Posted by David Kalat on January 8, 2011
One thing I love about blogging here is the sense of a real conversation developing with readers. Several weeks ago, I wrote about Laurel and Hardy’s first talkie, UNACCUSTOMED AS WE ARE, and the comments to that post inspired me to explore the larger story of the transition from silent to sound—and that post’s comments were so wide-ranging and inspiring I have my work cut out for me to just keep up. I’m not surprised that readers challenged my off-hand references to Buster Keaton’s talkies—and next week I’ll pick that thread back up—but I was surprised (read: thrilled) that the comments then spurted off in an unexpected tangent about Westerns.
Duke Roberts specifically asked: “Could you research why exactly the western died the way it did? The one western a year, or every other year, does not satisfy.”
Why have Westerns spiffled out as a genre? Well, I don’t want to just toss out half-baked ideas, so let me work through these things over the course of several posts.
I’d like to start off by taking a look at one particular issue: how Westerns portray Native Americans. The Cowboys ‘n’ Injuns storylines of a lot of older Westerns weren’t meant to have the kind of deep cultural complexity that they now do—and that means that modern Westerns either have to mostly ignore the native peoples, or directly address the complicated politics involved.
If scientists were to announce tomorrow that astronomers suddenly discovered that, y’know, outer space really doesn’t exist, and in fact all those things we call stars are just sparkly lights in a solid firmament located immediately in the sky, just like the ancients believed… well, that would have ramifications for people making SF movies, and we might be sitting here talking about why nobody makes films like STAR WARS anymore.
So, what I’d like to do is take you through a mirror world of Westerns from a parallel universe that has a wholly different take on the relationship between white settlers and natives—and may help shine a light on how universal the Western genre actually is.
First, a digression:
Los Angeles is home to many immigrant communities. Among them, a population of natives transplanted from Oaxaca, Mexico. Like all immigrants, the Oaxacans struggle with the competing demands of assimilating American customs and the English language while still holding on to those crucial, irreducible aspects of Oaxacan culture. And that profound expression of what it is to be Oaxacan, that one part of their old lives so fundamental that it must be ritually practiced in order to keep their identity from dissolving completely into America’s melting pot–well, uh, it’s basketball.
Somewhere along the way, American basketball caught on in Oaxaca so fiercely that it became Oaxacan. This happens. American pop culture is so aggressively exported and promoted around the world, it does more than just dominate local cultures, sometimes it supplants them. Like horses or potatoes, fragments of American culture can become “native” to once-foreign lands.
Most of the time, Americans (being so parochial in their outlook) remain oblivious to this process. But from time to time, foreign re-interpretations of American pop culture can get exported back to the US–as is the case with Oaxacan basketball. At such moments, we can be confronted with the disconcerting experience of witnessing something we had assumed was deeply, unquestionably, inalienably American served up as something foreign and exotic.
Which brings us to Karl May. If you’ve never seen a Karl May Western, you are missing out on a key component of European popular culture. But, in the same breath that I say that, I must also note that the odds are you haven’t seen a Karl May Western–despite the immense popularity and importance of these films across the sea, they depict a vision of the American West so bizarre and unfamiliar as to be virtually unmarketable to US audiences.
Before we proceed, then, a crash course in essential facts:
Karl May is the single most widely read author in the German-speaking world.
Writing at the end of the nineteenth century, he penned seventy-three books–the best-known of them being Westerns–which have collectively sold hundreds of millions of copies in dozens of languages across Europe. Each year, that counter notches up by another million.
In the 1960s, a wave of German-made motion pictures based on his books became unprecedented commercial successes in Europe that set the stage for the Spaghetti Western boom that followed. The sixties-era Karl May Westerns set box office attendance records that remain astonishing to this day.
There are Karl May plays, performed annually at the Karl May Festival in Bad Segeburg, Germany. There is the Karl May association, a literary club. There is the Karl May Verlag, which licenses authorized merchandise. And there is Karl May tourism: Bob Sherman, president of the Western Indian Chamber, says that this long-dead 19th century German novelist is one of the driving forces in Western tourism today. Lufthansa runs nonstop service to Phoenix for fans making their pilgrimage to the “Echt West” (that’s “True West” for you non-German speakers—and I’d like you to think long and hard about what that term means, it’s gonna come back and bite us before you reach the end of this story).
