East Meets Western
With all of the recent hysteria about immigration, it seemed like a good time to explore the original American immigrants. There is quite a rich history of movies about settlers (a word that is still used in some parts of the world) doing battle with people who were already living there. In Soviet times, a series of films were made in East Germany and Czechoslovakia called “Osterns” (a pun on the German word for East) that took the side of the native people. While this definitely involved some nose-thumbing at the West, this genre also had literary roots. Karl May was one of the most beloved authors in Germany (his books are still in print and have sold over 100 million copies). Many of these featured the adventures of a noble Apache and his white friend. In 1616 Pocahontas was presented to English society as an example of a “civilized savage” (an interesting bit of context is that she lived during the same period as Shakespeare, which is about 200 years before the time period in which most Westerns are set.). Westerns were banned in the USSR, until Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization, so for many people these might have been their first Westerns.
Europe has had a long love affair with the idea of Native Americans. In the 1700s King Henry II was feted by a tribe of Brazilian Indians (augmented by peasants wearing brown paint). By the mid 1800s James Fenimore Cooper’s Indian serial, “The Last of the Mohicans,” was a best seller in Europe and America. Some rather strange “ethnographic” touring shows sprang up too. If these were too authentic and didn’t meet the expectations of what the crowds thought Indians were, the shows floundered. One of the most popular acts in these shows was a display of breast-feeding “savages.” In 1890 Buffalo Bill brought his 200-plus person act to Munich. People camped out overnight to buy tickets, and the giant arena in which it was held never once failed to sell out. A fad called Hobbyism started around this time (which continues to this day) in which Germans reenacted as Native Americans in festivals that resemble a Renaissance Fair.
The Sons of Great Bear (1966), and Chingachgook: The Great Snake (1967) are the two titles that best flip the script on Westerns as we know them (this was actually an entire genre, but only a select few have English subtitles). Both of these star a Yugoslavian actor named Gojko Mitic slathered in a thick coat of man-tan. He starred in 12 of these “Osterns” between 1966 and 1984. The depiction of “settlers” in these is crude and boorish. Burning cabins and dead cowboys felled by arrows signal happy endings. For a lighter touch, it is worth seeking out the Czechoslovakian comedy Lemonade Joe (1967). This one is considered a critique of both Westerns and The West. It is also a very gonzo musical. The best way to watch any of these is to imagine that it is the first and only Western you have ever seen.