Kendra Steiner Editions (Bill Shute)

November 22, 2013

Pierre Brice and Rod Cameron in “Winnetou: Thunder At The Border” (Germany-Yugoslavia 1966), directed by Alfred Vohrer

Filed under: Uncategorized — kendrasteinereditions @ 8:46 pm

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WINNETOU: THUNDER AT THE BORDER (aka Winnetou und Sein Freund Old Firehand)

Germany-Yugoslavia 1966, directed by Alfred Vohrer

starring Pierre Brice, Rod Cameron, Marie Versini, and Todd Armstrong

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Most North Americans do not realize the significance of the writings of Karl May in German popular culture and Germany’s views of the American West. May never visited North America, but created (among many other works set in many other places) a complete “Western” fantasy world in his novels dealing with the American Indian character WINNETOU. His popularity as an adventure writer who captured the imaginations of millions of readers, particularly during their adolescence, with vividly drawn fantasy worlds in “foreign” settings  is perhaps analogous to that of Emilio Salgari in Italy or Edgar Rice Burroughs in the USA. Even today, there are still “Winnetou” conventions in Europe, and Europeans taken with his work make pilgrimages to the American West, visiting Native American communities and perhaps blending the real West with the West of May’s works and the West of the Croatian locations where the popular Winnetou films of the 1960’s were shot. (Note: many years ago, I read May’s THE OIL PRINCE in English translation, published by the University of Nebraska Press)

In most of the 1960’s films, Winnetou, an Apache chief (sympathetically played by the charismatic Pierre Brice), was paired with his white “blood brother” Old Shatterhand, played by Lex Barker, who became a star as Tarzan and followed that up with various Westerns and detective films and then roles in European historical adventures. The athletic, handsome Barker was a good enough actor to communicate great warmth and empathy and authority, even when dubbed. The series was such a success that in addition to the Barker films, Stewart Granger was brought in as Old Surehand for three films, and Granger brought his usual elegance and wit to the role, creating a character who was a good match for Winnetou, yet distinctively different from Barker’s character.

Then came Rod Cameron—-star of serials, westerns, and US television—as OLD FIREHAND in Winnetou: Thunder At The Border, the second-to-last in the series (Barker was brought back for the final entry, IN THE VALLEY OF DEATH).

After almost 10 (depending on how you count them) entries, the producers no doubt felt that some new blood needed to be pumped into the Winnetou franchise. Rod Cameron, usually an exciting and powerful leading man, was one new element. Also, by this time, the Italian westerns had become a huge phenomenon, not just in Europe but internationally. The German westerns in the Winnetou series never looked remotely like Spaghetti westerns. The lush rich landscapes and panoramic photography of the sweeping Croatian (then part of Yugoslavia, a co-production partner) hills and plains was matched by the lush, rich, and sweeping musical soundtracks of Martin Bottcher. This was the opposite of the dry, decaying, treacherous Mexican border area where so many Italian westerns were set, with their “Spanish” themed twanging guitars and mariachi-flavored trumpets on the musical soundtrack. With WINNETOU: THUNDER AT THE BORDER, it’s as if the series incorporated elements of the Italian western, thinking it would help at the box office. In doing so, the aspects that made the Winnetou series so distinctive were cast aside, but the Italians could still make a much more convincing Italian western than the Germans (or Yugoslavs) could, so what we were left with was a curious hybrid. Neither fish nor fowl, the film is impressive-looking (every entry in the series was VERY well-made), and if you’d never seen another Winnetou film, it would pass as average Eurowestern entertainment, but I’d have to judge it a misfire on a number of levels.

First of all, Winnetou is almost a guest star in his own movie here. In the Lex Barker films, Winnetou is at least equal to, if not more important than, his Caucasian blood-brother. Why he and his sister (and a handful of others from his tribe) are down in the Mexican border area is never really explained. Also, he’s not integral to the plot. Other than setting the plot in motion in the first ten minutes, after that, he could be taken from the film, and the main conflict would not really be affected. Clearly, there was no intent to further develop the Winnetou character, but just use the Winnetou name for box office appeal. I’m sure Pierre Brice sensed this when reading the script before the film was made.

