The shocking history of actions by the United States against Native Americans and blacks was a source of great delight to East Germany’s leaders. Here was a country that boasted about its freedom and opportunities, yet continued to shut out anyone who skin tone drifted too far from Pantone 473. With Osceola, DEFA managed to kill two birds with one stone, combining an Indian uprising with a slave revolt. The story takes place in Florida and represents the first time a DEFA Indian film chronicled the life of a real person, an approach they would follow over the next three Indian films. Osceola was a joint effort by DEFA, Bulgaria’s Kino-Zentrum, and Cuba’s Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industrias Cinematográficos (ICAIC).
The film explores the beginnings of the Second Seminole War, which took place in Florida and lasted from 1835 to 1842. The heavy in the story (besides the U.S. cavalry) is a plantation owner named William Raynes and his overseer Joe Hammer. Raynes is pissed because his black slaves keep escaping and finding refuge in the Seminole community. As far as Raynes is concerned those slaves are property, and this amounts to theft in his book. Raynes decides to take action against the Seminoles, at first on his own, then later with a little help from the U.S. government. As was often the case with the DEFA Indian films, the story ends on a triumphant note but can’t escape the fact that, in the end, the Seminoles were run out of Florida and forced to live on reservations in Oklahoma. The film tries to spin this with an end credit discussing the number of losses by American troops in that war. There would be one more war with the Seminoles before all was said and done, but it is this second war that is considered to be the main conflict and the most costly both in terms of troops used and human life lost.
Although the film is titled Osceola, that character is absent from much of the action. Most of the film is devoted to Richard Moore, a local sawmill owner who stands against Raynes, hides or employs runaway slaves, and helps the Indians defeat the plantation owner’s plans. The story of the Seminoles doesn’t start kicking in until the final third of the film.
Not surprisingly, Gojko Mitić plays the title role. The fact that Mitić isn’t Native American is less important here. The real Osceola was not a pure-blood Indian. His father was Scots-Irish and his mother was a Creek Indian. He wasn’t even a Seminole, although he fought alongside them since the Creek lands had already been taken over by white settlers. Mitić should be well-known by the readers of this blog by now, but you can find out more about him here.
Playing the heroic Richard Moore is the Romanian actor Iurie Darie, who appeared in several DEFA westerns under the name “Jurie Darie.” Darie was a popular actor in Romania and a talented man. He had one degree in art from the Institutul de Arte Plastice (now the National University of Arts in Bucharest) and another in theater from the Artă Teatrală și Cinematografică (now the National University of Theatre and Film “I.L.Caragiale” Bucharest). He got his start in films in 1953 in Nepotii gornistului (The Bugler’s Grandsons) and continued working after the Romanian Revolution. He died in 2012. Two years before his death, Darie caused a scandal when pictures of the, then, 81-year-old Darie and his 64-year-old wife Anca Pandrea appeared nude together in a pictorial spread in which they are pretending to have sex.
The evil Joe Hammer is played by Gerhard Rachold, a character more recognized for his face than his name. Although trained as a stage actor, Rachold appeared in dozens of DEFA films, playing everything from a Nazi to a newspaper reporter. He might have had a career after reunification as well, but shortly after his wife died, Rachold, who had long had a problem with depression, committed suicide by jumping out of a ninth-story window.
ICAIC’s assistance gave DEFA access to some very Floridian environments that would have been harder to duplicate in Bulgaria and Germany. Still, there are a few scenes with suspiciously out-of-place looking palm trees. The story is helped along by Günter Schmidt’s attractive costumes. Schmidt did the costumes for ten of DEFA’s sixteen westerns and usually strove for historical accuracy, although here there are plenty of mistakes in military uniforms, weapons, and Seminole clothing.
The Seminole Wars were one of the most shameful episodes in American history. The Seminoles had signed a treaty to allow them to continue to live in central Florida, but new president Andrew Jackson had other plans, signing the Indian Removal Act, which rendered previous agreements null and void, and led to the deaths of thousands of Native Americans on the Trail of Tears. Some resisted. One of these was Osceola, who did such a good job of evading the U.S. cavalry that General Thomas Jesup eventually resorted to deceit, arranging a meeting with Osceola at Fort Peyton under a flag of truce, then promptly arresting him anyway.
You’d think that Hollywood stay far away from a story like this, but Budd Boetticher used it as the setting for Seminole with Anthony Quinn playing a sympathetic Osceola and Richard Carlson, who usually played the hero in those days, getting a chance to chew up the scenery as the evil fort commander. Rock Hudson and Barbara Hale received top billing, but the film really belongs to Quinn and Carlson. Considering the American state of mind in 1953, Seminole is surprisingly sympathetic to the Indians. The same can’t be said for Raoul Walsh’s Distant Drums. The Seminoles as portrayed here have more in common with the cannibals in Make Them Die Slowly than any American Indian. Walsh was one of the best filmmakers in Hollywood at the time so the film is entertaining but it’s egregiously bad history. Today Distant Drums is best known for being the first movie to feature the “Wilhelm Scream.”
One more attempt was made in 1957 to tell the “true” story of Osceola by a small, no-budget production company in Florida called Empire Studios. The film was called, rather luridly, Naked in the Sun, but its lack of funds or talent left the film assigned to a footnote in cinema history. Konrad Petzold’s Osceola is far from perfect—he directs the film with less flair usual—but it’s still one of the best films to tell the story and worth a look for anyone interested in America’s past.
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