Many viewers still think of the Western as an uncomplicated ride through the wilderness of America’s adolescence. This despite the fact that deconstructionist Westerns—say, The Searchers or Little Big Man—long ago upended generic conventions to create more historically accurate portraits of the past. In traditional Westerns, white civilization is pitted against some outside force, usually rampaging “Indians”, with narratives that promote the myth of Manifest Destiny and gloss over the atrocities and bloody land-grabs perpetrated in the name of progress.
This star-spangled pedigree makes Westerns with a Twist, recently released to DVD, particularly compelling. Known as “Red Westerns” (or Indianerfilmer) and produced by East Germany’s DEFA (Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaf), the films in this collection (just three of the 12 released between 1965 and 1982) not only challenge generic conventions, but also raise questions about the conventions’ political bias.
The Sons of the Great Bear (1966) tells the story of Tokei Ihto (Gojko Mitic), a noble Dakota warrior who refuses to give up the prairies where his people have lived for centuries. Manifest Destiny becomes analogous to the spreading of a disease, leaving only death in its wake. The warrior struggles against the “white flood” that “spreads like prairie fire”, as well as a sinister Indian scout named Red Fox (Jiri Vrstala) who killed Tokei’s father in a dispute over gold. Tokei exacts his revenge in a hillside battle with Red Fox. Those in pursuit of money are punished for their greed. Despite these variations on typical Western themes, Great Bear employs many stereotypes. The Indian characters say “How” as a greeting, and the smoking of the peace pipe is central to the film’s Dakota customs. The Dakotas of the film (most of whom appear to be white actors in red face) are mostly stiff and robotic. Mitic’s Tokei Ihto is little better, capable of conveying no other emotion or trait other than stoic nobility.
Chingachgook: The Great Snake (1967) is loosely based on James Fennimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer, again with Mitic in the title role. The film is a Western in name only: though it concerns frontier life and white “settlers”’ treatment of indigenous people, it takes place in 1740, over 30 years before American independence, when the entire country was frontier. Chingachgook is a Delaware warrior who sets out into the wilderness to rescue his bride to be, Wahtawah (Andrea Drahota), from a Huron camp. Like Great Bear’s Dakota gold, Wahtawah provides an “object” for a quest, but the film is actually about the British racism and exploitation of Native conflicts. This disjointed film includes awkward action sequences and, subsequently, pulse-slowing chases, as well as a love story between the Deerslayer (Rolf Romer) and Judith (Lilo Grahn) and his friendship with Chingachgook.
Also disjointed, Apaches (1973) is cowritten by Gojko Mitic with director Gottfried Kolditz and loosely based on the 1837 Mimbreno-Apache massacre in Santa Rita, New Mexico. It opens with wide open landscapes that appear to be lifted right out of a Sergio Leone movie (and the music is Morricone-lite, with a galloping rhythm, blaring horns, and muted guitar licks). An Apache tribe travels to Santa Rita for an annual meeting with the inhabitants. Primarily Mexicans, they welcome the Apaches with plenty of booze. The good times end when Mayor Ramon (Leon Niemczyk), is forced by a local copper mine representative to help eradicate the Apaches: they’re gunned down as they line up to receive “free flour”.
The rest of the film concerns the Apaches’ revenge. They hunt down the perpetrators of the massacre and pick them off one by one, culminating with the mining rep’s death at the hands of Mitic’s Ulzana. When the villagers approach the mayor with complaints about his participation, the scene cuts away to an extended gunfight between the Apaches and a group of marauders, only to return to the village 20 minutes later: the villagers are packed up and moving out of their homes. It’s a logical progression, yet the editing makes it feel illogical. Also, the violence here is treated with an odd detachment. During the massacre, few victims scream or cry, and the scene has no music on the soundtrack, only the sound of gunshots. In the end, it’s unclear what’s gained by the Apaches’ triumph. Their Mexican foes are vanquished, but the US soldiers are on their way.
Although they break down conventions, all three films lack the rousing style of their American or Italian counterparts. But perhaps that’s the point: though they’re fiction, these state-produced films achieve a kind of bleak truth. Their shared theme seems simple: that white men are bad and Indians are good (or at least, not so bad); as the white men represent the imperial West and the Indians the principled Communist bloc, if you will. The films engage the Cold War in the form of cowboys and Indians, but the Western is an unlikely vehicle for this ideological battle.
Once called “the most famous Native American in East Germany,” Gojko Mitic projects a nobility and charisma in all three lead roles, embodying the films’ message of strength in face of adversity. In the first part of a three-part interview included in Great Bear’s bonus features, he recounts riding horses and wearing moccasins, detailing his rise from stuntman to leading man during the ‘60s. Likewise, interviews about Chingachgook and Apaches are little more than fond remembrances, with the Apaches version clocking in at just under two minutes.
More valuable are the film notes and biographies included on each disc. The notes help the viewer understand the films’ contexts, in particular that they were huge successes starring an enormously popular actor. Like so many myths of the West, these three films are lessons in contrast. They are valuable and interesting, if not exactly filled with pulse-pounding entertainment.