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DVD SAVANT
Savant Guest Review:

Westerns with a Twist Box Set:
The Sons of Great Bear
Chingachgook: The Great Snake
and Apaches

Reviewed by Lee Broughton

Much has been written about the West German Winnetou Westerns that were inspired by Karl May's popular American Indian stories. The box office success of Harald Reinl's Winnetou the Warrior in 1963 kick-started a new wave of pan-European Western productions that would ultimately result in the work of Sergio Leone garnering world-wide attention. The Winnetou films, which cast their titular protagonist in a sympathetic, heroic and noble light, proved to be so popular with European audiences that East Germany's state-sponsored DEFA studios endeavoured to produce their own American Indian-oriented series of Westerns. The DEFA Westerns emulated their West German counterparts by casting their Indians as sympathetic, noble and heroic characters but DEFA also endeavoured to imbue their films with anti-imperialist/anti-colonialist themes that granted them some common ground with both Third Cinema and leftwing European art cinema. As such, the films offer a fairly unusual but interesting take on the Western genre.


The Sons of Great Bear
First Run Features
1965 / Colour / 1.85:1 flat / Die Sohne der grossen Barin / 88 m.
Starring Gojko Mitic, Jiri Vrstala, Rolf Romer, Hans Hardt-Hardtloff, Gerhard Rachold, Horst Jonischkan, Jozef Majercik, Jozef Adamovic, Milan Jablonsky, Hannjo Hasse
Cinematography Jaroslav Tuzar
Production Designer Paul Lehmann
Film Editor Ilse Peters
Original Music Wilhelm Neef
Written by Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich
Produced by Hans Mahlich
Directed by Josef Mach

Synopsis:

A vicious frontiersman, Fred 'Red Fox' Clark (Jiri Vrstala), callously kills an elderly Indian, Mattotaupa (A. P. Hoffmann), while attempting to discover the whereabouts of the Bear Band's secret gold reserves. The old man's son, Tokei Ihto (Gojko Mitic), eventually goes rogue and joins the Indian rebels who are resisting the US government's plans to revoke their settlement treaties. Clashes with the US Cavalry and a final showdown with Clark and his gang of murderous frontiersmen take place when Tokei Ihto convinces his people to leave their barren reservation and follow him in search of a new settlement across the Missouri river.

Set circa 1876, a desire for gold influences this tale at both a macro and a micro level. At the macro level, the US government has ordered the Dakota Indians off their settlements and into a reservation so that newly discovered gold can be extensively mined from, and railway systems built on, the land that the Indians vacate. At the micro level, Fred Clark and his gang of avaricious roughnecks simply want to get their hands on the Bear Band's personal cache of sacred gold. Proud and noble, Tokei Ihto goes rogue and becomes a resistance fighter, seeking to both stop the persecution of his people and get revenge for Mattotaupa's death. This kind of plot development, that ultimately prompts sympathy for the Indians, is actually very similar to that found in many of the Winnetou films: Winnetou the Warrior's plot revolved around an unscrupulous railroad consultant's attempts to provoke a situation that would allow him to steal gold belonging to the Apaches.

For many years the DEFA Westerns were commonly perceived to be communist state propaganda texts that functioned as allegorical and ideological attacks on American/Western European imperialism and capitalism. While the films can still be read in this way, present-day commentators tend to praise the DEFA Westerns for their projection of a more historically accurate take on the way the Indians were actually treated during this particular chapter in American history. There are a number of dialogue heavy scenes here that highlight the kind of political chicanery that surrounded the negotiation and subsequent revocation of settlement treaties, etc, while also giving the Indian characters a chance to directly communicate their feelings about their treatment and plight. But while most of the non-Indian characters here routinely express cruel and hateful attitudes towards the Indians, such attitudes are not completely dominant: Adams (Horst Jonischkan) is a sympathetic frontiersman who makes a genuine connection with Tokei Ihto and the barmaid in the saloon where Mattotaupa is slain recognizes that Clark and company's actions are reprehensible.

The Sons of Great Bear was DEFA's first Western and it's not a bad effort. It's a good-looking film for the most part that features some impressive cinematography, some good sets and some beautiful locations. The film's prologue and other key sequences sport a slightly mannered yet subtly stylized look that works really well. Square-jawed, muscular and athletic, Gojko Mitic makes for an excellent Indian warrior. And Jiri Vrstala makes for a formidable bad guy, coming on like Klaus Kinski's nastier older brother. Ironically, while the film boasts a distinctive aesthetic look that telegraphs the fact that it is not a US-produced Western, parts of the show suffer from their similarity to older American Westerns: a number of the film's action sequences are staged in a charmingly naïve and overly dramatic way, bringing to mind the over-played action scenes found in US Westerns from the 1930s and 1940s. There's nothing wrong with this approach per se but we're aware that it belongs to a different era of filmmaking and its employment here is sometimes jarringly anachronistic. Some of the film's music cues are sweeping dramatic pieces that bring to mind older US Westerns too but, in this instance, such similarities are a plus factor. Unfortunately these music cues are offset by a number of others that play somewhat incongruously. It all adds up to a really quite different viewing experience but anybody with an interest in European-made Westerns should find something of value here.


