February 2013        


Red westerns

We all know well the classic American western, the story of the strapping and urbane frontiersman slaying the uncouth and uncivilised natives. We have all been fed this brand of inaccurate and chauvinistic film-making almost since birth. These “cowboy and Injins” films have made such a cultural impact that there is a dangerous chance of them being taken, by the uninformed viewer, as historical fact.
      Luckily, most of us know the truth regarding the “Old West”: the brutal colonisers carrying out genocide against the Native Americans, using everything from swords to biological warfare.
      Within the propaganda-filled cocoon that was the American western film industry, a world of pink waistcoats, John Wayne, chivalrous heroes, and good holy men, there was no place for the truth. And American studios were not the only ones to produce westerns: Europe was well known for its ability to make such films, Italy in particular having a thriving western film industry.
      There were others, though. Such countries as the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), Yugoslavia and the USSR also produced westerns.
      These westerns, however, had little in common with their Yankee counterparts. Instead of painting the invading colonists as proud heroes they portrayed the bestial extermination of the native people and the violent theft of their lands. The films from the German Democratic Republic especially stand out. These films, produced by Deutsche Film AG or DEFA, notably made the Native American the protagonist. They showed the genocide carried out against the native people, displaying the savage acts of ethnic cleansing and land seizure. The films were well written, beautifully shot, and, most importantly, told the story of resistance against the barbarous US army and the imperial white settlers.
      These films were produced from the 1960s onwards and acted as a counterbalance to the American westerns. The East German films were incredibly popular in socialist countries. The Sons of the Great Bear, released in 1966, sold tens of millions of tickets in the first few months after its release. It tells the story of the Dakota Indians struggle to hold on to gold it has discovered on its lands. The ruthless white settlers will do anything to take it from them. This tragic story perfectly represents the real struggle of the native people to hold on to their lands and the property found on them.
      Other popular titles would follow. Such films as Apaches and Chingachook joined The Sons of the Great Bear and many other titles to form a revolutionary collection of East German westerns. More than anything else they strove to expose the true nature of the “Old West.” They turned the traditional western on its head and sought to expose the festering truth from behind the gentle colours and clichéd plots of the American western.
      These films were big hits in socialist and progressive countries, where the people were well educated about the horrors of that malignancy that is colonialism. Their creators looked beyond the money-making business that is the traditional film industry and instead tried to produce art that would tell a righteous story. They produced art that would expose the suffering of native people in North America and show the true brutality of colonialism, whether in Latin America, Africa, or Oceania.
      These films never did make it in the West. Their content would not have sat well with the colonising states. The war crimes and crimes against humanity that they portrayed would have not coexisted peacefully with the myths the United States has spread regarding this eventful piece of its history.
      The films are hard to get, but they are available. They should be watched, because they offer a more realistic experience. These wonderful tributes to East German cinema serve a purpose. Like so many things in the enigmatic United States, one must look from outside for any shred of truth. These films provide much of that truth and are, as the Hollywood Reporter put it, “westerns with a twist.”

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