The Balkan Westerns of the Sixties

By Sergey Lavrentiev

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Balkan Westerns represent an important part of a cultural phenomenon which took place in the European Eastern bloc during the second half of the 20th Century: the phenomenon of the ‘Red Western’, or the ‘Ostern’.

In the Soviet Union, the western was considered a “reactionary genre which praised the white colonialists’ extermination of poor Indians. American westerns were distributed in the USSR only in the 1920s. Some westerns also managed to reach the Soviet screens after 1945, when the Reichsfilmarchiv (Reich Film Archive) was removed from Berlin and taken to Moscow. Then, from the 1950s on to the 1980s, during the last 40 years of communism, there were only 5 (five!) US westerns in the Soviet film distribution system.

Nevertheless, because these films were always received with great enthusiasm by the Soviet public, the Party bosses decided to allow Soviet filmmakers to come up with “our own westerns with the right content”. The result was the ‘Red Western’, and there were dozens of them produced in the USSR during that period.

Of course no one officially called these films westerns’; they were “heroic adventure movies”. Sometimes they became great box office champions: Little Red Devils (Tsiteli eshmakunebi, Ivane Perestiani, 1924), and its remake Elusive Avengers (Неуловимые мстители, Edmond Keosayan, 1967), with the sequel New Adventures of the Elusive Avengers (Новые приключения неуловимых, 1968) were great hits. Sometimes the films were real works of art: 13(Trinadtsat, Mikhail Romm, 1936), or Nobody Wanted to Die (Niekas nenorejo mirti, Vytautas Zalakevicius, 1966). In any case, the Red Western had its own history, with a brilliant beginning in the twenties and a sad ending in the late eighties, a history which mirrors, in a way, the story of Soviet society in 20th century. It also mirrors the story of Soviet state censorship, and a lot of other stories, small and great, too many to be all included in this presentation.

But there is one great story that needs to be mentioned: the Red Western has a father. And it is not Ivane Perestiani, Lev Kuleshov, or Mikhail Romm, but Josef Stalin.

Indeed, Stalin was a film freak and a great admirer of the western. The Russian State Film Archive (Gosfilmofond), founded in 1948 on the base of the Reichsfilmarchiv, contains plenty of evidence of the Great Leader’s passion for westerns. And at least two Soviet ‘red westerns’, 13, and “Brave People” (Смелые люди, Konstantin Yudin, 1950) were made at his direct wishes and orders.

If Stalin was the father of the ‘Soviet Red Western’, the ‘Balkan Western’ had three fathers. Their names: Josip Broz Tito, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, and Nicolae Ceauşescu. 1962 was ‘the year when the Balkan western was officially born’. Two events took place during that year, in two separate countries, which, although apparently not connected, are nevertheless both pivotal for the history of the Balkan western.

First, in 1962, filmmakers from West Germany decided to film the stories of their compatriot Karl May (1842-1912), who wrote about the Wild West. In the USSR, his writings were not known, but in Germany they were far more popular than the works of James Fenimore Cooper or Thomas Mayne Reid.

At the heart of Karl May’s novels there are two characters: one Indian, named Winnetou, and the other white (sometimes Old Surehand, sometimes Old Shatterhand). The first film to be made about their adventures was The Treasure of Silver Lake (Der Schatz im Silbersee, Harald Reinl, 1962). It is not known whether director Reinl ever supposed that his film would only be the first in a long series of many other pictures featuring the two inseparable friends, but the success of the film had surpassed all expectations and soon, the producers launched the pipeline: from 1962 onwards, almost until the end of the sixties, each year marked the release of at least one new film about Winnetou on European screens. But what has all this got to do with the Balkans?

The German producers of the films, like their Italian counterparts who were shooting their ‘Spaghetti westerns’ in Spain, were looking for locations that were both spectacular and cheap. In the beginning, they had also considered Spain but, in the end, they found an even better (and cheaper) place: it was Yugoslavia.

After his historical quarrel with Stalin, Tito had started to build his relatively? liberal brand of socialism. And he was also a great western admirer. During the 1950s, US westerns were often shown on Yugoslav screens and they were very popular. More than one generation of young Yugoslav boys grew up with these movies. So when the Germans suggested a co-production, the Yugoslav comrades were happy to agree.

It proved to be the ideal partnership: the Balkan side was open and friendly, and the Germans were given total production freedom and low prices in addition to fantastic shooting locations in Croatia. Soon enough, Winnetou and his white brother received permanent residency in the “happiest barrack of the socialist camp”.

