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The Karl May Westerns

    About The Karl May Westerns:

The History

In the aftermath of the Second World War, German cinema was left in ruins - there was a strong backlash against those filmmakers who had remained faithful to the Nazi party, while many of Germany's best filmmakers (including Fritz Lang) had moved to America in the 1930s never to return. Gradually, the industry struggled back to form in the 1950s, low budgets and lack of international markets meant that the most popular productions were the Heimatfilms (homeland films), simple morality plays. Large audience figures meant that the film studios were gradually able to increase their budgets, and by the 1960s, big scale movies were back on the cards.

The Karl May novels were, and still are highly popular in the German speaking world, telling of adventurous exploits in the Wild West, the Orient, and beyond - he is credited today with selling over 200 million books. Film adaptations of the books had been made as early as the 1920s, and again in the late 1930s, and discussions had been made about shooting some of the Wild West stories - indeed a final script for a Winnetou film was approved in 1944 by Joseph Goebbels but never went into production. With German audiences filling cinemas, and desperately wanting more home grown films, the Karl May themes seemed like a perfect money spinner for producer Horst Wendlandt. A key player at Rialto Film, he had sucessfully produced a series of adult-targeted films based on the Edgar Wallace thriller/horror novels, including The Secret of the Red Orchid (1962), and Dead Eyes of London (1961), and now sought to target the younger FSK 6 and 12 (equivalent to the UK PG/12 and American PG/PG-13) markets. The idea of shooting Westerns in Europe was almost unknown at the beginning of the 1960s - the Spaghetti Westerns were several years away and instead of Spanish locations (used in most of the Spaghetti Westerns), the Karl May series was shot in Jugoslavia - taking advantage of the barren landscapes, mountains and rivers - all of which are shown off to a great degree in the films.

The first production was, appropriately enough, Karl May's first Old West book - The Treasure of Silver Lake (1962). The novel had to be altered for the screen - scenes set aboard an American paddle steamer proved too much for the budget, while the graphic details of Colonel Brinkley's savage nature had to be toned down for the family market - but it still retained the charm and feel of the original stories, and proved a massive hit with audiences across Germany. Impressively, the distinctive soundtrack proved equally popular and became a best-seller - still holding record sales for an instrumental single. The studio quickly comissioned a second film, and following the order of the original books Rialto produced the prequel story Winnetou 1. Teil (1963) which told the origins of the Winnetou/Old Shatterhand characters who played the major role in Treasure of Silver Lake, it secured actors Lex Barker and Pierre Brice in their respective roles as Old Shatterhand and Winnetou. The film proved equally popular to the first, and stands as the best in the series - boasting a rarely bettered set piece with a full scale railway locomotive being driven through a saloon building. Winnetou 2. Teil (1964) followed on, continuing the series' popularity.

With the sucess of this trio of films, Rialto's big rivals CCC Productions under Artur Brauner - who had rivaled Wendlandt's Edgar Wallace Films with their own series of Dr. Mabuse films - sought to capitalise. Poaching the series' lead stars, Lex Barker and Pierre Brice, Brauner produced Old Shatterhand (1964). Although boasting the biggest budget of any of the Karl May Westerns, it was panned by critics but proved sucessful with audiences. Brauner went on to shoot a variety of adventure films based on Karl May's other adventure series, set in Mexico and the Orient, and using Lex Barker as a frequent lead star.

Inbetween their increasingly daring Edgar Wallace films, Rialto continued to film their own Karl May Westerns. In order to add some variation to the franchise, and to capitalise on the high audience figures, Horst Wendlandt comissioned a series of lower budget entries in a parellel franchise - Unter Geiern (1964), Der Ölprinz (1965) and Old Surehand 1. Teil (1965) followed, starring Stewart Granger as another character from Karl May's Old West stories - Old Surehand. On a much smaller scale than the near-epic Shatterhand films, the Surehand productions had more of a traditional Western feel, with darker and grittier storylines. Lex Barker returned to play Shatterhand again in Winnetou 3. Teil (1965) and for the last time in Winnetou und das Halbblut Apanatschi (1966), but by this time the popularity of the films was declining, and Old Surehand was the first film in the series not to win the coveted Goldene Leinwand (Golden Canvas) award for sucessful business (requiring 3 million viewers in 12 months) and none of the subsequent films were able to win the award again. Despite some attempts to add variation to the franchise with the darker Surehand films, by 1966 audiences were becoming tired of the rather repetitive nature of the Karl May Westerns, and the increasingly gritty/violent Spaghetti Westerns were becoming very popular in Germany and across Europe.

