Posted by Jeff Stafford on May 8, 2010
Meet Gojko Mitic, DEFA’s all-purpose Native American from Yugoslavia.
Any film lover who is well versed in international cinema probably is familiar with DEFA (aka Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft), the East Germany film studio that was founded in 1946 and charged with producing movies for the German Democratic Republic, which was under Soviet rule. While their West Germany counterparts such as Union-Film GmbH and Erma-Film were producing commercial hits such as Die Halbstarken (1956, aka Teenage Wolfpack) starring Horst Buchholz and Sissi (1955) with Romy Schneider (it was released in the U.S. in 1962 as Forever My Love), DEFA was struggling to attract a mass audience with its slate of government-approved movies that had to conform to acceptable party lines in terms of subject matter and ideology and usually fell under the category of social realism. While very few of these films found their way to America during the Cold War era, there were a few exceptions such as Wolfgang Staudte’s critically acclaimed Die Morder sind unter uns (1946, The Murderers Are Among Us) or the more widely seen sci-fi adventure, Der schweigende Stern (1960), which was distributed in the U.S. in a bowdlerized, English language version entitled First Spaceship on Venus.
The turning point came in 1966 when DEFA, drawing inspiration from the enormous popularity of the West Germany Western Der Schatz im Silbersee (1962, aka Treasure of Silver Lake) and its many sequels based on the novels of Karl May, decided to create their own twist on this popular genre and the result was Die Söhne der großen Bärin (aka SONS OF THE GREAT BEAR) featuring former stuntman turned actor Gojko Mitic in the title role of Tokei-ihto, a heroic Sioux warrior bent on resisting the exploitation of his people by the white man. DEFA’s first official western – or Indianerfilm – it proved to be a huge success in East Germany and led to numerous other oaters starring Mitic, all of them constructed with an obvious political agenda.
The popular Karl May series in West German cinema (based on the novels of a German writer who never visited America until 1908, long after he had written most of his frontier sagas) mimicked the plots of American Westerns while featuring the blood-brother tag team of white hunter Shatterhand (Lex Barker) and Apache friend Winnotou (Pierre Brice), though the latter was almost always a supporting character and rarely the sole focus of these films. DEFA’s frontier tales with Mitic though clearly positioned his Native American characters as the sole protagonists and heroes while serving up revisionist histories of the wild west that featured a decidedly different point of view. Admittedly, SONS OF THE GREAT BEAR and the other two films included in First Run Features box set, Westerns With a Twist – 1967’s CHINGACHGOOK, THE GREAT SNAKE (Chingachgook, die grosse Schlange) and 1973’s APACHES (Apachen) – present an idealized, even romanticized view of America’s original inhabitants but considering all the times Indians have been demonized in Hollywood Westerns, it’s a refreshing change of pace. At the same time, you can’t really make a claim for the DEFA westerns being groundbreaking since as early as the 1950s, some U.S. filmmakers such as Delmer Daves, Anthony Mann and Robert Aldrich were presenting positive and sympathetic portrayals of Native Americans in such movies as BROKEN ARROW (1950), DEVIL’S DOORWAY (1950) and APACHE (1954).
The real question is “Are the three films in the Westerns with a Twist set any good?” Well, yes and no. Certainly compared to the above mentioned American films, the DEFA films suffer in comparison when it comes to directorial finesse, strong performances, consistent continuity and production budgets (which extend to special effects and stunts). On the other hand, SONS OF THE GREAT BEAR, CHINGACHGOOK, THE GREAT SNAKE and APACHES exude an exotic fascination and interest, even when their storylines veer off into ponderous exposition or unintentionally funny set pieces such as the various dance numbers in CHINGACHGOOK that threaten to turn the movie into a Native American SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS as choreographed by Toni Basil (anybody remember her music video “Mickey”?). There is always something to engage you here, whether it’s seeing a reenactment of the infamous Johnson Massacre of 1837 from the victims’ viewpoint (in APACHES) or the unexpected sight of numerous bronzed, half-naked European actors in longhaired wigs speaking German but playing Apaches, Sioux, Huron or other tribal people. There’s also the bizarre intercutting between stunning widescreen vistas (filmed in Romania, Slovakia, Uzbekistan and other unspoiled locales) and claustrophobic interior sets, often cheaply made and shot in the studio. Added to this, the deeply saturated color palette and occasional odd prop or detail (the mystical cave encounter with the man in a giant bear suit in CHINGACHGOOK) make it all strangely palatable.