The results pleased everyone. After The Treasure of Silver Lake (which also received financing from the French), in 1963, Reinl shot “Winnetou”. Now, along with the French and the Germans, Italy was also credited among the producing countries, and the franchise was on a roll. During that same year, and with the same 3 countries as co-producers, another director, Hugo Fregonese, was called in to shoot Old Shatterhand with the same actors (Pierre Brice – Winnetou, Lex Barker – The White Brother). Then 1964 saw Winnetou 2 by Reinl, and Alfred Vohrer’s “Among the vultures”, where Lex Barker was replaced by Stewart Granger.

The Yugoslavs were involved in all these films, and not just as the country that provided the locations. All the films credit the Zagreb studio, Jadran Film, immediately after the name of the main German concern, indicating an equal partnership.

The Soviets would get to see some of these films later, but none of them were shown immediately after they appeared in the early 1960s. Instead, Khrushchev granted the opportunity to screen a real US western in the USSR.

The times they were a-changing. In 1959, Khrushchev made his historical visit to the United States, during which he also went to Hollywood, where he met Marilyn Monroe, Frank Capra, and Gary Cooper. A new film agreement was signed then, according to which The Magnificent Seven (1960) was purchased for Soviet distribution.

The Magnificent Seven became a landmark success and a social phenomenon in the Soviet Union. Between 1962 and 1964, the citizens of the USSR never tired of seeing the film. Tickets became impossible to get. Stadiums and other open areas were used for the projection when regular cinemas could no longer cope. All men wanted to dress like cowboys, and since there were no Soviet shops where one could buy jeans, hats and boots, the costumes were all made at home from scrap materials.

The most curious thing about the whole national craze that engulfed The Magnificent Seven is that, according to statistics, the picture was not a box-office champion. Evidently, the numbers had to be manipulated, but be that as it may, the fact remains that an American western was able to stir the Soviet public so much that they seemed to forget all about their allegiance to their communist identity and ideals in the process.

Party leaders began to grumble. First, they forbade children from watching it. Then, the classic ‘letters from the workers started appearing in the central press. Finally, in 1964, just before Khrushchev’s removal from the head of the party, the film was withdrawn from distribution, before its export license had expired.

With Khrushchev gone, the communist party bosses decided to make their own response to imperialist propaganda, and encouraged the wide production of ‘Red westerns’, with the ‘reds’ playing the good guys and the ‘whites’ given the parts of villains. Recalling the huge success of Perestiani’s 1924 film Little Red Devils, a remake was ordered, which led to the creation of The Elusive Avengers in 1967, and, sure enough, the film became a major hit. The Civil War after the Bolshevik revolution became the time and historical arena for Soviet Red Westerns and, before long, Soviet boys started to forget The Magnificent Seven.

In 1966, comrades from East Germany received the ‘advice’ to try their own hand at making a classical western with reds and whites. This they did, and the result was The Sons of Great Bear (Die Söhne der großen Bärin, by the Czech director Josef Mach). For this production, the East Germans also went to Yugoslavia, since they wanted to beat their Western compatriots and rivals on the “same battlefield”. Their co-producer was Bosna Film studios in Sarajevo. Sure enough, history had since proved that it was not possible to compete with the West in general, and in film production in particular, but until 1968, the communists did not abandon hope, so the East Germans decided to step into the ring and fight.

The Sons of Great Bear was the screen adaptation of a novel by Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich, in which the Indians are portrayed as noble, while the whites are all bloodthirsty. This was, of course, an absolute must for the script to be approved. Ironically, the white villain’s name was Red Fox, but he was not that important. The important thing was that the noble Indian, played by the young, beautiful athlete Gojko Mitić, provided the youth of the socialist bloc with a credible star of their own: Mitić became the instant idol of millions.

The success of The Sons had satisfied the authorities. Of course, in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, where the film distribution system was wide open for ‘Western westerns’, the film could not compete with other American films of the genre. But in the other, more ‘ideologically unblemished’ states, the box-office results were encouraging.

The main difference between The Sons and the pictures made at the Jadran studios by the West Germans was in the central element of the plot structure. Winnetou is brave and noble, but he remains in the shadow of his pale-faced brother who is the main hero. The screen adaptations of Karl May’s novels are all about the good white guy who helps the Indians fight against the bad whites. In parentheses it should be noted that while the Ostern Sons was shot in Yugoslavia, Old Surehand became the first film of its rival West German series to be purchased for distribution in the USSR, during the short period of liberalization between October 1964 and August 1968 (the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia). Changing the title of the film, the Soviets accidentally emphasized its ‘white-guy bias’, naming it The Faithful Hand, Friend of Indians. Needless to say, the film was a big hit and made a lot of money for the Soviet distribution system, back in 1968.