While May wrote in many genres (Arabian and Oriental adventure stories were very popular in his day), his legacy lies in the 35 books chronicling the adventures of Winnetou, chief of the Apaches, and his friend Old Shatterhand, a German émigré whose fist is so powerful that with one punch he can shatter… oh, you get the idea.
These stories were never intended for American consumption–in 1999, the first Winnetou novel from 1892 became the first one to be translated into English. Rather, they were created as substitutes for American Western literature. May was a diehard fan of James Fenimore Cooper, but since Cooper’s books did not translate well into German it was only natural that someone would eventually re-interpret Cooper in a form better suited to the German language and culture. Geographically, Winnetou and Old Shatterhand were traveling the American West, but May’s heart was elsewhere.
For a landmark of world literature, Winnetou Book One reads uncomfortably like an eleven year-old’s creative writing essay. It is packed with interesting and memorable characters, epically plotted, replete with breathless action, bizarre twists, and spectacle–all the makings of a crackling good movie, in fact. But while all the pieces are in place, as a work of language it is hopelessly devoid of life.
There is something simply wrong about this book, and to recognize that fact is to confront the central irony of Karl May’s enormous and enduring success. One obvious explanation (which also happens to be the wrong one) is that Westerns are a uniquely American product, and as such cannot be properly formulated by Europeans.
This is utter bunk, as any Sergio Leone fan will tell you.
The Western may deal with a specific historical setting, but it is not really about history. Historical accuracy may win brownie points, but that kind of verisimilitude is beside the point. What makes a Western a Western is not scholarly rendering of American history, but the expression of an American myth.
The Age of the Frontier, the Gold Rush, Manifest Destiny, Cowboys ‘n’ Injuns, Shootout at the OK Corral… we know of these genuine historical moments first and foremost through Westerns. And our shared experiences of these Westerns have been repeatedly informed by European artists.
Fred Zinneman, John Ford, Fritz Lang, William Wyler, Edgar Ulmer, Jacques Tourneur, to name but a few. The exodus of European filmmakers during the ‘30s and ‘40s filled Hollywood’s ranks with foreign talents, who went on to create the American Western.
And, of course, the most blatant European take on the Western came with the explosion of Italian-made Westerns starting with Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS in 1964.
Karl May stands at the sourcepoint of both of these principal European influences on the Western film.
Firstly, as already noted, his novels were almost required reading across Europe in the first half of the 20th century such that the European émigrés in Hollywood all came to the Western genre intimately familiar with May. Whether consciously or not, they channeled his creative spirit into their own films.
Secondly, the wave of German Westerns based on May’s novels that swept across Europe in the early 1960s directly inspired the Italian cycle that followed–but we’ll come to that.
So there is nothing fundamentally un-Western about Winnetou. As a matter of artistic lineage, May’s writing should feel more than a little familiar while yet German. Makers of European Westerns were not so much trying to add to the American mythology as filtering that mythology through their own cultural lenses.
So it comes as no surprise that Old Shatterhand, May’s Great White Hope, is a German immigrant who improbably meets up with many German immigrants in his travels through the frontier.
More interesting, more German, is the fact that Shatterhand’s story in Winnetou Book One is set up as a rather formal process of apprenticeship. Karl/Charlie/Bud, as he is variously called before earning his nickname Old Shatterhand, is a greenhorn apprenticed to renowned Westerner Sam Hawkens. It is here, in this relationship, that the essential wrong-headedness of this whole book comes to the fore. The idea that Sam Hawkens has earned far and wide name recognition for his prowess as tracking and survivalist skills betrays a particularly Germanic obsession with reputation and social standing that could never have been a part of the real West, a landscape so vast that communication between far-flung pockets of isolated and deeply selfish frontiersmen was minimal at best.
The central joke of Winnetou Book One is that Old Shatterhand may be the greenhorn but he displays more courage, skill, innate instinct, tenacity, and nobility than anyone else, bar none. Imagine Superman without the cape. But this opposition of greenhorn vs. Westerner is predicated on two extremely shaky ideas of May’s.
