth generation video tape duplications or on an expensive Japanese laserdisc release.

Fantoma certainly deserves credit for this DVD release of The Great Silence. The film is presented in 1.66:1 widescreen format with a clean transfer. They spent some effort acquiring the original negative, so the film is free of bad splices and out-of-sync dubbing.

Corbucci filmed an alternate, upbeat ending because the producers felt the original ending was too dismal for Asian markets. However, no sound was recorded, so the upbeat ending is presented on Fantoma's DVDů in silence. This alternate ending can be viewed with or without commentary by Alex Cox. Also included are an interview with Alex Cox, and the original theatrical trailer.
 

 CompañerosTOP OF PAGE   

Taken as lightweight action film, rather than a lightweight political Western, Sergio Corbucci's Companeros! is quite enjoyable. Oh, there is some political jabbering here and there, but overall this is a buddy picture.

Tomas Milian is Basco, a revolutionary wannabe who joins the Army of General Mongo (Jose Bodalo) without fully realizing that Mongo is nothing more than a bandit. In order to open a bank safe, which the general believes contains a treasure, Basco reluctantly enters into an alliance with Swedish arms dealer Yolof Peterson (Franco Nero). Their mission is to kidnap one Professor Xantos (Fernando Rey), who has the safe's combination. What follows is a series of misadventures as they attempt to get Xantos to the safe, double cross the general, and avoid John (Jack Palance), who is seeking revenge against Peterson.

Nero's Peterson is much the same as Kowalski, the title character in Corbucci's The Mercenary. He is cool and confident, at least until Basco aggravates him enough to provoke a fistfight. Basco treats him with contempt at first, calling him "penguin" because of his fancy clothes.

Basco is a wily, but often clueless, peasant who sees joining the revolution as a way to help his country against the government's oppression. He goes along with the scheme simply because that's what he thinks he's supposed to do. Milian plays him as a loud, crude individual who gets the gist of things eventually, and who becomes a hero at the film's conclusion.

Xantos, the pacifist professor, has a loyal following of students who believe they can change their country's government without force. They doggedly follow Basco and Peterson, looking for a way to rescue their teacher. Their zeal is contagious, and they eventually join forces with Peterson and an enlightened Basco.

The two are also shadowed by the hissing, half-crazy John, who had been crucified and left for dead by Peterson several years earlier. He escaped only after his pet falcon, Brenda, ate his hand. Palance is famous for playing characters who are not always in the right time zone, and he doesn't disappoint. He loves Brenda much like a normal man would love a woman, and he feeds her flesh from his victims. Of course, in a Spaghetti Western that could almost count as normal behavior.

Corbucci was cheerfully inept when it came to comedy. Rather than go for intellectual exchanges, he slides into broad slapstick by way of silly fisticuffs, and frequent mugging by Basco (though not nearly as irritating as his Sonny in Corbucci's Sonny and Jed in 1973). Not that it doesn't work occasionally, but Corbucci could have used this comedy more sparingly and made a more subdued film.

Ennio Morricone's score continues in his Duck You Sucker period, being alternately upbeat, semi-serious, and strange. Though the score is good, it contains not nearly enough of the raw energy and inventiveness of his earlier Western scores. Standout, though, is the main title song with full chorus singing the words while a flute screeches in the background.

Cinematographer Allejandro Ulloa, who worked with Corbucci on The Mercenary (1968), delivers exceptional widescreen images. The only complaint here is, once again, some headache-inducing shaky hand-held camera work.

Lately, Anchor Bay has been kind to fans of the Spaghetti Western by offering uncut widescreen versions of our favorite films, including this one. In fact, Companeros! contains scenes not included in the original English-language releases. Never dubbed into English, the Italian-only sections have English subtitles, and are spliced right into the film. The transfer is exceptional, and is offered in 2.35:1 widescreen format enhanced for 16x9 TVs. The disc also includes interviews with Nero, Milian, and Morricone, talent biographies and the original theatrical trailer.

Overall, we have a highly entertaining film with a first-class presentation. It doesn't get much better than this.

 


The Great Silence is available on DVD from Fantoma. Suggested retail price of $29.99. For more information, check out the Fantoma Web site. Companeros! is available on DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment. Suggested retail price of $24.98. For more information, check out the Anchor Bay Entertainment Web site.