Despite its reasonable success, the production of The Sons of Great Bear marked the end of an ambitious attempt by the East to beat the capitalists at the western genre. After that, the East Germans ceased to travel around the world in search of spectacular locations for big productions aimed at international audiences (The Sons never managed to find an audience in the West), and began to stamp their ‘right westerns’ for its own audience, as well as for the benefit of their most friendly markets: the post-1968 ‘normalized’ Czechoslovakia, the USSR, Bulgaria, and Mongolia.

Meanwhile, in Yugoslavia, the West Germans continued to actively develop their gold-mine, Winnetou. With Alfred Vohrer’s 1965 production of Old Surehand, which was successfully screened even in the Soviet Union, the franchise was well established and the films generally passed, for most of the inexperienced viewers in Europe, as genuine American westerns. Of course, as with the Italian ‘spaghetti westerns’, that was their main intended purpose. Stewart Granger, the ‘absolutely true, absolutely American’ star of Old Surehand, was an actor with a clear understanding of the nature of the genre – with him as a central figure what else could they need for convincing the audiences?

Stewart Granger, a star of the fifties – Beau Brummel(1954), Scaramouche(1952) – was not the only Hollywood actor to cross the Atlantic in the early sixties, to revive a genre that was all but dead in America. A little-known Clint Eastwood was another. Unlike Granger, who arrived with great ambitions to re-launch a once brilliant career, Eastwood went to Spain only to spend one summer and earn a little money. Instead, Sergio Leone made him one of the greatest cinematic figures of the second half of the twentieth century. Granger, though, was unable to repeat his triumph. European filmmakers were happy to have him in their movies, and the European audiences received him enthusiastically but for the Americans, he remained an artist “from the past.”

In 1965, Harald Reinl completed the movie Winnetou 3 in which he attempted to kill Winnetou, believing, apparently, that the series had exhausted itself. Artistically, this is definitely the best film in the series, and it has a well-accomplished look and feel even now, forty years after its creation. In the end, Winnetou sacrifices himself to defend the life of his pale-faced brother, shielding him from the treacherous bullets with his own chest.
The Soviet Purchasing Commission did not buy Winnetou 3 for distribution in the USSR. They may have disagreed with the final sacrifice of the native chief for the benefit of the white hero. Or it may have been for a different, more prosaic reason.

In the brief liberal period before August 21, 1968, two West German westerns, shot in Yugoslavia, had been purchased and distributed in the Soviet Union. It is quite likely that the distributors were planning to buy a few more films from the successful series and had no interest in purchasing the film in which Winnetou dies. However, in the late sixties the opportunity was foiled. And by the time the ban was lifted in the mid-seventies, a new artistic and ideological obstacle appeared.
Initially, East German “osterns” were produced at a quality that was comparable with that of their rival West German “westerns”. However, by the beginning of the seventies, the osterns from GDR became so tedious and anemic that they could no longer even remotely compare with their rivals. The result was that the evidently superior Winnetou series could no longer be shown without exposing the other – “ideologically correct” – osterns to ridicule.

In the end, Soviet boys never got to see Winnetou die. Not that the ones who did get to mourned him for long. The box office success of the film was so impressive that the producers decided to postpone the closure of the project and, in 1966, Harald Philipp released a very weak Half-Breed / Winnetou und das Halbblut Apanatschi, followed, in the same year, by another Vohrer film Thunder at the Border / Winnetou und sein Freund Old Firehand. Harald Reinl was also convinced to return to the beloved hero with The Valley of Death/ Winnetou und Shatterhand im Tal der Toten, in 1968. Pierre Brice continued to play the Indian hero in all of these films, and they were all shot in Yugoslavia, the country that had, by then, been hosting ‘cowboys and Indians’ films for nearly a decade.

And there is yet another country that needs to be mentioned in the story of ‘red westerns’. In 1965, Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej, who had been the Communist leader of Romania since 1947, died. In his place, the party chose a young dynamic leader, Nicolae Ceausescu who, for a few years, looked poised to become a second Tito. He proclaimed a policy of friendship with all the other socialist countries, ignoring the serious rifts that had, by then, appeared in the communist bloc, sent a friendly telegram to Brezhnev as he was “flying over the Soviet territory …” on his way to Beijing to meet Mao Zedong (when Sino-Soviet relations were frozen), met with Albanian leader Enver Hoxha, was a friend of Kim Il Sung … And he began to flirt with the West.

