The Western Through a Red Lens: Historiography, Propaganda, and Umfunktionierung in Red Westerns and
Copyright 2018 by Michael W. Rickard II
Editor's Note: In 2016 I wrote a paper for my undergraduate senior project on the Red Western, a sub-genre of the Western film. Here is the paper in its original form.
The Evolution of Filmmaking in the Soviet Union
Russia has a history of film-making dating back to the earliest days of the cinema. Russians loved the cinema but it was not until World War One that domestic films became common. As World War One approached, the cinema was the number one choice for entertainment but 90% of Russia’s films were imports (Taylor 24). World War One and the subsequent Russian Revolution in 1917 brought disruptions to the cinema but also played a role in Russia developing its own films. Russia could no longer obtain film from its enemy Germany as well as allies Britain and France because both of Russia’s allies classified nitrate stock as essential to the war effort due to its relation to TNT (24). Wartime shortages of electricity affected film production as well.
The end of the Russian revolution brought new challenges in filmmaking with a film infrastructure in shambles. Some of the nation’s premier directors had fled the country during the revolution and the film industry’s production and distribution network was in ruins (Taylor 31). Soviet leaders recognized the value of film in spreading Soviet ideology (Leyda 170), but it would take time to rebuild the industry.
The authoritarian nature of the Soviet government posed challenges as well. With the state running filmmaking, filmmakers had to follow the rules of whomever was in charge. A lack of stability of who was in charge led to constantly changing opinions on what was and wasn’t acceptable in film. It was not uncommon for filmmakers to see their films shelved because someone new came into power during the film’s production. Hollywood’s threat “you’ll never work in this city again” to American filmmakers paled in comparison with the danger Soviet filmmakers lived in where a bad review could lead to liquidation.
Despite these challenges, Soviet filmmakers produced timeless films and developed film techniques such as montage, “the production of a rapid succession of images in a motion picture to illustrate an association of ideas” (Merriam-Webster, “Montage”). The films often reflected Soviet ideology but they entertained first, leaving any message beneath the surface. Dziga Vertov’s masterpiece A Man with a Movie Camera captures the ideal of the people as a collective while Sergei Eisenstein made films to inspire the masses- whether it was proletariat rallying cries like Battleship Potemkin and The Strike, or historical allegories like Alexander Nevsky that warned foreign nations not to intrude on the U.S.S.R.
The Cold War: Film and Propaganda
As the uneasy wartime alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union deteriorated following victory in World War Two, it became clear that the U.S. and Soviet Union would battle for supremacy. The idea of another war after World War Two did not appeal to many Americans, and the detonation of an atomic bomb by the USSR made it clear that any war with them could be cataclysmic. Thus, the U.S. gathered its allies under NATO, engaging in “The Cold War” against the Soviet Union and its allies in the Warsaw Pact. The Cold War saw intense battles on both sides to prove their respective supremacy. The Space Race was a prime example of how both sides competed without resorting to war. The Soviets’ early advances in space exploration caused some to question whether the United States could keep up scientifically. If Communism produced superior scientific achievements, what other benefits might it provide that the U.S. could not?
In his examination of Nazi and Soviet propaganda films, Richard Taylor differentiates between films of propaganda and films of entertainment, noting if their “…conscious purpose is to lull the audience in order to manipulate its opinions for political ends, then we are concerned with film propaganda; if not, then we are concerned with entertainment pure and simple” (210).
The nations both engaged in propaganda films. The early days of the Revolution saw Soviet propaganda aimed at showcasing the virtues of life under Communist rule. Likewise, American films showed the horrors of life in the Soviet Union and Soviet goals of subjugating the world (given Stalin’s proclamation to do such a thing provided lots of ammunition).
A considerable difference between American films and Soviet films was the greater freedom enjoyed by American filmmakers. That is why American Westerns could and did differ in their portrayal of the American West and the stories they told. As Taylor notes, a filmmaker could make a film criticizing the McCarthy hearings (High Noon) allegorically, while another could make a film as their response to this film as Howard Hawks did with Rio Bravo (Taylor).
The Universal Appeal of the Western
The Western has had universal appeal from its earliest days, leading to foreign nations making their own Westerns. Buscombe points out that, “…the Western has never been an exclusively American phenomenon. From the earliest years, Westerns have been hugely popular in Europe and elsewhere in the world;” (13). The 1910 French film Hanging at Jefferson City (Simpson 246) and Germany’s 1939 Western Water for Canitoga (248) are two examples of Western films made by foreign nations. A foreign take on Westerns caught the public’s attention thanks to the “Spaghetti Westerns” popularized by Sergio Leone’s films with Clint Eastwood. Filmed in Europe, the Spaghetti Westerns examined life in the American frontier with a different perspective than most American-made films at the time. Leone’s antihero “The Man with No Name” presented a much different cowboy than ones portrayed by John Wayne or James Stewart.
Warsaw Pact filmmakers recognized the appeal of the Western genre. They set about making films set in the West because American Westerns had proved successful when imported. Soviet leaders saw no harm in Westerns as they, “…were generally regarded as innocent of harmful thematic content, depending as they did largely upon action, which the Russian public adored” (Leyda 172). Over time, filmmakers would make films in the American West and films set in the individual nation’s own frontier (such as Russia’s frontier in Central Asia). The American films became known as Red Westerns while the films set on the native frontier became known as Easterns.
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The Prophet, the Gold and the Transylvanians. Directed by Dan Pita, performances by Ilarion Ciobanu, Ovidiu Iulian Moldovan, and Mircea Diaconu, Centrul de Productie Cinematografica Bucuresti, 1978.
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