Monday, July 26, 2010

East German Westerns?

This week we're starting a couple of weeks of random films that will bounce you between genres, countries and feelings. There is no rhyme or reason so it will be worth it to come back each day since you won't know where I'm going.

More than a while back First Run Pictures released a set of 3 East German westerns on DVD under the collection title Westerns With a Twist. Yea, I know its a contradiction in terms, but I assure you its true.

Actually if you want to do to know about the whole genre of East German Westerns you really need to look else where either on line or in a book such as Tom Weissner's Spaghetti Westerns. They'll be able to give you better background on the films than I could in the space allotted. I say this because there's more to the story than just them being westerns from an Iron Curtain country, rather its how they fit into the whole Spaghetti/Euro- Western genre that's the interesting part. In a weird way these films and the Shatterhand films begat the Sergio Leone films and everything that followed.

However I'm not going to get into that. What I'm going to do is answer the question "how are they?". Well its best described as "I know why the box set was reduced by over 50% on Amazon".

Don't get me wrong they aren't horrible. If they were truly horrible I wouldn't mention them except in passing. However, I have to be really honest here and say that the films more of interest as a footnote and to the real western fan who thinks they have seen everything. Basically if the films weren't off the beaten trail and nominally hidden from view I probably wouldn't have put this post together.

The problem when you watch the films is that the "film grammar" is so radically different from what we're use to they may as well not be westerns. They don't follow any of the conventions of what we think of when we think "western". Certainly they are not even remotely close to American made westerns, though if you look you can see how on some level the German westerns-though probably not these films-had in someway influence on what became the spaghetti westerns in that they were there first.

All three westerns in the set look great and often seem more real than many other Euro-Westerns. They look-for the most part- like they were shot in a real place that could have had real cowboys and Indians in them. The films also are anti-white man. The films are clearly on the side of the Indians and their tribe (sense a commie message here?). The films also suffer from being in German which just seems wrong on the face of it. Worse the German is dubbed, often slightly out of sync or not by the actor speaking (such are the perils of watching three movies at once-you realize the voices are different)

The first two films-Sons of Great Bear and Chingachook:The Great Snake have a couple of things in common. They are very much not like westerns we know.The music is really counter to the film, they seem more set in the North east of the Americas, and they are stilted in ways that are do to them not having western grammar (they play like costume dramas). The films were made in the mid 1960's when the rules for Euro-westerns were still being written,

Sons of Great Bear is the earliest and its okay. the pacing is too slack and it has some really laughably bad action sequence. it has something to do with gold, settlers and revenge. I didn't get much more than that because I was just too bored or laughing too hard. Taken on its own terms its probably okay in the same way when you watch early film dramas are and they are okay if you taken them for what they are.I couldn't get more than 20 minutes into this before shutting it off. (In it's defense I was watching the film looking for a conventional western)

Chingachook is a better film. Its got a multi layered plot of the hero trying to rescue his bride, the English trying to use inter-tribal war fare to kill off the redskins and a couple of other things wandering around. It has a real sense of Indian life, almost to the point of boredom.Sure it feels like an Edward Curtis film but its much less exciting. The film is a bit schizo. It has some of the best looking landscapes I've ever seen in a western, yet several sequences were shot on shitty (and I do mean shitty)(pardon my language) sets that look worse than a high school production. I won't get into the British Army hats which look cheaper than dime store and have gold sparkles on them. If you forgive the technical oddness and you can get past a pacing that's much too slow. this isn't a bad movie. The problem for me was the pace and I found myself nodding off.

Apaches is the best of the bunch. Concerning an Indian warrior who gets revenge when his tribe is wiped out. More like the westerns we know this film has a much more appropriate music score. It doesn't seem like Ed Wood went to the music library and took the first six pieces he put his hands on. The film actually boasts some good action sequences and plot that moves along at a reasonable clip. To be honest I don't know if its genuinely a good film or just so much better than the other two in the set. If there is a draw back to the film its that more than once it gets much too talky. There are a couple of times when the characters begin to talk and the film seems to stop as the words overwhelm the action and the visuals.

So there you have it, a quick look at First Run Features' Westerns with a twist. Simply put only Apache is worth your time if you're not a dyed in the wool western fan, the others are simply curios best left to those who are real western nuts who want to see everything.

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