A Fistful of Westerns
The Making of The Italian West: Part 1
As a nine-year-old, I was not a fan of westerns, horror films and cartoons are what I liked, but whenever westerns were on television my Dad would take over. (he wasn’t a big fan of TV, he preferred reading the paper and listening to the radio) He’d come into the den saying “there’s a western on tonight. You know the rules, you can sit here quietly and watch it with me, or watch TV with your mom, or go to your room, shut the door, and don’t bother me. My parents were older than most of my friends’ folks so my dad was a little like ‘Red’ from That 70s Show. So that night in August of 1977, I saw a picture that would change the way I saw movies. (Coincidentally it was also the same weekend that I first saw Star Wars in the theater). That film was the network television premiere of Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966).
I chose to sit quietly and watch the movie. Instantly I was mesmerized, “What’s this?!” I thought to myself, remembering my father’s rules, “This is like a cartoon or a cheap James Bond intro, and the twangy guitar music.” After the main ‘star card’, came a card with about a dozen actors all with Italian names. “Ooh, it’s a junky Italian film!” moaned my father. When my dad was a kid my grandfather packed the family and moved back to Mexico. He always disliked watching dubbed movies. When they weren’t dubbed he was usually the one who said all the dialog in Spanish as he was the only one in his town who was bilingual. We continued to watch it and I couldn’t keep my eyes off it. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. Much better the black and white Wayne pictures I had seen at the time. The violence was abrupt and sometimes humorous. My father said, “That is what the town looked like where I lived” refereeing to the adobe buildings.
He also mentioned that that’s how people got shot, no quickdraws at high noon, just bam! You’re dead over a drunken argument. He said people would just leave the bodies in the street until they’d bloat up and turn purple. That evening left a permanent mark on my young imagination. A couple days later I saw Star Wars and when Han Solo shot Greedo from under the table I excitedly grabbed my friend and said: “I just saw this!”. After the film, he asked me what I was talking about. I told him I saw that same scene in a cowboy movie. Over the years I grew more and more fond of the films and started seeking out films beside ‘The Dollars Trilogy’, a task that wasn’t easy until DVD. That night along with my father another person was watching it in her room, my mother, and like me, she loved it as well. The Dollars Trilogy would be the last Films I would see with my mom before she passed away in 2015.
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I love Italian cinema particularly the westerns, many books and articles have written on the subject but maybe this will be a good intro for people not exposed to these films, but before we delve into the good stuff first we must quickly talk about Italy’s history of cinema.
Italian Cinema has had a rich and vibrant film industry since the advent of cinema itself. From Giovanni Pastrone’s 1910 epic silent film Cabiria which had a huge influence on American filmmaker D.W. Griffith, to the Telefoni Bianchi pictures of the 30’s that were silly screwball comedy’s that often featured upper-middle-class woman gossiping on white telephones, which were a luxury most regular folks did not have in Italy.
These pictures were also seen as propaganda films as the messages of these pictures could not offend Italy’s fascist government. The neorealist pictures of the 40’s were the antithesis of the Telefoni Bianchi films. The neorealist films would be hugely influential on American pictures as well as The French New Wave of the late 50s and 60s. Films like Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, with an uncredited assistant director Sergio Leone) and de Sica’s Umberto D. is considered the last of this movement.
It was during this period that American pictures started to be made in Italy. Not only was Rome a beautiful and picturesque country to shoot in but the government had a great tax incentive to lure foreign film companies to help rebuild their country after the war. Big Hollywood productions began to be made there, like Ben-Hur, director William Wyler wanted to shoot in the same place he shot Roman Holiday, Hollywood by the Tiber, Cinecittà.
Cinecittà translates to Cinema City. The largest studio in Europe and founded by Benito Mussolini and his son Vittorio for the purpose of making propaganda pictures and making Italy great again. It literally was a kind of city, it had film schools, labs, all kinds of artisans living and working there. It also had massive sets and a huge back lot. During WWII it was heavily bombed by allied invasions and was used as a refugee camp. It was restored after the war and became a hub of international filmmaking.
Now, this is where our story begins…kind of.
First, we must move to the Teutonic lands of the north, Germany and the adventures of the Native American Apache Chief, Winnetou.
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German, Karl May (1842-1912) was a prolific writer of western novels set in America’s old west. What separates his work from other writers of the same type of adventure novels is (1) that he lived and wrote from his native country, Germany and (2) the hero of his stories is first and foremost an Apache named Winnetou and are told through first-person narration by his white blood brother and sidekick Old Shatterhand. Though May never visited the States he vigorously studied maps, anthropological books, and histories. His novels are some of the most read books in Germany, so it was no surprise that his novels would eventually be made into pictures.
The Treasure of Silver Lake
The films were produced by Germany’s Constantin Film and stared American actor Lex Barker, famous for playing Tarzan in the late 40s through the 50s . In the 60s he worked extensively in Europe on pirate pictures and a couple of Dr. Mabuse films, he also played Anita Ekberg’s husband in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). Here he plays Old Shatterhand, The sidekick. French actor Pierre Brice had the role of the Apache Chief Winnetou and it would make him a huge star.
The first picture was called Der Schatz im Silbersee (Treasure of Silver Lake) 1962. This picture was a massive hit in Europe and Columbia Pictures eventually released it in the States in 1965. The film is very good, though trying to make the beautiful Yugoslavian landscape look like the American southwest by peppering the scenery with fake cactus that’s as green as Kermit The Frog’s skin, takes a bit of getting used to.
Czech born actor Herbert Lom (Best known as Inspector Clouseau’s Commissioner Charles Dreyfus in the Pink Panther pictures) plays gang leader of The Tramps, Colonel Brinkley, who has killed a man on a stagecoach for a stolen half of a map and seeks out the find the other half. Meanwhile, the son of the victim Fred Engle (Götz George) and his girlfriend Ellen Patterson (‘You Only Live Twice’ Bond girl Karen Dor) have the other half of the map and are eventually kidnapped by the gang and are forced to reveal the location of the treasure. Winnetou and his Anglo sidekick, Old Shatterhand, set out for the rescue and hunt down the Colonel.
The locations the film was shot at, especially Silver Lake of the title, are stunning, to say the least. How the Native American’s are presented are much more respectful than their American counterparts in Hollywood. Though Winnetou is the main character the script was changed a bit to give Lex Barker more screen time, I’m sure this wasn’t a race thing but a financial one, Lex Barker though strictly a B picture guy in the states was a major international star from his Tarzan pictures. All and all the Winnetou pictures are highly entertaining adventure films. Eleven pictures would be made all with Pierre Brice as Winnetou, Lex Baxter would be in seven of them. I haven’t seen all of them but I highly recommend the ones I have. These films have been stunningly restored and are available on Blu-Ray.
-Phillip López Jiménez
Next: Part 2
Spain starts building western towns for their Zorro pictures, one of which stars Winnetou’s Pierre Brice, and directed by future gore maestro Umberto Lenzi!
A lanky TV actor gets the role of a lifetime!
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