This is a pretty good presentation. But while the picture quality is largely very good it seems almost certain that this film was shot with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. As such, this 1.85:1 presentation features a number of scenes that sport noticeably tight framing. The sound quality of the German language audio track is excellent and the show's optional English subtitles play fine.


Chingachgook: The Great Snake
First Run Features
1967 / Colour / 1.85:1 flat / Chingachgook, die grosse Schlange / 87 m.
Starring Gojko Mitic, Rolf Romer, Lilo Grahn, Helmut Schreiber, Jurgen Frohriep, Andrea Drahota, Johannes Knittel, A.P. Hoffmann, Heinz Klevenow, Milan Jablonsky
Cinematography Otto Hanisch
Production Designer Paul Lehmann
Film Editor Helga Krause
Original Music Wilhelm Neef
Written by Wolfgang Ebeling and Richard Groschopp
Produced by Dorothea Hildebrandt
Directed by Richard Groschopp

Synopsis:

North America, 1740: the struggle for colonial dominance finds the English enlisting the Delaware Indian tribes as mercenaries while the French make similar use of the Huron tribes. When Huron raiders kidnap Chingachgook's (Gojko Mitic) bride to be (Andrea Drahota) from a Delaware settlement, the fearless warrior begins tracking them down with his frontiersman pal, Deerslayer (Rolf Romer). The trail leads the pair into clashes with English and French troops, murderous frontiersmen and Huron warriors.

Set in 1740 and based on a story by James Fenimore Cooper, Chingachgook: The Great Snake features an abundance of the kind of anti-imperialist/anti-colonialist sentiments often found in the films of Gillo Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas (Queimada). As if playing up the Pontecorvo/Solinas connection, this show's introductory sequence employs a documentary-like approach, which takes in a choreographed tribal dance routine and Chingachgook's dramatic and ritualized re-enactment of a recent heroic deed for his fellow tribesmen. The sequence also features a documentary-like voiceover, which explains that the Indians are victims of unfair trading arrangements when they deal with the Europeans, resulting in them becoming increasingly dependent upon the colonial powers that seek to control their land. To this end, the imperialists have taken to exploiting existing tribal animosities and have effectively initiated a policy of divide and conquer.

When Chingachgook's bride to be is kidnapped by Huron raiders, the film switches to a more traditionally filmic narrative format (though two more documentary-like tribal dance sequences do crop up) and the English armed forces are introduced. A naïve young officer believes that the English Crown will fulfil the natives' hopes for a better life but his odious commanding officer reveals that they are really in the business of encouraging the natives to exterminate each other. Later in the show, the same commanding officer bases his decision to mount a rescue mission for a frontiersman's family solely upon the number of Huron scalps that the mission will ultimately allow him to bank and the quality of the salmon that he will be able to fish from a nearby lake afterwards.

As with The Sons of Great Bear, this film features some great sets and some beautiful filming locations. The two features are combined in the sequences that feature mountain man Tom Hutter's (Helmut Schreiber) home: it's basically a grand log cabin that is set in the centre of a huge lake that is flanked by green forests and rambling mountain ranges. Other sets are less impressive: the English fort set looks very small in scale. Again, there's plenty of anti-Indian sentiment expressed by the show's non-Indian antagonists here: Hutter and his pal Harry (Jurgen Frohriep) think nothing of seeking out the bounties that the English offer for the Hurons' scalps, etc. But verbal spats between Tom, Harry and Chingachgook allow the Indian to state the case for his mistreated people. And racial animosity does not rule the day entirely: Chingachgook has a solid and trusting friend in the frontiersman Deerstalker.

This film's action sequences are more consistent and convincing in their staging when compared to those of The Sons of Great Bear. And an interesting subplot, involving Hutter's daughter Judith (Lilo Grahn) trying to come to terms with the violent and hateful circumstances that she finds herself in, acts to give the film a bit more depth. She's devastated when Hutter eventually confesses to a past misdeed that he has managed to hide from her. As with the earlier film, this show has a distinctive aesthetic look that is skewed just enough to inform viewers that they are not watching a US-produced Western. That said, the film does feature an ambience that sometimes brings to mind the feel of some US Westerns from the late 1940s/early 1950s. Once again, the film's cinematography is of a very good quality while its soundtrack score remains a bit of a mixed bag. There are some good US Western-style cues present here but the appearance of some fairly incongruous sounding cues does adversely affect some parts of the show. Again, this show should fascinate any viewer who holds an interest in European-made Westerns.


This is another pretty good presentation. There are odd outbreaks of scratches and flecks present but the picture quality remains very good for the most part. Once again it would seem that this film was shot with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. As such, this 1.85:1 presentation features a number of scenes that sport quite tight framing. The sound quality of the German language audio track is near enough excellent and the show's optional English subtitles play fine.


