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His breakthrough role as Tarzan was a blessing and a curse for Lex Barker. All of his life, he tried to rid himself of the Jungle Lord image and got pretty annoyed when someone called him Tarzan. Which is up to a certain point understandable, after all he had been through, including that nightly emergency call at 3 AM: "Here is your neighbour and my cat sits on top of a tree and is afraid of coming down. Please Tarzan, ahem Mr Barker, come over quickly and rescue it!" In German-Yugoslav Karl May-film productions he embodied the archetype of the blond and blue-eyed German giant, the Western hero Old Shatterhand. Surprised by the international success of the Kraut Western films, Lex found the sale of "The Treasure of the Silver Lake" to America even more amazing than selling refrigerators to an Eskimo-family. Hollywood had plenty Western movies of its own, why in all the world would they need to import a German production?
The Myth of the good American Indian
Stereotypes, Spaghetti and Sour Kraut. Why were the Indians the bad ones and the cowboys the good ones in the classic American Western movies? Just because we could identify with their skin colour better or for the white man succeeded in invading the land in order to represent the majority now? And the winner gets to write the history books, then glorifying "his" story. In Napoleon's words: "What is history, but a fable agreed on?" (A theme used among others in Dan Brown's 2003 bestselling novel "The DaVinci Code" about extinguished ancient religious knowledge.) Thinking of the classic Western heroes especially "Duke" Wayne may come to our minds. His typically one dimensional roles in screen plays included the acclaimed all time Western classic "Rio Bravo," the Johnny Cash sung "The Sons of Katie Elder" and the mythical "(Remember) The Alamo" about one of the most bitter moments in Texan history. All "at a time when men were still men" as one of my friends used to put it. Well, one of these days our kids got fascinated by Winnetou and Old Shatterhand "mixing" their blood in one of their classic movies, today sometimes referred to as the good German "Sauerkraut-Western" in contrast to the brutal Italian "Spaghetti-Western." Two nations identified with their favourite dishes, Italian pasta eaters and German krauts. My uncle, who was not especially fond of vegetables, used to rhyme: "Das Sauerkraut gehört auf die Mauer gehaut!" Which roughly translates to: "Sour Kraut, all of it, all, should be thrown against the wall!" or just "Sauerkraut, Sauerkraut, throw it out!"
Stars of the German Western
Charlie's Tall Stories. An article on the occasion of Pierre Brice's 75th birthday inspired me to look back from my very own perspective to a time with stories of Cowboys and Indians that had fascinated me as a boy. It had all started with the German teacher Karl May, who made up his travels at the end of the 19th century, partially while imprisoned for betrayal even. Despites the disparagement of the best-selling novelist by one of my German teachers as "Charlie Schmaeh - Lying Charlie" the followers of his lengthy travel narratives felt drawn into a new world, where they could find a manageable system of values for young readers.
Native American Spirit. The French actor Pierre Brice, with full title Pierre Louis Baron le Bris, and the American performer Lex Barker, born Alexander Crichlow Barker Jr., brought them alive in the 1960's in various movies. It was the same Winnetou-myth that Pierre Brice never could get rid of again. The actor had incorporated the spirit of the good American Indian in a way that he got uninteresting for other movie projects. Instead, he was called into Karl May open air plays in Germany up to starring spin off TV-shows. This would include "My Friend Winnetou (Mein Freund Winnetou / Winnetou le Mescaléro, 1979)" filmed in Mexico with Siegfried Rauch as Old Shatterhand, and the TV two-parter "Winnetou's Return (Winnetous Rueckkehr, 1998)" in which all the Karl-May-rules were broken. All in all the performance was refreshingly positive and inspiring the youth to do good. Just once in a while the convinced Gaullist Brice was met with incomprehension, when he shared political views as in a 1980 newspaper interview: "People are not mature enough to live in a democracy. We need a leader!" Which he would tone down by concluding: "Probably I am a man of the past." Years later, in his biography "Winnetou and Me (2004)" looking back at his popularity with girls, he admitted: "I flew like a bee from flower to flower - and there were many flowers!" In the meantime UNICEF ambassador for human rights and children in need, talking about his value system he sounded quite different: "Winnetou and I have much in common, as both of us advocate the preservation of nature, fight for tolerance and peace."