Second, the special and deep relationship between Winnetou and Shatterhand is totally missing here. You could sense the love between the two characters in the earlier films. Here, Winnetou and Old Firehand meet at the beginning of the film and agree to assist each other, and while they are polite to each other and do save each other’s skins a few times, they don’t really get to know each other at all. The earlier films were about the relationship more than anything else; that’s not important here. Brice and Cameron can’t be faulted…the script just doesn’t give them those kind of scenes together, and when they are together, nothing special happens…they just HELP each other the way any two people on the same side of a conflict in a Western help each other.

Third, the Mexican border setting (and with the military officer in the film being a MEXICAN military officer, the film is taking place on the Mexican side of the border, though this is never really made clear) totally robs the film of the unique feel of the earlier entries in the series. It does not LOOK like a Winnetou film.

And there are many other problems. For some reason, the film’s musical score was handed over to Peter Thomas. Thomas was a brilliant and inventive film composer, a true original…perfect for the early 60s German crime films and adaptations of the works of Edgar Wallace. His jazzy, ironic, quirky, trombone-heavy scores were the perfect counterpoint to the stylized B&W visuals. Here, it sounds like Peter Thomas bringing his usual shtick to the Western score and thus sounding like a novelty western score–or worse, a PARODY of a western score. That does not help the overall effect of the film. Also, the second lead Causasian character, played by Todd Armstrong (of Jason and the Argonauts fame),  is kind of a jerk, the way the character is written. Whenever he would make a move (more like sexual harassment than anything cute) toward Winnetou’s sister, played by Marie Versini, I was shouting out at the screen, “no, push him away, he’s not good enough for you.” Fortunately, the film’s plot made them getting together impossible…fortunately for Winnetou’s sister, that is. And Rod Cameron, always an actor of authority who was perhaps the ultimate square-jawed B-movie hero in serials or detective films and TV shows, as well as a successful B-western star, is not really given much to do here. The ridiculous coonskin cap (meant to establish him as a trapper) seems kind of out of place in Mexico—you’d think he’d take it off in the 100-degree heat. And Cameron isn’t given that much to do with Winnetou, nor do we ever really get a sense of development or closure with the woman he meets whom he knew back in St. Louis or wherever, who is the mother of the boy Old Firehand serves as mentor to.  Is HE the boy’s father? Does he get back together with the lady at the film’s end? That’s not clearly established. And the end seems a bit abrupt. I actually rewound the film back 10 minutes from the end to see if I’d missed something, but no, that was it. I did not get the sense that any effort was put into fashioning a satisfying or distinctive ending…or building up a well-thought-out climax. The antagonist was already mostly beaten 2/3 of the way through the film…so he gets entirely beaten at the end, yawn.

As THUNDER AT THE BORDER, this film DID get a US theatrical release (a number of the Winnetou films did), so there IS an English-dubbed version of this out there (I hope Rod Cameron, who has an impressive deep “manly” voice, dubbed the English version—the person who did the German dialogue sounds NOTHING like him), but I viewed a beautiful letter-boxed German version, subtitled in English. However, the “English” subtitles seemed to be automatically generated, a la Google translate, as they made little sense (and they were not a literal translation of the German, either) and every 8th or 10th word was Dutch-looking gobbledygook. I had to rely on the two semesters of German I had 30 years ago.

If it sounds like I’m complaining, it’s only because the earlier entries in this series were so distinctive and so good. That there is still an active Winnetou cult today, 50 years after the films were made, is due to the earlier films, NOT to this one. On the standard 4-star scale, this would be a solid 2 1/2 star film, and not an unpleasant way to kill 95 minutes. It LOOKS great, Pierre Brice is always good to see in this role (even when not given much to do), and Rod Cameron fans will enjoy seeing him in a new and different setting. But watch some of the Lex Barker or Stewart Granger WINNETOU films before you watch this one. If you are new to Rod Cameron, get the multi-disc set of his STATE TROOPER tv series instead of this. This is basically an awkward footnote to a classic film franchise…

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