October 21, 2009

The Winnetou films

A posting on the German films based on Karl May's Old Shatterhand books:

The Sons of Great BearGiven that May had never once set foot on American soil at the time of writing them, the Winnetou stories were far from documentary in terms of their representations of frontier life, and of the lives of indigenous Americans in particular. They were in fact tainted by sentimentality and rife with “noble savage” clich├ęs, to the point that he even had Winnetou renounce his Indian spirituality and convert to Christianity at one point. Still, they were unusual in their time for their sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans and their acknowledgment of the depredations perpetrated upon them by the white man. They were also imaginative enough in their telling to inspire many of the Germans who read them to take an interest in Native American culture beyond what was described in their pages. Some of those readers even went on to form “Indianerclubs”—a number of which still exist today—whose mostly white members would not only immerse themselves in that culture but also dedicate their holidays to trying to emulate it as best they could.

It was inevitable that the characters from May’s Western adventures would eventually make their way to the big screen, and, in 1962, West Germany’s Rialto Film Preben-Philipsen made it so, initiating a series of films that were to become wildly popular throughout Europe. The majority of these starred French actor Pierre Brice in the role of Winnetou and American actor—and former Tarzan—Lex Barker as Old Shatterhand, and used locations in Yugoslavia to sub for the American West. Eventually coming to comprise eleven entries in all, they came to be known as the Winnetou films, and are generally considered to be the seed from which the Italian Spaghetti Western sprang, a connection driven home by the presence within them of such genre stalwarts as Klaus Kinski and Terence Hill.
Comment:  That Winnetou converted to Christianity tells you who May's real heroes were: Christian Aryans like Old Shatterhand.

Needless to say, the Winnetou films used non-Indians to play Indians--a great example of "redface." I haven't seen any of them yet, but foreign films based on foreign books about what Indians were like can't be too good.

For more on the subject of Karl May and Germans, see:

Germans think they own Indian culture
Surveyors = evildoers
Karl May's "wild" West
Why Germans love Indians
New Karl May exhibit

For more on the subject in general, see The Best Indian Movies.

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