The Western Through a Red Lens: Historiography, Propaganda, and Umfunktionierung in Red Westerns and
Copyright 2019 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 Easterns: The White Sun of the Desert and The Elusive Avengers trilogy
Warsaw Pact filmmakers incorporated many elements of the Western into a film genre known as “Easterns.” These films paralleled Western elements with its frontier setting, battle between lawlessness and order but were set on Russia’s east Asian frontier during the Russian civil war. The film series The Elusive Avengers and the film The White Sun of the Desert used the Western motif to tell adventure stories for Soviet viewers.
Easterns expressed Soviet ideology just as American Westerns and Red Westerns shared their respective culture’s ideology. The American Western often focuses on the individual, mirroring the American ideal of self-sufficiency and independence. The Red Westerns reflect the cultural idea of the collective. The American Westerns and Easterns both deal with the theme of expansion. Manifest destiny is the driving spirit in many American Westerns while the goal of spreading Communist ideology and freeing the masses from oppression drives the Easterns.
The Wild East
The White Sun of the Desert features many elements found in American Westerns except for its historic and geographic setting. The hero, Fyodor Sukhov, is a soldier returning from the Russian civil war who is called upon to save nine Muslim women from their former owner, Abdullah. In an interesting twist, the villains are Turks. Like the traditional cowboy, Fyodor can exist in civilization and the wild, here helping to bring good Bolshevik teachings i.e. civilization to the women and he possesses the skills to fight in the wild, i.e. the desert. Birdget Beumers is a Reader in Russian in the School of Modern Languages at Bristol University and the writer of several pieces on Russian culture. In her book A History of Russian Cinema, she comments that Fyodor’s efforts are not without their difficulties as, “…he fails to understand the full meaning of local Muslim traditions, which gives rise to a series of amusing misunderstandings and funny situations” (158). Despite these problems, Fyodor prevails, delivering all but one of the nine brides to safety.
The film The Elusive Avengers is a loose adaptation of the Soviet novel, The Little Red Devils. The film tells the story of four youths (three boys and a girls) who battle bandits oppressing villagers during the Russian Civil War. The four become known as “The Elusive Avengers,” and their heroics are eventually recognized by the Red Army, which recruits all four. The film featured Western elements such as a group of heroes helping a village against outlaws, skilled gunfighters, and heroes who move on to the next wild area in need of taming (in this case, the area of Russia still embroiled in civil war). The obvious differences are that the film is set in Russia during the early 1920’s. The Elusive Avengers led to a sequel The Further Adventures of the Elusive Avengers, which again was set during the Russian Civil War. This film also contained Western elements. The third and final film, The Crown of the Russian Empire was set after the Russian Civil War and is more of a general adventure film with no significant Western elements.
The Elusive Avengers ride off into the sunset...
Repurposing the Western
There is a strong argument that Easterns have been a method of Umfunktionierung (“repurposing”) American Westerns to mythologize Soviet expansion. As stated earlier, both the United States and the Soviet Union’s goals was to “tame” their frontier. The U.S. had Manifest Destiny driving some settlers while the Soviet Union had the goal of spreading Communism.
How do these films hold up in terms of quality? The Western genre has seen hundreds of films produced, some receiving recognition for their quality and others recognition for being terrible. Are the Red Westerns anything but propaganda? If not, how do they rank with classic Westerns?
Lemonade Joe's heroine
Lemonade Joe stands out as an excellent picture on its own. This biting satire of the Western is well done with its parodies of traditional heroes and stock characters. Made a decade before Blazing Saddles, Lemonade Joe is a funny Western film. Factor in the acidic subtext of capitalism and you have a good film. The film’s use of sepia only adds to its looking like a Western from the silent era. Lemonade Joe promotes an ideological view criticizing capitalism and American policies but it does so through an entertaining and well-made film.
The Sons of Great Bear
The Sons of Great Bear is a compelling story examining the realities faced by Indians. The story of broken treaties, violence, and greed make a very sympathetic case for the Indians. The film questions the integrity and ethics of American expansion into the frontier in an evenhanded manner. The film serves an ideological purpose to suggest the failings of American democracy and capitalism but it is a good film with an honest portrayal of the Indians’ mistreatment.
The Gold, the Prophet, and the Transylvanians is another entertaining Western. In this case, the film’s ideological message is subtler as it shows how immigrants could be exploited by capitalists and religion, as personified by the Mormon businessman. This is another entertaining Western with an ideological message.
The legacy of the Red Westerns is another reminder that Westerns are not limited to being produced in the United States. The Warsaw Pact nations produced some quality Westerns just as other countries have been doing since the earliest days of the genre. These films contain the Western elements discussed and are set in the geographic and historic era commonly associated with the Western.
The question is, should these films not set in the American West during a particular historical period (generally 1865-1890 but this is not concrete) count as Westerns? There seem to be two schools of thought. The first is that for a picture to be a true Western, it must be set in the American West during the previously mentioned time. The second is that the geographic setting is not essential if the film uses other Western elements and is set on a frontier of some type. This area has received considerable scholarship over the last twenty years. In the book, International Westerns: Re-Locating the Frontier, the argument is made that the Westerns are not the exclusive domain of the American West.
The Red Western has provided answers and raised questions about the genre known as the Western. The Red Westerns are an example of how hegemony can be challenged by another country in film and another example of quality Western films being made outside of the United States. The question of whether “Easterns” count as true Westerns remains to be answered but that question has not hampered their production.
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