In August 1968 (unheard-of insolence!) he refused to participate in the occupation of Czechoslovakia, denying Soviet troops the right of passing through Romanian territory. This move certainly enhanced his prestige in the eyes of Western champions of freedom and democracy. Loans, investments and other favors were not slow to appear.

The late sixties and early seventies were perhaps the best times for Romanian cinema during communism. A lot of films were produced, and there was even some allowance for criticism of classical Stalinism. Films which were banned in Bulgaria, Poland, East Germany, or Czechoslovakia (after 1968) were sometimes shown in Romania. Many westerns also, even some which had been deemed malicious by Soviet film censors could be seen in theaters in Bucharest.
Like Tito’s Yugoslavia had done before, Romania also opened its doors to co-productions. Blessed with exquisite natural conditions – mountains, valleys, a wonderful coastline – no worse than in Yugoslavia, the possibility of obtaining virtually free labor and extras (the army was often used for this), Romania became a paradise for Western producers who wanted to get solid results with minimal financial investment.

It all began with historical super-productions like Dacians (Dacii, 1967, incidentally, a film which features Pierre ‘Winnetou’ Brice in the part of Septimius Severus, a Roman officer), The Column (Columna, 1968), The Battle for Rome (Bătălia pentru Roma, 1968), and then came the turn of the ‘westerns’.

Around the years 1968-1970, the French and the West Germans teamed with Romanian studios to create their own adaptations of Fenimore Cooper’s novels. A number of TV movies were produced at that time: The Last of the Mohicans, Prairie, Adventures on the Shores of Ontario, Deer Slayer. Each film had two directors: one from the guests’ side, another from the Romanian. Both guest directors were French: Jacques Drevil (Adventures on the Shores of Ontario, The Last of the Mohicans) and Pierre Gaspard-Huit (Prairie, Deerslayer). Their Romanian counterpart was a novice: Sergiu Nicolaescu.

Being a self-taught filmmaker, Nicolaescu’s participation on these projects (as well as on Dacians and Battle for Rome) was a kind of film school. He had graduated from the Polytechnic Institute and then, in the early sixties, he landed a job at the Bucharest film studios at a friend’s recommendation, where he made a few documentaries and short films. His first feature length was Dacians, the big international co-production which effectively launched his career as the most successful Romanian film director of all time.

Nicolaescu quickly understood the essence of directing grand cinematic spectacles. The artistic quality of his films usually comes second to their entertainment value. Despite that (or maybe because of that), spectators in Romania, and in the Soviet Union, adored his films. In the 1970s and 1980s, Romania gradually fell under the spell of Ceausescu’s cult of personality and became an increasingly paranoid and isolated neo-Stalinist state. Perhaps much of Nicolaescu’s fame and fortune are also due to the lack of any serious competition, and to the people’s desperate need for Western-style cinematic entertainment, of which he became the sole provider allowed by the regime.

In any case, his career soared to heights that were incomparable with any of the later performances of his French colleagues with whom he co-directed the Fenimore Cooper adaptations. Jacques Drevil and Pierre Gaspard-Huit’s names do not remain associated with any important achievement in the history of film. Those co-productions themselves are now remembered only by specialists and enthusiasts of the European western.

The image of Ceausescu’s Romania and the Romanian cinematography doubtlessly benefited from this period of international co-productions. The western adaptations were successful at the time, especially in the other socialist countries. In the USSR, the black-and-white, abridged versions of Prairie and Adventures on the Shores of Ontario were received quite warmly in the context of the rather bleak offer of imported films distributed in 1972, even though the films had only been made for television and not for the big screen. Luckily, in the late sixties, video had not yet been invented and even the movies made for television were filmed on 35mm.

So this was the golden decade of the sixties, the golden decade of the Balkan western. During the last two decades of communism only Romania continued to produce ‘red westerns’; the Bulgarians and the Hungarians (after György Szomjas’ 1976 ‘goulash western’ The Wind Blows Under Your Feet) stopped making them. One much later exception is the 1996 film Pretty Village, Pretty Flame by the Serbian director Srdjan Dragojevic, a great homage to Yugoslav partisan films (the so-called “Gibanica westerns”). And, of course, one can also count Dragojevic’s last film The Parade (2011), a tragi-comical remake of The Magnificent Seven with the action set in Belgrade’s gay world. The Serbian director’s films give us a nice illustration of how it is still possible to escape from the Balkans through the western genre.


Frames # 4 1-12-2013. This article © Sergey Lavrentiev. This article has been peer-reviewed.