Posts Tagged ‘cavalry’

In 1990, actor/director Kevin Costner made a film called Dances With Wolves. The film told the story of a U.S. Army soldier stationed out west who learns the ways of the local Indian tribe and eventually finds himself at odds with the white people invading the west. The film was hailed as revolutionary for its pro-Native American stance, and went on to win seven Academy Awards. One tiny little fact got lost in the shuffle: the film had already been made in East Germany fifteen years earlier.

That film was Blood Brothers (Blutsbrüder), and, as with most other East German Indianerfilme, it starred Gojko Mitic, the Yugoslavian actor who specialized in playing Native Americans for DEFA. This was Mitic’s tenth exploration of the American West for DEFA. It is interesting to compare his performance in this film with some of his previous films, such as Chingachgook, the Great Snake, or Apaches. In those, he is presented as a nearly super-human force, capable of feats that strain credulity. In Blood Brothers, he puts on a more human face. He is vulnerable, occasionally bested, and more relaxed. It is one of his most engaging performances and shows an actor who has grown comfortable with his persona.

This may have been, in part, because he was working opposite Dean Reed who brought a goofy affability to most of the roles he played. Dean Reed was an American pop singer who had been one of the dozens of handsome young men groomed for stardom by the major record companies in the wake of Elvis. He had a few modest hits in the states, but in South America, his song, “Our Summer Romance” was a bona fide blockbuster. Taking advantage of the situation, Reed travelled to South America, where he played to packed venues all over the continent, and eventually moved to Argentina. While there, he became outraged by the disparity between the rich and the poor. He visited Chile, where he met the political folksinger Victor Jara and learned that music can make a difference. His politics shifted to the left and he began singing protest songs; he appeared at free concerts for the poor and protested U.S. politics. After the Argentine Revolution, the new fascist government there decided that Reed was persona non grata, and sent him packing.

At first, he went to Rome, where he began acting in spaghetti westerns, most notably, Adios Sabata, where he played second bill to Yul Brynner. In 1973, Reed, who by now considered himself a Marxist, decided to move to East Germany where he continued to appear in films.. While there, he recorded several albums for the state-owned record label, Amiga. He became wildly popular in all the Soviet bloc countries and was known as der Rote Elvis (the Red Elvis).

In spite of his politics, Reed never joined the SED and continued to file his income with the IRS until the end of his life. In 1986, Reed appeared on the popular American TV news program, 60 Minutes, where he defended the building of the Berlin Wall, and compared Reagan to Stalin. Reportedly, Reed was interested in returning to the United States, but years abroad had left him without a clue as to how far to the right the average American was politically. Reactions to the interview were vitriolic and left Reed despondent and confused. Six weeks after that show, he committed suicide. The authorities covered up the suicide, fearing that it would reflect badly on the state. This led to years of speculation as to whether he was murdered or committed suicide. The question was finally answered after the Wende, when his Stasi files were opened by author Chuck Laszewski while he was researching his book, Rock ‘n’ Roll Radical: The Life & Mysterious Death of Dean Reed. There, Laszewski found a suicide note and an apology to SED General Secretary Erich Honecker.

While it is tempting to make a full-on comparison between Blood Brothers and Dances with Wolves, there are some important differences. The biggest one is that of perspective. The Hollywood film follows the age-old formula of the righteous white man learning the ways of the oppressed minority and coming to their aid as the heroic savior. We’ve seen it many times before, from Lawrence of Arabia to Avatar. Blood Brothers inverts the formula. By himself, Reed’s character (known as Harmonika for his musical instrument of choice) is incapable of salvation. If anything, it is the Indians who save him; first from the wilderness and then from his own dissipation. The hero here is, as is often the case in the Indianerfilme, Gojko Mitic’s character (given the improbable name of “Harter Felsen,” which translates into something roughly along the lines of “hard ground,” or the rather redundant, “hard rock”). Unlike Dean Reed’s well-meaning, but confused renegade, Mitic’s character never loses his center, and eventually helps Harmonika get back on track. Of course, this being an East German film, getting back on the right track means killing American soldiers.

Blood Brothers was directed by Werner W. Wallroth. Wallroth normally specialized in lighter fare. He was part of the generation that was still in its teenage years when the war ended. His most successful film was Hauptmann Florian von der Mühle (Captain Florian of the Mill), a lowbrow farce starring Manfred Krug. His last feature film for DEFA was Der Doppelgänger a romantic comedy starring Klaus-Dieter Klebsch. After the Wende, he retired from filmmaking, but continued to work in theater. Wallroth is also a talented lyricist, writing songs for various East German artists, including Chris Doerk (of Hot Summer fame), and Nina Hagen (he penned her popular song, “Wir tanzen Tango”). He died on August 9th of this in Potsdam at the age of 81.

The cinematographer was by Hans Heinrich. Although IMDB lists him as the same man who directed the first DEFA musical, My Wife Wants to Sing, he is not. That director was a West Berliner (born November 2, 1911), whose career in the east was capped  by that musical in 1957. That same year, the cinematographer Heinrich (born March 19, 1929) was still working in the “Das Stacheltier” group at DEFA. Das Stacheltier made short films that played before the feature films at East German cinemas. Sometimes these were documentaries, and sometimes they were short films, usually comedies. In 1961, he started working on feature films regularly. His work includes the Manfred Krug comedies, On the Sunny Side, and Frau Venus und ihr Teufel (Lady Venus and Her Devil). During the seventies, he was one of the most popular cinematographers of Indianerfilme, and he filmed many of Dean Reed’s GDR films, including the two that Reed directed (El Cantor and Sing, Cowboy, Sing).

In spite of Wallroth’s rather lackadaisical approach to mise-en-scène, Heinrich’s work in Blood Brothers is spectacular. In one of the most memorable scenes, after an attack on the Indian camp by the whites, the camera rapidly tracks through the wreckage of the camp, gliding over hills and through the still-standing tentpoles of a destroyed tepee. It looks like it was shot with a Steadicam, but the Steadicam wouldn’t turn up in films for another year, starting with Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory (for which cinematographer Haskell Wexler won an Academy Award). How an East German film came up with a Steadicam-style shot a full year before the process was introduced deserves further investigation.

The music is by Karl-Ernst Sasse, and is one of his odder scores. In places, it is remarkably imaginative, using jaw harps for percussive effects, but a minute later, it suddenly devolves into the kind of cliches that one could find on any U.S. TV western in the fifties. [For more on Sasse, see Her Third and Signals.] As an musical lagniappe, Dean Reed appears at the beginning of the film and sings his song, “Love Your Brother.”

Blood Brothers was one of the last Indianerfilme made by DEFA. The public was beginning to lose its enthusiasm for the genre. Nonetheless, the film did very well at the box office and helped enhance Reed’s reputation behind the Iron Curtain.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film (German only, no subtitles).

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 FalkenThe 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.

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