Book Review by Lee Broughton.
Crossing Frontiers: Intercultural Perspectives on the Western edited by Thomas Klein, Ivo Ritzer and Peter W. Schulze (Schuren Verlag, 2012). ISBN-10: 3894727330. 198 pages.
Crossing Frontiers is a collection of chapters that are based on academic papers that were presented at a conference held at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, Germany in November 2009. When reading and assessing this book, it is important to bear two things in mind. Firstly, academic papers come in many different forms and incorporate varying degrees of 'academic-ness'. Quite often, academic papers relating to films and film genres take the form of historical case studies. As such they remain accessible and interesting to non-academic readers and that's the case with most of the chapters found in this book. Secondly, English is not the first language of a good number of the writers whose work appears in Crossing Frontiers, so allowances have to be made for the presence of the odd awkwardly constructed sentence and/or minor grammatical errors.
Having read the book, I'm glad that these writers stepped outside of their immediate comfort zones and presented their work in English. Academic papers and the publications that follow them should serve to stimulate debate while providing raw materials that inspire new lines of enquiry that can be taken up by other academics, fans and writers. Certainly, the content of Crossing Frontiers provides Western fans and scholars with much to think about whilst also opening up new directions for Western-related research. What follows is a brief overview of each chapter.
1) Longstanding Western scholar Edward Buscombe presents a chapter that asks 'Is the Western about American History?' In the course of trying to answer that question, Buscombe also touches upon issues relating to gender and ethnicity.
2) Ivo Ritzer focuses on Italian Westerns that feature Eastern/Asian characters and seeks to catalogue them by determining common themes and recurring plot points. The basic methodology used here is similar to that previously employed by Will Wright in Sixguns & Society.
3) Harald Steinwender looks at 'The German Western beyond Karl May'. Amongst other things, this chapter features some interesting details about Germany's early silent Westerns (including mention of a previously undocumented Winnetou film) and Wolf C. Hartig's Rapid Westerns from the 1960s.
4) Marcus Stiglegger offers some 'Notes on British Westerns (1960-1975)'. This chapter provides a welcome and useful round up of key titles but its content remains somewhat constrained by the imposition of a fifteen year time frame.
5) Gregory Mohr's chapter looks at 'The French Camargue-Western'. This chapter features some interesting details relating to a multitude of French Western productions that date from the silent period.
6) Natasza Korczarowska's chapter is concerned with Polish films made after World War 2 that incorporate Western-related themes and/or iconography.
7) Ploughing a similar terrain, Sergey Lavrentiev's chapter focuses on the 'Red Westerns' that were produced inside the Soviet Union throughout the course of the twentieth century.
8) Thomas Klein offers a change of approach by considering 'Where the Wild West Can Be Staged'. This chapter investigates the ways in which the landscapes found in non-American countries might serve to influence the kinds of Westerns or Western-inspired films that those countries are ultimately able to produce. The importance of local cultures and national myths are also considered here.
9) Stefan Zimmermann's chapter looks at Australian Westerns with particular emphasis afforded to the reality of the Ned Kelly story and the subsequent myths that coalesced around it.
10) Cassis Kilian provides a really fascinating chapter that focuses on Westerns or Western-influenced films that were produced by indigenous filmmakers in Africa. Unfortunately, dialogue briefly quoted from the films was only provided in French here but this did not spoil my appreciation of this chapter.
11) Peter W. Schulze closes the book on a particularly high note with a comprehensive overview of the historical significance and generic traits of Brazil's Cangaceiro films. Schulze also considers the possible influence that Mexican Westerns may have had on these films.
Beyond Edward Buscombe's US-centric opening piece, each chapter present here offers an interesting take on Westerns or Western-influenced films produced outside of the USA. These chapters are, in the main, short and sharp engagements with the subject matter in hand which ensures that no single topic is allowed to overstay its welcome. I haven't seen any Polish or Red Westerns so cannot comment on how Western-like these historical tales might be. Some may balk at their inclusion here but the chapters in question made interesting reading nonetheless. It's fair to say that most of the Italian, German and British Westerns from the 1960s and 1970s that are covered here will be familiar to readers of this blog. So it might well be that, in the first instance, it's the chapters that cover Western-influenced films from beyond Europe that make the most obvious impression.
Certainly Peter W. Schulze's extended chapter on the Brazilian Cangaceiro films provides some much needed (English language) coverage of these fascinating sounding genre flicks. Similarly, the African Westerns covered by Cassis Kilian sound equally intriguing. These chapters in particular prove that there is still much work to be done in tracing, cataloging and theorising the influence of the Western worldwide and this book as a whole offers some good raw material for interested scholars, fans and writers to draw upon as they go about their own explorations and research. Indeed, as is standard academic practice, each chapter comes with an extensive bibliography of its source materials and these are useful research tools in themselves. This book is not intended to be a detailed history of all of the Western features produced outside of the USA and anybody expecting to find such a book here will be disappointed. However, if you're looking for a series of historical case studies that also introduce debates concerning a particular national cinema's engagement with the Western genre, you should find something of interest within the pages of Crossing Frontiers.
© 2013 Copyright Lee Broughton.