Thursday, October 13, 2022

Karl May: German Westerns, Winnetou and Old Shatterhand (Part 1 of 2)

 If you’ve never heard of Winnetou, Old Shatterhand, Kara Ben Nemsi or Old Surehand, you probably didn’t grow up in Germany or another German-speaking country. Those characters created by the German author Karl May (1842-1912) are as well-known in Germany and a few other European countries as the Lone Ranger and Tonto, or Tarzan are in the English-speaking world. Unlike traditional American-style Westerns, May’s stories favored the Indians over the cowboys/frontiersman (Westmänner in May parlance). He portrayed his Native American characters as intelligent, noble people who appreciated Nature and were generally more honest and trustworthy than the paleface frontier people they encountered. In doing so, May (pronounced MY) also romanticized the life and culture of American Indians, sparking a longtime cultural and literary debate in Germany that continues to this day. May also had errors and inconsistencies in his novels, which were written and revised over many years at different times.

[The Apache chieftain Winnetou (left) is one of Karl May’s best known fictional characters. His German friend Old Shatterhand is equally famous. This book, Part II (Vol. 8) of the Winnetou trilogy, was first published in 1893, although May had first invented an early version of Winnetou in 1878. The book pictured here, part of the classic “green volumes” (grüne Bände), was published in Bamberg, West Germany by the Karl-May-Verlag (founded in 1913) with a 1951 copyright. The postwar German division and the Soviet Occupation Zone led to the publisher moving operations from East Germany to Bamberg. A Radebeul office opened in 1996. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo]

Neither the Tonto nor the Tarzan portrayals in American movies and television managed to avoid stale stereotypes and tropes. Neither Tonto nor Tarzan spoke English very well. The original Tarzan, as written by Edgar Rice Burroughs and first published in 1912, was well-spoken, but none of the Johnny Weissmuller movies were based on the original novels. On the other hand, Winnetou, Karl May’s Apache chieftain, speaks perfect German/English: Er sprach ein reines Englisch. (“He spoke perfect English.”) – Winnetou I.

[The LONE RANGER television series featured Clayton Moore as the masked title figure and Jay Silverheels as Tonto, his Indian sidekick. PHOTO: American Broadcasting Company]

In the German Winnetou “sauerkraut Western” film adaptations of the 1960s, as with Tarzan, the movie scripts often deviated from May’s original stories. Many Europeans’ understanding of the Winnetou character (and American Indians in general) are still based on the film versions, over which May’s estate had little control. American actor Lex Barker (Alexander Crichlow Barker Jr, 1919-1973), who also played the film Tarzan, portrayed Winnetou’s friend Old Shatterhand – who comes from Germany. To this day, Barker is best known in German-speaking Europe for his Old Shatterhand role, for which he even received German film awards. The French actor Pierre Brice (pron. BREECE; Pierre-Louis Le Bris, 1929-2015) had a long career based on his Winnetou role on screen and in live pageants. In East Germany, the popular “Indianerfilme” (not “Westernfilme”!) featured the German-Serbian actor Gojko Mitić as Winnetou. More recently, in the 2016 made-for-TV movie Winnetou – Der Mythos lebt (“…the myth lives on”), Winnetou was played by Nik Xhelilaj of Albania. No, none of these guys was a Native American or even related to one.

The Lone Ranger character first appeared in The Lone Star Ranger (1914), a novel by the American Western writer Zane Grey (1872-1939). (German book title: Der Texasreiter [“the Texas rider”].) There was no Tonto character yet, as pointed out above. Grey’s all-time bestseller was his 1912 novel Riders of the Purple Sage (Das Gesetz der Mormonen [“Mormon law”] in German), published in the same year as May’s death. Grey’s works, translated into German, are also well known in the German-speaking world. Zane Grey published more than 90 books, far fewer than Karl May’s 300 or so. During his writing career, Grey’s books were adapted as motion pictures. Riders of the Purple Sage, The Lone Star Ranger and other Zane Grey novels were made into feature films between 1916 and the 1940s, an opportunity that Karl May never had during his lifetime.

The Tonto sidekick character was invented (for the radio series) so that the Lone Ranger, played by Clayton Moore in most of the later TV episodes, would have someone to talk to. The good part was that the TV Tonto was at least played by the indigenous Canadian actor Jay Silverheels, a rarity in movies and TV of the 1950s. The US television series aired on the ABC network from 1949 to 1957, with an amazing 221 30-minute episodes. For the 2013 Lone Ranger movie, there was criticism aimed at a non-indigenous actor (Johnny Depp) playing Tonto. (See Hollywood Indian Sidekicks and American Identity from Essais.)

[To be continued tomorrow]

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