German Travel Literature. Legend has it that German film producer Horst Wendlandt got the idea to make Karl May movies from his son. In his books, the most successful German novelist provided a most popular mix of young adult fiction adventure and imaginary travel story with long scenery descriptions from the Old Wild West to the Orient. The novels satisfied the longing for an ideal world, with emotion in the center of the story line, namely the friendship among men, the noble savage and the white adventurer. The sentimental fairy tales met basic needs of the German soul, both pubescent dreams to fight for the good and romantic longings for a harmonic and a better place, especially in the post war era. Having read Karl May books myself at the age of 8, I had been a little proud for a notice was printed on their back cover saying that they are recommended for 12 year olds. Watching an afternoon performance of the "Winnetou II"-film at a local movie theatre, I was impressed by the starting scene with the bear fight. (After getting in the wrong row and climbing over a seat to the embarrassment of an incidentally present class mate.) And I watched a Karl May Festival on tour in the Vienna city hall, the live performance og Brice & Co. in "Treasure of the Silver Lake", which felt a little disappointing though as the actors were so far away. A 1979 newspaper coverage praised the live performance with the smell of horse dung and gun smoke. Real horses and fake Indians in the spotlight, it titled: "When the reds occupy the city hall today, it is no (socialist) party congress - Winnetou Rides Again!"
Unrecognized European Movie Star. Lex Barket had left Hollywood for Europe to escape the cliche of his earlier Tarzan role, which he had filled between 1949 and 1953 in five movies, replacing legendary jungle bawler Johnny Weissmuller. "A handsome man is that. He has something romantic about himself," the slightly washed up Hollywood star was described in the Italian film "The Black Brigand (1961)." And he was tall... With his 6 ft 4 resp. 1.93 m he was the same size as John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. A real lady-killer, in Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita (1960)" Barker would flirt with Anita Ekberg: "I've already killed many women. They were curious."
Ridding the Tarzan Image. He had a hard time though in getting good movie offers, once he was typecast as the man from the jungle. Even in "La Dolce Vita" there is a biting remark on him: "When I imagine that something like that is playing Tarzan." His turnaround and the achievement of true European stardom was mainly influenced by two factors: For once, he played "The Deerslayer (1957)" in a cowboy costume, which he would later make famous as Old Shatterhand's outfit. For twice, in the film "In the Steel Net of Dr. Mabuse (1961)" he played for the first time under director Harald Reinl, who would be shortly after tasked to bring the Kary May-Westerns to life. Reading a biography of Lex Barker, there was this colourful picture of a wedding ceremony. A scene from the movie "The Executioner of Venice (1963)," which marked his last excursion into the genre of Italian pirate movies that had helped him to gain ground in Europe. The groom is actually arrested in the next second, just before the couple could exchange the vows that as well can captivate one (or two) for a lifetime. Among his personal favourites of all the films he made were "La Dolce Vita" and "Woman Times Seven", an episode film with Shirley MacLaine, which didn't win him the hoped for breakthrough in Hollywood. It is a shame that the Old Shatterhand actor, nicknamed "Lexy," died in 1973 unrecognized after collapsing in the streets of New York City. But let's turn back the wheel of time (and fortune) by a few years to see how it all began...
Spending a day in an Indian village at the quarry of Gumpoldskirchen in Lower Austria can be fun, just as visiting the Croatian National Park in Plitvice, waterfall scenery for classic German Western movies and preserved paradise. A local Silver Lake resides in a nature reserve south-east of Lake Neusiedl, typically surrounded by reeds forming the natural habitat of many water birds. There was some irony in visiting it as part of a walk to Emmaus with our parish going through "Hell," an especially arid area in Burgenland, between Podersdorf and Illmitz. Passing by in a horse carriage, the obvious remark was heard: "And where is the treasure?"
