Hollywood has always had an ugly relationship with Apaches. Even at their most sympathetic (most notably in Broken Arrow and The Battle at Apache Pass) they are portrayed as ruthlessly violent. Most of the time they are a cipher, as incomprehensible to white folks as the tripods in War of the Worlds. Even after the shift in the early seventies to more sympathetic portrayals of Native Americans (e.g., Soldier Blue and Little Big Man), the Apaches remained as ruthless as ever (e.g., Ulzana’s Raid, 1972).
East Germany had no such preconceptions. As far as they were concerned, the Apaches were as capable of nobility and heroism as anyone else. The real problem was, as always, the white men that drove them off their land in the name of property, precious metals, and, later, oil. They had already made movies about Mohicans, Shawnees, Seminoles, Dakota Sioux, Arapahos and Shoshones. It was time for DEFA to take a good hard look at the Apaches in the film of the same name.
The basis of Apaches (Apachen) is a little remembered event that took place in 1937 in the small mining community of Santa Rita in the Mexican province of Nuevo Mexico. In 1835, the Mexican government placed a bounty on the scalps of the Apaches who occupied their northern territories (now, Arizona, New Mexico, and western Texas). This essentially gave people a license to kill. An American trader named John Johnson invited the local Mimbres Apaches to pick up free flour and then let loose on them with rifles and a cannon filled with scrap iron, glass, and a length of chain. Among those killed was the tribe’s chief, Juan José Compá. All of this is recorded with fair accuracy in the film, although, in the film, the man who takes over for Compá is called Ulzana.
In truth, the new leader’s name was Mangas Coloradas (Spanish for Red Sleeves). Considering how careful the filmmakers were in most other aspects, the choice of the name Ulzana is a mystery. Perhaps it was to cash in on the name recognition created by Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid—a fictionalized account of the Battle of Little Dry Creek, which did involve an Apache named Ulzana (also known as Josanie). Why Mangas Coloradas has received such short shrift in films (both east and west) is also a mystery. He was a great leader whose attempts to barter a truce between the Chiricahuas and the white people were repeatedly thwarted by the double-dealing of the U.S. Cavalry and vengeful settlers. It was he who was tied to a tree and whipped as portrayed in the film, although this event took place fourteen years after the Santa Rita Massacre. Mangas Coloradas met his end in 1863, when he went to the U.S. Cavalry under a flag of truce. Ignoring the truce, the Cavalry tortured and killed him. His head was cut off, boiled to remove the skin, and the skull was sent to renowned phrenologist, Orson Squire Fowler, whose theories on the importance of the shape of the skull laid the foundations for the development of eugenics. So much for the rules of engagement.
The star of the film is Gojko Mitic, the astoundingly well-built Yugoslavian actor/stuntman who became East Germany’s favorite Indian, starring in thirteen East German Indianerfilme (some sources cite twelve, but I count thirteen). Mitic also co-wrote the script with director Gottfried Kolditz. At this point, Mitic had already made a name for himself as an actor, but this was his first turn as a scriptwriter. The actor is as athletic as ever here, doing his own stunts, including a particularly dangerous looking one for both him and the horse. The film was popular and led to a sequel, aptly named, Ulzana, also written by Mitic and Kolditz (not currently available with English subtitles).
The villain in this piece is played by Milan Beli in a role that plagued him for the rest of his career. As with Gojko Mitic, Beli hailed from Yugoslavia. He first appeared in the French/Yugoslavian co-production Burlak, and also worked uncredited on choreography for Konrad Wolf’s Goya. In the west, he is best remembered for his role as Ronk in Gottfried Kolditz’s psychedelic sci-fi classic, In the Dust of the Stars. He was almost always cast as a villain and is reported to have said that he relished those occasions when he could play someone who was not so evil. This may explain why he took the relatively small, but benign role of the victim of a fender bender in Konrad Petzold’s cat-and-mouse thriller, Für Mord kein Beweis (No Evidence for Murder).
One area that was an inescapable problem for East German filmmakers was the lack of access to the American west while making these films. Nonetheless, the stand-in countrysides of Romania and Uzbekistan do a reasonably good job of mimicking the landscapes of southwestern New Mexico and the Chiricahua Mountains. As someone who grew up in Tucson and has spent a fair amount of time in Silver City, New Mexico, the landscapes looked good to me. The only major fault I can find are the pathetic excuses for saguaro cacti.
Director Gottfried Kolditz was an interesting choice of director. He had already made one very successful Indianerfilm (Spur des Falken—The Falcon’s Trail), and had worked with Gojko Mitic on the science fiction film Signals (Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer). Kolditz was one of East Germany’s best directors. His oeuvre encompasses nearly every type of film from light-hearted musicals (Revue um Mitternacht and Geliebte Weiße Maus), to cerebral sci-fi (Signale and Im Staub der Sterne), to fairy tales (Schneewittchen and Frau Holle). As with other DEFA directors (most notably, Konrad Wolf), this makes it hard to tie his films up into a neat, auteur package. Frau Holle, for instance, has very little in common with Apachen, except maybe the strong sense of color and mise-en-scène common to all of Kolditz’s films. Other than that, they are as different as chalk and cheese.
Music is always an important aspect of Kolditz’s films, and Apaches is no exception. For this film, Kolditz worked with Hans-Dieter Hosalla. It was Hosalla’s first western score. As with fellow movie composers, Wilhelm Neef and Kolditz favorite, Karl-Ernst Sasse, Hosalla was a classically trained musician. Besides his work for DEFA, he is best known for his musical interpretations Berthold Brecht’s lyrics in Saint Joan of the Stockyards (Die Heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe) and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui). In Apaches, Hosalla takes his cues from Morricone, combining traditional classical instruments with Spanish guitar and odd percussion. This is not to say that score sounds anything like a Morricone score; it doesn’t. Hosalla’s score swings between frenetic piano music and incongruously lighthearted flute and guitar music. While there is no record of how well Kolditz got along with Hosalla, or what he thought of his music, it is probably significant that for the sequel to Apaches, he went back to his favorite composer, Karl-Ernst Sasse.
As a footnote to this story, the town of Santa Rita was repaid for the events of 1837 with poetic retribution. Starting in 1901, the town was forced to move repeatedly as the mine grew. Finally in 1957, the entire town was forced off its property in the quest for copper—a move instigated by the Kennecott Corporation. A new townsite was erected, but the site was quickly and badly chosen. Shortly after it was established, most of the town was washed away during an erosive flood (not uncommon in this area—in late 1800s the main street of nearby Silver City was replaced with a creek due to wagon track erosion on the trail from the mines). By 1967, the town, which once had boasted over 6,000 citizens, no longer existed. Today, all that remains is a verdigris pit so enormous it is almost impossible to judge its scale until those tiny trucks you see in the bottom of the pit drive past you and you notice that their wheels are taller than you are.