First, what the hell is a “Westerner”? May’s term in the original German is Westmann–either way, this is entirely made up. The concept of a “greenhorn,” an inexperienced newbie, is genuine enough, but may has elevated this concept to an importance at the heart of the tale that is beyond all common sense. Having become obsessed with the idea of a “greenhorn,” May felt obliged to create its opposite, that what a greenhorn is not, a Westerner. The transformation of one to the other is, in May’s thinking, a ritualized and formal procedure–you keep expecting there to be state-administered final exams. Bud earns his moniker Old Shatterhand, accomplishes superhuman feats, saves the day time and again, yet remains a “greenhorn” to his mentor Sam because he has not completed his course of study.
Which brings us neatly to problem number two: this course of study has little to do with real survival skills and all to do with social acceptance. Sam is supposed to be teaching Bud a series of time-honored procedures. Each time, Bud’s way of doing things is challenged by Sam as wrong, as a greenhorn’s approach, not because he fails (which he never does, Bud always does everything faster and better than anyone else has ever done them) but because he isn’t following accepted practice. In the real frontier, surrounded by hostile forces and a dangerous environment, this concept is absurd.
It is not that May ever really expects the reader to resist Bud’s approach–he is the hero after all, and the “Westerners” are the fools–but his idealized superhero Old Shatterhand distinguishes himself against a backdrop of intense social conformity that has nothing to do with the Wild West and everything to do with nineteenth-century Germany.
Nevertheless, for when they were written, Karl May’s stories are surprisingly progressive. Their message of racial tolerance, ecological awareness, and pacifism is absolutely in tune with the sensibilities of late 20th century America. Consider some sample extracts from Winnetou Book One:
Old Shatterhand accuses a gun manufacturer of complicity in the murders committed with the weapon, anticipating the arguments made in class-action lawsuits a century later. Old Shatterhand fights the Ku Klux Klan. Old Shatterhand plans to marry an Apache princess, despite concerns about miscegenation. Old Shatterhand… well, you get the idea. For a dead white guy, Karl May was writing some very PC stuff.
He also put his money where his mouth was, leveraging his enormous popularity to promote the humanist agenda he espoused. Even just months before his death in 1912, May organized a pacifist conference in Vienna where he lectured to his fans, including leading members of the German intelligentsia.
In the crowd of 3,000 enthusiastic listeners was none other than Adolf Hitler, who along with the likes of Albert Einstein, Herman Hess, and George Grosz counted himself an inveterate May fan.
Hitler blamed his poor grades in school on having spent too much time reading May’s books by candlelight. He kept a library of May’s books in every home he ever had. When his nephew entered the National Political Education Center, Hitler gave the boy a gift set of the Winnetou trilogy. He dropped May quotations frequently into his speeches. He ordered his General Staff to read the Winnetou cycle in order to build morale and develop military strategy. He distributed 300,000 copies to Nazi soldiers during the war.
Puzzling, to say the least. The dominant message of May’s writings is one of humanity, tolerance, selflessness, morality. Not the kind of stuff normally associated with the author of the most infamous ideology of hate. So what gives?
Partly it is that, well, Hitler was German, and you would be hard pressed to find any German who didn’t have a soft spot for Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, all politics aside.
But there is more to it than that. Old Shatterhand is a German in the Wild West–the very personification of the Aryan übermensch. He speaks German, sings German songs, drinks German beer, and spends a lot of time hanging out with other German transplants. His enemies and opponents are the uncouth Yankee ruffians who represent all the worst aspects of New World corruption, the antithesis of everything he stands for.
His trusted ally Winnetou is no ordinary Indian. He is chief of the Apaches, an educated and cultured man who reads poetry, converts to Christianity, wants to send his sister to “white man’s school” in St. Louis. Forget the myth of the noble savage–Winnetou is nothing less than a red-skinned white man.