The first film in the DEFA set is SONS OF THE GREAT BEAR. Set in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the story takes place during the U.S. government’s relocation of the Sioux for the usual reasons – they want their rich grazing land because it contains gold. Enter Tokei-Ihto (Mitic), whose father has just been murdered by Fred Clarke aka Red Fox (Jiri Vrstala) for refusing to devulge the gold’s location. Instead of exacting bloody revenge, Tokei-Ihto tries to unite the other neighboring Indian tribes in opposing the U.S. military’s attempts to take control of their ancestral lands. But his peacemaking attempts are constantly thwarted by Red Fox’s evil schemes and deeds which culminate in the inevitable fight to the death. The simplistic good vs. evil scenario is easy enough for a five-year-old to follow but what is interesting about the movie is the way it stacks the deck against the American settlers and soldiers from the get-go, depicting them as racist, greedy and without honor. Their decadent influence and aggressive assimilation into America is already wreaking havoc on Native American culture via alcohol, broken treaties, unjust trading practices and deception at every turn.
Yet, SONS OF THE GREAT BEAR puts a positive spin on this historical moment by having Tokei-Ihto triumph in the end and effectively relocate his people to a pastoral valley far removed from the white man’s domination. We all know how the tale really ends so the upbeat fadeout is wishful thinking. Besides, the film’s real message was already delivered earlier in the film by a captured Indian scout, now working for the U.S. Army, who says to Tokei-Ihto: “Twice we defeated the longknives. But for each casualty 100 appeared. Our weapons are becoming blunt. We cannot escape the white flood. It spreads like a prairie fire. But we melt away….like snow in the spring sun.” In their attempts to present a blistering critique of white capitalist America, the filmmakers go overboard in their use of caricatures and stereotypes and make a good case for the total annihilation of all Caucasians, including East Germans. Still, for all its dramatic deficiencies and naivete, this Communist-endorsed entertainment is endearing in some ways, particularly for its incongruous use of music in a period film, such as a German cabaret number in a frontier bar .
What really gives this first DEFA western entry some substance is Jiri Vrstala’s hissable villain, who runs amok creating mayhem for most of the film. In a more detailed analysis of SONS OF THE GREAT BEAR by Todd Stadtman on Keith Allison’s Teleport City web site (at http://teleport-city.com/wordpress/?p=2831), he noted that Vrstala, a Czech actor, “had for years played a popular children’s character called Clown Ferdinand both on East German TV and in the movies. Based on his performance here, it’s easy to imagine that being made to watch Clown Ferdinand was, for East German children, just a more modern equivalent of being taken behind the woodshed.” I’ve never seen Clown Ferdinand but Vrstala does look familiar indeed and checking on his screen credits, I realize I’ve seen him before in Ikarie XB 1 (1963, released in the U.S. as Voyage to the End of the Universe) and a paty jezdec je Strach (1965, The Fifth Horseman is Fear).
As for Gojko Mitic, who plays our hero Tokei-Ihto, he is undeniably a magnificent physical speciman who is at his best in action scenes, particularly the finale where he is dragged by a horse across the plain but somehow manages to hoist himself into his enemy’s saddle, overpowering him. An athlete who stumbled into filmmaking while a student in Belgrade, he began working as a stunt man and extra on one of the Lex Barker/Pierre Brice Westerns, Winnetou – 1. Teil (1963, aka Apache Gold), before moving into larger supporting roles in such films as Unter Geiern (1964, aka Frontier Hellcat). His promotion to leading man with SONS OF THE GREAT BEAR transformed him into a major star in East Germany. Star power he may have but a skilled actor he is not. To be generous, he is slightly less stolid than Steve Reeves but not as expressive as Clint Eastwood if that gives you any idea of his range. Yet he fits the physical requirements of the proud, stoic character he plays and he can look imposing when the occasion rises or stare you to death with his brooding gaze. But what’s missing is a flicker of personality or maybe even a sly sense of humor beneath the buff physique.
Mitic does loosen up a bit in CHINGACHGOOK, THE GREAT SNAKE in which he performs a solo dance number that looks like it might have been designed for 3-D the way he keeps thrusting his head and hands toward the screen. But that dance number – one of three mind-warping highlights – is not really the focus of this second entry in Westerns with a Twist. CHINGACHGOOK is actually a fairly straightforward adaptation of James Fenimore Copper’s The Deerslayer. In this film adaptation, the real villains are the deceitful and arrogant British invaders who attempt to turn the Delaware and Huron tribes against each other as a means of undermining their power and seizing their lands. Caught in the middle of this struggle are Tom Hutter, a trapper, and his daughter Judith, some mercenaries, and Chingachgook (Mitic), a Mohican who has been raised by the Delaware tribe, and his friend Wildtoter aka Deerslayer. Not surprisingly, Deerslayer becomes merely a supporting character in this retelling with the narrative focusing more on Chingachgook’s attempts to rescue his kidnapped, intended bride-to-be Wahtawa from the Huron, while trying to prevent further genocide for his people.