Apaches
First Run Features
1973 / Colour / 1.85:1 flat / Apachen / 94 m.
Starring Gojko Mitic, Milan Beli, Colea Rautu, Gerry Wolff, Rolf Hoppe, Leon Niemczyk, Fred Delmare, Elsa Grube-Deister, Fred Ludwig, Hartmut Beer
Cinematography Helmut Bergmann
Production Designer Heinz Roske
Film Editor Christa Helwig
Original Music Hans-Dieter Hosalla
Written by Gottfried Kolditz and Gojko Mitic
Produced by Dorothea Hildebrandt
Directed by Gottfried Kolditz

Synopsis:

For several years an Apache tribe has abided by a peace treaty that allows the Mexicans at Santa Rita to mine the tribe's land for copper. A team of American prospectors, led by the duplicitous Johnson (Milan Beli), are seeking to mine gold in the locality and they arrange for the Apaches to be brutally massacred when they attend a yearly celebration that is organized by the residents of Santa Rita. Ulzana (Gojko Mitic), the elderly but wily Nana (Colea Rautu) and six other Apache warriors survive the massacre and set out for revenge.

Set circa 1846, this DEFA Western entry was produced in 1973 and it possesses a very different feel to the two earlier entries from the 1960s. Gritty and much more self-assured, everything about Apaches possesses a much more contemporaneous feel that bears favourable comparison to the better American and Italian Westerns produced during the same period. There are some superb Western costume designs on display here and most of the costumes are suitably dirty and possess a lived in look. Men on the trail here look like men on the trail, sporting greasy hair, grubby faces, unkempt beards, stubble and sweaty clothing. And the object of the bad guys' focus is the power of the dollar. Early on in the show, one of Johnson's men asks, "What's that rustling?" Johnson replies, "Letters from the governor and mine bosses," to which his man knowingly adds, "Soon dollars will be rustling." Johnson will grab his dollars wherever he can find them, even ordering his men to scalp the massacred Indians in order to claim the bounties they command at one point. The inclusion of Mexican characters, the brutal massacre and the use of some barren-looking shooting locations gives the film a slightly Spaghetti Western-ish feel.

Ulzana seeks to hit back at Johnson and his gang, the people of Santa Rita and a colony of newly arrived American miners and his plans for vengeance involve trail work, smash and grab raids and siege situations. A sub plot involves a US Cavalry unit involved in a covert mission to scout the locality in preparation for America's impending declaration of war on Mexico. Indeed, it was these troops who lent Johnson the weapons used in the massacre of the Apaches. Political comment is perhaps less explicit in this show but the US government's desire to gain control of the valuable natural resources found on the Indians' land, the subsequent maltreatment of the Indians and their laments for happier times when their land was really their own remain core narrative fixtures. Gojko Mitic had a hand in the film's script and he cuts a proudly defiant and heroic figure as the vengeful Ulzana. Still athletically built, Mitic is at the centre of most of the film's well-staged action set pieces. Coming on like a cross between Jack Palance and Piero Lulli at their cruellest, Milan Beli makes for a truly impressive Western bad guy who has an uncanny knack for getting himself out of the tightest of spots.

It should also be noted that this film's music is handled much better than that of the earlier films: the soundtrack score's content almost veers into Ennio Morricone territory at times and there are none of the incongruous music cues that blighted portions of the earlier DEFA Westerns present here. All in all, it's as if the powers that be at DEFA had suddenly got wind of Leone and Peckinpah's work and ordered a complete overhaul and upgrade of the studio's approach to the production of its Westerns. A number of DEFA Westerns were produced between Chingachgook: The Great Snake and Apaches and it would be interesting to know whether a gradual but noticeable sense of evolution exists in these films or whether Apaches represented a totally new and bold approach by the studio. Either way, Apaches is a fine Western that should appeal to any Western fan, period. Well-paced, good-looking and full of surprising narrative twists and turns, the film remains one of the best Indian-oriented Westerns that I've come across.


Picture quality here is again very good. It's tempting to assume that the show's colours are slightly faded but this film was shot in more barren and heat-saturated locations than the earlier two and this appears to have informed the film's general look and colour design. Once again it would seem that this film was shot with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 but it is presented with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. However, the kind of tight framing effects experienced with the earlier two films are not as noticeable here. The sound quality of the German language audio track is near enough excellent and the show's optional English subtitles play fine.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Sons of Great Bear rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent -
Supplements: Gojko Mitic interview, film notes, biographies, photo gallery and a DEFA Westerns trailer

Chingachgook: The Great Snake rates:
Movie: Good +
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent -
Supplements: Gojko Mitic interview, film notes, biographies, photo gallery and a DEFA Westerns trailer

Apaches rates:
Movie: Very Good +
Video: Very Good -
Sound: Excellent -
Supplements: Gojko Mitic interview, film notes, biographies, photo gallery and a DEFA Westerns trailer

Packaging: Three discs housed in individual keep cases that are in turn housed in a card sleeve. All three films can be bought separately.
Reviewed: May 30, 2007


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Text © Copyright 2007 Lee Broughton
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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