Rialto's final Karl May Western was Winnetou und sein Freund Old Firehand (1966), which saw the adventurous tones of the earlier films all but replaced with a grittier, Spaghetti Western feel - it was relatively unsucessful and marked the end of the line for the studio's productions. Two years later, CCC film shot Winnetou und Shatterhand im Tal der Toten (1968) - bringing back the adventurous tone of the earlier pictures, and re-uniting Lex Barker, Pierre Brice, and director Harald Reinl, it proved sucessful, but not enough to inspire more - and was the last Karl May Western.

The People

Actor Lex Barker had come to Europe after being typecast as Tarzan in America during the 1950s, getting a role in Fellini's classic La Dolce Vita (1960). He soon found a niché playing American characters in a variety of films, including CCC's Dr. Mabuse productions. Although initially reluctant to star in the Karl May Westerns thanks their relatively low budgets, he soon became a household name (Sexy Lexy) and was very popular for the rest of the decade as an action star. English born Steward Granger, who played Old Surehand, had come to Europe in the 1960s after his sucessful Hollywood career was damaged by a painful divorce from popular actress Jean Simmons, and like Lex Barker, found popularity in his roles - some of the last major performances of his career. French actor Pierre Brice was the only actor to appear in all 11 Karl May Westerns and gained cult popularity across Europe as a result. The film series also saw some of the first performances outside Italy from Mario Girotti, soon to become known as Terence Hill, and one of the stars of the Spaghetti Westerns, while Winnetou 2. Teil (1964) was an early performance for Klaus Kinski who would also shoot to international fame thanks to the Spaghetti Western boom a few years later, and The Treasure of Silver Lake was another strong performance for Herbert Lom.

The Legacy

Although only comprising 11 films, shot over a period of just 6 years, the Karl May Westerns proved highly influential to European cinema. Before 1962, the idea of a Western being filmed in Europe seemed absurd - but the German producers proved that it could be profitable, and in Spain and Italy the Spaghetti Western was born, which had a permanent impact on cinema as a whole and ultimately proved the death knell of the Karl May Westerns. Meanwhile in East Germany the success of the May Westerns had been noticed, and the state film studio, DEFA, set about creating their own series of Westerns, known as the Indianerfilm, which used the stories as anti-American propaganda, with the Native Indians as sympathetic communists being bullied by the evil capitalists - starring Gojko Mitic, who appeared in several of the May Westerns, the series was popular and lasted until the 1980s. With his novels almost unknown in America, the Karl May films rarely made it across the Atlantic - and those that did were often cut down and packaged as regular Westerns, however the films remained popular in Germany, and in recent years have enjoyed a revival on video. A television sketch show by German comedian Michael Herbig featured regular parodies of the films, and was adapted into a full length movie - Der Schuh des Manitu (2001) which has gone on to become the most sucessful German language film ever made, winning dozens of awards.

   Karl May Western DVD Reviews

All eleven of the Karl May Westerns have been released to DVD in recent years, in a series of boxsets. For English speakers, choice is sadly limited to the three UFA boxsets containing the nine Rialto films - although annoyingly only two films in each set contain English audio and subtitles. All six of the films with English options are reviewed here, while notes on the other films can be accessed on the boxset pages:

Old Surehand (1965)
UFA Region 0 DVD (Karl May Collection II Boxset)
A decent plot combines with strong characterisation and acting to make this film one of the best in the series.
Highly recommended and ideal for fans of the films.
The Treasure of Silver Lake (1962)
UFA Region 0 DVD (Karl May Collection I Boxset)
The first film in the series, adventurous and effectively written, it does suffer slightly from an over-long run-time.
A good place to start and recommended.
Unter Geiern (Under Vultures) (1964)
UFA Region 0 DVD (Karl May Collection II Boxset)
The first of the small Surehand productions is equally gritty and adventurous with an often tense plot.
Recommended, although not as fun as the Shatterhand films.
Winnetou 1. teil (1963)
UFA Region 0 DVD (Karl May Collection III Boxset)
A big, exciting film with some wonderful set-pieces. Enjoyable, adventurous fun.
Highly recommended and a great place to start.
Winnetou 2. teil (1964)
UFA Region 0 DVD (Karl May Collection III Boxset)
Not as epic as the first part, but well written and with an all star cast, including Klaus Kinski and Terence Hill.
Winnetou and the Half Breed (1966)
UFA Region 0 DVD (Karl May Collection I Boxset)
Less of the adventure here with a more traditional Western style storyline, some good action scenes but a slow start.
Partly recommended - one for fans of the series only.

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All text on this page written by Timothy Young - June 2006.
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