German Producer, Austrian Director
Edgar Wallace to Karl May. "A dream of your youth has become a reality. Karl May's fantastic success novel 'The Treasure of Silver Lake' as a German screen epic!" The movie trailer's narrator introduced a fulminant success story. The "Treasure" and the "Winnetou"-Trilogy formed the essentials of the German Western movie series. All four of them had been overseen by the Austrian director Harald Reinl, who set them in scene between 1962 and 1965, typically filmed in former Yugoslavia to save budget. They represented the most successful film adaptations of books by the German author Karl May, whose Winnetou novels are a youth's favourite ever since their first printing in 1878. The same director had also been responsible for "Faces of the Frog (1959)," the very first film in a long series of German Edgar Wallace crime movies.Two "Doctor Marbuse"-films (1961-62) had brought the director
together with Lex Barker.
Long Braided A-Dor-able Squaw. Unforgettable is Karin Dor's performance as Ribanna in "Winnetou II (Last of the Renegades, 1964)," the unfortunate love, giving up the Apache for a tactical marriage with a white soldier boy to guarantee piece. Mario Girotti played her spouse then, brave blue eyed U.S.Cavalry soldier Lt. Merril, before he changed name to Terence Hill and clobbered his way through Italian comedies alongside Bud Spencer in the 1970's. As a TV guide summarized: "The second part is the most beautiful for many fans. Winnetou falls in love with the Indian chief's daughter Ribanna (Karin Dor), but peace goes before emotion... Wit, fight and fantastic landscape shots." And it features the Indian saying: "Women, whose words bubble out like a well-spring, steal the man's rest... And the silent ones steal his heart!" After "Winnetou II," Lex Barker turned to film projects by producer Artur Brauner, who had acquired the rights for Karl May's Orient- and Central American adventures. In the role of Kara ben Nemsi, Lex hunted down "The Shoot (1964)" in the Wild Kurdistan, and as Dr. Karl Sternau, he went after the "Treasure of the Aztecs (1965)."
Sure-Handed Script Rewrite. In the meantime, producer Horst Wendlandt managed to contract the former Hollywood star Stewart Granger, who only a few years earlier had played next to John Wayne in "North to Alaska (1960)." Thereupon the screenplays for "Among Vultures (1964)" and "Rampage at Apache Wells (The Oil Prince, 1965)" were quickly rewritten and the original novels' title character Old Shatterhand (Barker) was replaced by Old Surehand (Granger). Winnetou's new partner visibly struggled with the career descent, while bringing a certain ease to the series, as he became known for holding the rifle like a baby in his arms. The interpretation of the Karl May material became more and more liberal. Already in "Winnetou I (Apache Gold, 1963)" the death of Winnetou's arch enemy and later murderer Santer (Mario Adorf) had been anticipated. Therefore, the film version of "Winnetou III (The Desperado Trail, 1965)" saw Rollins (Rik "The Shoot" Battaglia) fire the fatal shot.
Made in Yugoslavia
Croatian Waterfalls. The Wild West-like karst formations of Croatia provided background to Winnetou's, Old Shatter- and -Surehand's efforts to restore peace among white settlers and Native American, which were usually played by local extras. The "Silver Lake" was located in the Plitvice Lakes National Park and "Winnetou II" featured a showdown though in the Postojna Caves in Slovenia. The local Yugoslavian production company Jadran film would build some "kaubojski grad" (Western town) in the middle of the magnificent Croatian scenery.