Together, Winnetou and Shatterhand are the anachronistic defenders of Old World values against the ugly American future. All of the perceived threats of the Industrial Age–a dismantling of the class system, a diminution of the royalty, an emphasis on the individual over society–these are the things at risk in May’s version of the Wild West, this is what Winnetou and Shatterhand try quixotically to fight. This was the interpretation favored by the likes of Hitler, who simply ignored the more progressive aspects of the tale to focus narrowly on this epic battle of Old World versus New, may the Aryans of all colors prevail.
The 1960s film series contained very little political content, the stuff of May’s overbloated writing reduced to action-movie essentials. Guns, horses, explosions, gorgeous vistas (Yugoslavia, but you’d never guess it), and always something moving.
Even with their muted politics, the 1960s films are bracing in their iconoclasm. I dare you to name, off the top of your head, even one significant mid-century Western classic in which a tribe of Indians come racing to rescue the heroine from the white villains. Name one. Here is an entire franchise of them:
Audience familiarity with the stories was taken for granted, and rather than attempt a faithful cinematic translation, director Harald Reinl lifted the most energetic action sequences from the novels and packed them breathlessly together, with as many embellishments and improvements as his writers could concoct.
Reinl had a mild Nazi past (he had been an apprentice to Leni Riefenstahl) but there was nothing really ideological about him or his movies. He was a prolific director who could and did work in all genres. He had a talent for visual excitement. Reinl became the most commercially successful postwar German director. In short, he was the Steven Spielberg of West Berlin.
(That’s Reinl in the big hat below, directing Pierre Brice)
There had been film adaptations before; a silent-era trilogy of May’s Arabian adventures was the first. But the one that mattered was Harald Reinl’s DER SCHATZ IM SILBERSEE (The Treasure of Silver Lake, 1962). It was an international affair all around. The German production company Rialto Film joined with Zagreb-based Jadran Film to finance the shoot in Yugoslavia with a multinational cast headlined by American Lex Barker as Old Shatterhand and French Pierre Brice as Winnetou (both Brice and Barker spoke English on the set, but were dubbed by other actors for the mostly unheralded American release).
Since Karl May’s death in 1912, Germany had been the focal point (and the loser) of two successive world wars. The countryside, the economy, and the people had been through trauma after trauma. And just a year before DER SCHATZ premiered in Stuttgart, a concrete wall had been erected across Berlin to partition East from West. Reinl’s film was colorful, funny, exciting, and simplistic in all the right ways (I did say he was a German Spielberg). It’s uncomplicated vision of Good vs. Evil was the escapist entertainment Germany needed.
Three million people saw the film in its first twelve months of release. That’s just counting Germany.
Of course there would be sequels. Sixteen, to be precise, between 1963 and 1968, climaxing with WINNETOU AND SHATTERHAND IM TAL DER TOTEN (Winnetou and Shatterhand In the Valley of Death, 1968). Many, the best of the lot, were directed by Reinl. Most starred Pierre Brice and Lex Barker, but Robert Siodmak’s UNTER GEIERN (Among Vultures, 1964) added Stewart Granger to the mix, as “Old Surehand” (“Old Shatterhand, Old Surehand–why are we all ‘old?’” grumbled Granger in a 1965 interview).
These sequels raked in profits of roughly $2 Million each just from German speaking markets alone. WINNETOU 2 was an Italian co-production which introduced an actor named Mario Girotti, who would later become a major star of Italian Westerns under the name Terence Hill. But by then, the Italians had seen the writing on the wall and decided that helping to pay for German Westerns was all well and good, but why not make them on their own?
No less an authority on the matter than Sergio Leone himself said, “It was because of the success of the German Winnetou series directed by Harald Reinl that the Western began to interest Italian producers.” Constantin Film, the German company behind ten of the Karl May pictures, co-produced FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, and they insisted on a German actress in the cast (Marianne Koch) to help ensure sales.
Karl May prided himself on his authentic, meticulously accurate depiction of American Indian life. To May, this was more than literature–it was biography.
“I really am Old Shatterhand,” he insisted. In an 1898 letter to a Czechoslovakian publisher, he explained:
“My works aren’t just the fruit of long and laborious studies, but the result of nearly thirty years of travel, deprivation and danger. They have literally flown out of me with the blood of wounds, whose scars I still bear on my body.”