Of the three films in the Westerns with a Twist set, CHINGACHGOOK is the weakest entry and paints in broad strokes another idealized view of Native American culture juxtaposed against corrupt capitalist settlers and sadistic British officers who are already behaving as if they own everything they see. We never see Indians attacking or plotting violence against their oppressors in this entry or in any of the three DEFA Westerns – they are always the betrayed, the exploited, the victimized. Another curious note is that white hunters and trappers are the one who are actively engaged in the business of buying and selling scalps as if scalping were a white business enterprise…which calls into question who introduced scalping into the culture?
In some ways CHINGACHGOOK is the most atmospheric and colorful in terms of the art direction with the bright red uniforms of the invading British soldiers set against the earth tones of the natural surroundings or Tom Hutter’s floating log cabin set in the middle of a pristine lake with a picture-posture view of the mountains. But I also regard CHINGACHGOOK as a guilty pleasure because its excesses and failures are entertainingly bad. Plus I have a certain fondness for it because it was the first DEFA Western I saw; it was screened at the Goethe Institute in Atlanta in 2001. The absurd dance sequences aside, the movie also has its shares of visual gaffes: A hunter spots a bird overhead, shoots it and then a prop bird lands clumsily at his feet as if someone tossed it into the camera frame; Chingachgook is mobbed in a pileup of Huron warriors but easily crawls out of the bottom of the huddle unnoticed like a Bugs Bunny gag in a Chuck Jones cartoon. There is also a scene-chewing performance by Horst Preusker, who seems to be channeling Charles Laughton’s Captain Bligh in his role as the hateful British officer Warley. And, as usual, the music score is often wildly anachronistic; for example, in one scene, the opening of a chest of family heirlooms is accompanied by the blaring sounds of a Dixieland jazz band.
APACHES, the final entry in the DEFA set, stands in marked contrast to the two preceding films and is much closer in its look and tone to a Spaghetti Western….which is somewhat ironic because the Spaghetti Western craze was most probably inspired by the huge European success of TREASURE OF SILVER LAKE (1962), the first of the West German Shatterhand/Winnetou Westerns. Based on historic accounts of an infamous atrocity, APACHES opens as Ulzana (Mitic) prepares to attend a celebration in a nearby town, organized for the local Apache tribes by an American geologist named Johnson (Milan Beli). In cahoots with the Mexican mayor of the town, Johnson is actually planning to massacre his guests and he nearly succeeds, blasting them with cannon fire as his men pick off the other defenseless victims. Ulzana and a few others manage to escape while the dead are then scalped in a grisly sequence that, while non-explicit in its detail, is nonetheless an example of the film’s more realistic approach to violence. The rest of the film is a taut cat-and-mouse chase between Johnson and Ulzana who settles the score in rousing fashion in a finale where the Apaches emerge triumphant.
Made just a year after Robert Aldrich’s ULZANA’S RAID (1972), APACHES bares little relation to that film’s storyline and Mitic’s Ulzana, despite his grievances with the white man, is still a man of incorruptible honor and not a bloodthirsty avenger like the title character of Aldrich’s film. Mitic, who is almost constantly in motion in APACHES, goes beyond his usual male model image to give something like a performance here and it leaves one wanting to see the sequel, ULZANA (1974), which Mitic also co-scripted. The film is also interesting for addressing a subject rarely explored in Westerns – the relationship between Mexicans and Native Americans as they both struggled against a greater oppressor – the U.S. military.
The DEFA Westerns are not for everyone but for those with any interest in seeing how another culture, in this case Soviet controlled East Germany, takes what was once one of Hollywood’s most popular genres and refashions it for their own purposes, Westerns with a Twist is an intriguing change of pace. SONS OF THE GREAT BEAR, CHINGACHGOOK, THE GREAT SNAKE, and APACHES are all available for rental from Netflik or you can buy the set from First Run Films at http://www.firstrunfeatures.com/. My one comment on the presentation is that while these are basically crisp, clean transfers, the aspect ratio is not correct and though letterboxed, crucial information is still missing or cut off from the left and right side of the frame, something that I hope First Run Films will correct in future remasterings of these titles.
Other sites of interest:
http://www.southernnewmexico.com/Articles/Southwest/Grant/JohnsonMassacre.html (The Johnson Massacre account)
http://www.nysun.com/arts/when-westerns-made-their-way-east/42479/ (When Westerns Made Their Way East by Gary Giddens)
http://mysite.verizon.net/indianerfilme/gojko.html (Information about Gojko Mitic, photo below)
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