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.
Defining the Red Western
What is a Red Western? According to film historian Vincent Bohlinger, “Purists, however, distinguish between a “Red Western,” which is a film of the Western genre set in the American West, and an “Eastern,” which is a film of the Western genre set in Central Asia (what is considered “East” for Eastern Europe)” (378). The Red Westerns could and did serve as an allegory for the evils of capitalism and American society along with the strengths of Communism.
Three Red Westerns: Lemonade Joe, The Sons of Great Bear, and The Gold, the Prophet, and the Transylvanians One of the most interesting Red Westerns is the film Lemonade Joe. The film deals with the titular character coming to the wild town Stetson City and helping a lovely maiden and her father tame the town. The film features several musical numbers and on the surface, resembles many an American Western with a singing cowboy. However, the film has a subtext where it examines American intervention and the belief that American intervention is a pretext for spreading capitalism through the world. The fact that the film examines this in a burlesque manner makes it more effective.
Enter the Lemonade Kid
Lemonade Joe begins with the Wild West frontier town of Stetson City. There, cowboys fight in a whiskey-filled saloon, complete with dancing girls and a typical Western villain running the town. A teetotaler comes in with his young daughter, espousing the virtues of sobriety. The maiden tells the cowboys they don’t need to drink to live wild lives. Naturally, the two reformers are mocked and harassed. Then the white clad Lemonade Kid walks in, protecting the two, dealing with the outlaws and praising the drink Kolaloka lemonade (not actual lemonade but a term for a soft drink). Soon, the father and son operate a Kolaloka tavern. When the whiskey saloon’s brother shows up, he battles to restore whiskey drinking to the town. The Lemonade Kid does battle and eventually, the maiden is kidnapped, leading to a daring rescue where the Lemonade Kid triumphs.
While the film seems like a typical Western musical, it has a pointed political subtext. On the surface, Lemonade Kid seems to be espousing virtue and righteousness by cleaning up the West (in this case Stetson City). A closer look shows he is actually making the world safe for capitalism as seen in this case by the sale and distribution of Kolaloka. In fact, by the end of the film, Lemonade Kid teams up the film’s alleged villains, telling them there is a place for all of them in selling Kolaloka. Analyzing the film, the theme seems to be Lemonade Joe isn’t taming the West out of nobleness but to open new markets. This would tie in with the belief by some that, “the later twentieth-century method…perfected by the United States, became a matter of economic penetration, cultural co-optation, and ultimately, a subordination of individual consciousness, even as such programs (under the aegis of “liberty,” “democracy,” and “free trade”) were exalted as allowing for the actualization of the individual” (Corkin 58). Was the United States making the world safe for democracy or for capitalism to expand its markets? Lemonade Joe seems to suggest the latter.
West Germany was known for producing popular films with Indian heroes. German author Karl May wrote popular Westerns in the 1800’s about the Indian character Winnetou and his white friend Shatterhand. According to Sir Christopher Frayling, these books were more popular in Germany than Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales as Cooper’s books “…translated very badly into the language” (105). May’s Winnetou books would be made into films in West Germany, beginning with 1962’s The Treasure of Silver Lake followed by Winnetou the Warrior (Frayling 113).
Films about Indians were a natural fit for East Germany as well. The studio DEFA produced several popular films with Indian protagonists. Keeping with party lines, “…the government-controlled studio fulfilled a dual function with these productions. They met audience demands for entertainment by providing adventure films, and they served as a pedagogical tool to educate the country’s children about class conflict” (Miller 45). These East German films told a story while delivering a political message. Whether or not the political message got through, the films proved to be successful in entertaining their audience.
The Sons of Great Bear
The East German film The Sons of Great Bear is a fascinating Western told from the point of view of Indians. It deals with a tribe of Indians being forced off their land so greedy Americans can get access to their land and a gold mine. The film’s hero, Tokei-ihto is a powerful warrior who has served with Crazy Horse. Tokei-ihto is a man of honor, as he shows when he raids an Army supply wagon and returns a woman he has found to a nearby fort. When Tokei-ihto goes to the fort to make peace, he refuses to have his people put on a reservation and he is imprisoned. In the meantime, his people are forced onto a reservation. Tokei-ihto is freed and leads his people to safety, despite marauders trying to force them back onto the land. The film explores the different ways people treated Indians. For example, not all whites are portrayed as evil, and there are sympathetic characters among the Natives and settlers (as well as villains). Despite this fair portrayal, the Indians are shown to be mistreated.
It must be noted that although American Westerns’ depictions of Indians was as savages to be conquered, there were exceptions. Early silent films dealt with Indians as protagonists. The films Fort Apache and Broken Arrow portray Indians sympathetically. In Fort Apache, John Wayne’s soldier character tries to broker a peace with Indians while his commander foolishly tries to use force to coerce them to his thinking. Fort Apache makes clear that the Indians have legitimate arguments. The same is found in Broken Arrow, a film based on the life of Tom Jeffords and Indian leader Cochise. In the film, Jeffords brokers a piece between his fellow whites and Cochise’s people, despite racism by Jeffords’ community and Indian resentment. The film is fictionalized but it depicts the conflict in a three-dimensional context, showing that Indians were taken advantage of.
Jimmy Stewart in Broken Arrow.
It would be a mistake to say that films like Fort Apache and Broken Arrow were the norm though. That is why some critics have praised Red Westerns for their depiction of Indians. As Miller notes, “Obviously, these films present a Marxist interpretation of U.S. history, and their anti-Americanism is evident, yet they are closer to the historical facts than most Hollywood films” (45). Is it coincidence that American films began depicting the West in a way more sympathetic to groups like the Indians and Mexicans around the same time as Red Westerns did?
A Red Western trilogy of the late 1970’s explored what life in the American West could be like for immigrants. The Transylvanian trilogy began with The Gold, the Prophet, and the Transylvanians. In this film, a Transylvanian gunfighter is falsely accused of murdering a man he has killed in self-defense. When the man’s two brothers arrive in town, they are soon convicted of conspiring with him and sentenced to work on a Mormon minister’s farm. The film depicts the town’s government as corrupt and shows businessmen oppressing workers. The film criticizes the mob mentality seen with vigilante justice in the West as well as the Mormon religion, noting how polygamy is used to enslave women.
One of the strengths of the Red Westerns is that they were based on historical truths such as the mistreatment of Indians and mistreatment of minorities. As Taylor points out, “Indeed, the most effective ‘propaganda’ is the truth, for in the long run the use of the truth will enable the ‘propagandist’ to gain the trust of his audience…” (13). If a viewer knew the story being presented in a Red Western was based on facts (such as the mistreatment of Indians depicted in The Sons of Great Bear), they might be more willing to accept other propaganda messages conveyed in the film as well such as the United States was seeking to exploit other nations as it had done with Indians.
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Lemonade Joe. Directed by Oldrich Lipský, performances by Karel Fiala, Rudolf Deyl, and Milos Kopecký, Československý Státní Film, 1964.
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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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The Sons of Great Bear. Directed by Josef Mach, performances by Gojko Mitic, Jirí Vrstála, and Rolf Römer, Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft, 1966.
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