This attitude that life experience meant much more than book-larnin’ suffused his writing. Old Shatterhand’s mentor Sam Hawkens frequently reprimands his charge that all his years of study back in Germany are worthless in the real West:
“Because a hand that’s spent some time yankin’ on a horse’s reins, pullin’ a trigger, grippin’ a knife and swingin’ a lasso is no longer fit for scribblin’ words on a piece of paper. If he’s really a Westerner he’s forgotten how to write, and if he ain’t, then he’s writin’ about things he don’t understand.”
But there it is. The secret confession.
Karl May is Old Shatterhand, or so he says, and Old Shatterhand comes to the West with a fully-formed knowledge gleaned not from experience but from encyclopedias and the novels of James Fenimore Cooper. It didn’t matter that May’s closest friends and associates and wives even believed the hype. The fact was that all those years that May supposedly spent traveling the American West and having these wild adventures… he actually spent rotting in prison.
Karl May was a con artist.
He was born in 1842, the fifth child of seven, to an impoverished family. Not only did his family lack the resources to give him much of a start in life, he was also especially sickly. He spent most of his childhood bed-ridden, and for his first four years he was blind. By the time he was ready to go out and make something of himself, he had developed an overactive imagination and a passion for reading, but nothing in the way of social skills, nor any particular professional talent. So instead of becoming a productive member of society, he ran insurance scams and sundry frauds. By age 23, he was sentenced to Zwickau prison for the first time. Five years later he was released, only to be rearrested within the year and sentenced once more for another four years.
It was this period that he would later claim was spent traveling the world, learning foreign languages and various survival skills. Actually he spent most of his time in Zwickau as the prison librarian, assiduously studying the enclycopedias and Cooper novels he would later contemptuously dismiss. He bided his time writing fantastic tales, starring wildly fictionalized versions of himself, and by the time of his final release he had managed to interest major publishing houses in his stories. Soon he was selling his pseudo-autobiographical adventures to Heinrich Gotthold Münchmeyer, editing Münchmeyer’s magazines, and fine-tuning the characters that would make him famous.
He bought a phony doctorate from the “German University of Chicago” and defrauded publishers and readers alike into believing that was fluent in “French, English, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Romanian, Arabian (six dialects), Chinese, Turkish, and the Indian languages of the Sioux, Apache, Comanche, Snakes, Utahs, Kiowas, besides the three South American dialects of the Katschumany. I won’t count Lapplandic.”
By 1899 his PR was crumbling. Not everyone found May’s relentless self-righteousness endearing, and his many enemies began to spread the word that May had actually spent his younger years behind bars, that he’d made the whole thing up. The gig was up. There was a public outcry, the press feasted on the scandal. “Old Shatterhand Scalped!” screamed the headline of the Berlin Post.
At first, May vigorously defended his honor. Even when real Native Americans were brought in to evaluate the veracity of the Winnetou stories, May insisted it was all true.
That is, until 1908. That was the year Karl May finally, and for the first time, visited the American West. There it all was–the landscape, the people, the animals, all of the things he had described in such vivid detail, and yet it was as if he were seeing them for the first time. He was four years old all over again, emerging from blindness to see a world he thought he already knew. Familiar, yet utterly foreign.
May returned to Germany, the only home he’d ever really known, in shock. He could keep up the pretense no longer, and began to demolish his own myth with greater ferocity and conviction than any of his critics.
Karl May was not at heart a bad person, just an anti-social one whose latent criminal tendencies derailed most of his aspirations. In devising his personal mythology, Karl May found a way to keep his darker side in check and to turn his criminal talents to good purpose. He used his self-aggrandizing to become a hero to millions and use that popularity to become an effective voice for a very positive and progressive ideology. Through Winnetou, May found a socially productive role that his background should otherwise have denied him.
He was a liar, but in the end that never really mattered. For strict realism, readers could have turned to encyclopedias themselves: May delivered fantastic dramatic fiction, with an emotional power more valuable than documentary journalism. The world is a better place for his fraud.
Next week: don’t ask me to defend Buster Keaton’s MGM talkies unless you mean it! On January 15, THE PASSIONATE PLUMBER gets a champion!
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