Clint-Connection. Including Wild West, Orient and Mexico adventures, there were 17 Karl May movies made between 1962 and 1968, which altogether attracted roundabout 50 million visitors to the cinemas. The success of the West German film encouraged Italian director Sergio Leone to take a chance on the first "Dollar"-film. The rest is Spaghetti Western- and Eastwood-history... Also Lex Barker had worked with Sergio Leone, when Leone was assistant director of "Son of the Red Corsair" with Lex Barker in 1959, a spin-off of "The Red Corsair (The Crimson Pirate)" with Burt Lancaster. Lex also worked with two main protagonists of Leone's movies.Barker had played with Clint Eastwood in "Away All Boats" in 1956. In the early 1960's they would regularly hang out together in a corner cafe in Rome, Italy, before Eastwood became a star. In 1956, Barker had also co-starred the TV Western adventure "Outpost" with Charles Bronson, sometime before Bronson's career took off.
Grand Canyon Finale. When the German Western series was in decline, Reinl was hired back to do one last movie called "Winnetou and Shatterhand in the Valley of Death (Winnetou und Shatterhand im Tal der Toten, 1968)." It could be regarded as a remake of the "Silver Lake" with a stronger emphasis on action. As usual, the main characters, the chief of the Apaches and the good cowboy with the iron fist, were played by Pierre Brice and Lex Barker. The final scene showed doubles of Barker & Brice riding along the southern edge of the "real" Grand Canyon. By the time of its release the market was already saturated.
Film-Brothers' Favourite Fruit. Altogether, Barker played even 9 times next to Pierre Brice. Along with Barker's interpretation of the ideal German Western hero Old Shatterhand, Brice brought to life his Indian blood-brother. The young Mescalero Apache chief Winnetou was the embodiment of the gallant Native American, despite the fact that the next generation lost him little by little, in order to just admire the funny almost-namesake Winnie the Pooh, the bear in the Hundred Acre Wood. One day I asked my kids, whether they remembered the name of Winnetou's love interest in the second part of the Trilogy. My boy's answer was: "Banana!" instead of Ribanna, what a statement. Anyway, it reminded me of the old question for Beethoven's favourite fruit: "Ba-na-na-na!" Just like the music theme of his Fifth Symphony...
Classic Movie Couples
Germywood Dream Teams. Over the years, there have been a number of unforgotten cinema couples. Serving as a shining example of "the" screen team and Hollywood dream team of all times, first of all there were Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn - starting with "Woman of the year" they teamed-up in 8 films in total. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were together since "To Have and Have Not" for 4 films, but there was also the everlasting one-shot among Bogey and Ingrid Bergman in "Casablanca". John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara established their cooperation in "Rio Grande" for 5 films. Clint Eastwood and Sondra Locke partnered since "The Outlaw Josey Wales" for 6 films. Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland were together following "Villa Rides" in no less than 17 movies. (Not sure whether the shared 17 screen appearances of Bud Spencer and Terence Hill fall into the same category.) Among all the pairs of actors that have played together in multiple roles, one could say the same of Lex Barker and Karin Dor, who also shared 6 films after playing together for the first time in the German criminal mastermind fiction "The Invisible Claws of Dr. Mabuse".
Musical Memories (Howdy-Ho). Believe it or not, Brice & Barker were cult stars of their times! Fifty-six cover photos of the bronze-skinned, noble Apache chief on the German teen-music magazine "Bravo" could not be wrong! And they lead to the next logical step: In 1965 Pierre even started conquering the music business with the French-accented sing-song "Ich steh' allein (I stand alone... in a lonely night and the wind carries my song in the distance)", written by "Winnetou-Melody" composer Martin Boettcher! Lex Barker would follow shortly with a Bill Ramsey-like sonorous vocal performance on "Doch ich bin, das glaub' mir, Ich bin morgen auf dem Weg zu Dir... Howdy-ho, howdy-he (But I am, believe me, I am tomorrow on the way to you...)" No need to translate the rest. The vocal excursions of the two actors finally gave their fan base the opportunity to hear their original voices, as they were dubbed in the Karl May films due to lacking knowledge of German. So much about the making of German Western movies, established by a German producer with international cast and an Austrian director in the prairie of Yugoslavia. Howdy-ho!