tl;dr – Version
The Western is the definite American genre – it was born in America, and is usually set in America. But it isn’t always thoroughly American: Many film productions from all over the world have tried their hand at the Western genre, quite often giving these films a distinct touch not usually found in your typical US Western.
This blog is dedicated to these movies – the Westerns not produced in the United states, but in all other parts of the world: From Europe to Asia, from South America to Africa, from India to Australia.
Long version, or: Wouldn’t “Non-American Westerns” be a more appropriate name?
It kind of depends on how you look at it, in my opinion. Let me elaborate:
There is no other genre in existence that is quite so thoroughly “American” as the Western. The name alone already implies a certain geographical region: The American West, an area that for most of the 19th century was generally also called the “American frontier”. This, in turn, also implies a certain period of time. Most of the time, when hobbyists or historians speak of the “Old West”, they refer to an era that spans from 1783 – the end of the revolutionary war, when the United States were acknowledged as an independent country – to the 1920s, when the so-called frontier line had all but vanished and made way for cilizitation. Most of the time, when we think of the “Wild West”, we think of a particular time in the latter half of the 19th century, and of the particular kind of imagery that was painted by these rough, not-quite-civilized lands: We think of cowboys and indian tribes, of the prairie with its buffaloes and coyotes, we think of sinister outlaws robbing banks, stagecoaches and trains, honest farmers in conflict with greedy cattle ranchers, and of the lone lawmen or brave gunslinger who makes a stand to put things right – or is simply looking for a bounty to collect. And we think of saloons filled with piano music, gamblers and ladies of the night, where even during the most joyous of songs and laughter, a sudden gunfight might only be one spilt beer away.
What makes a Western a Western?
The Western as a genre is practically as old as the “Old West” itself. As the United States pushed the forntier of settled country ever more westward, the folks back east wondered and marvelled about the tales the newspapers printed or some travellers told: Of the wild, untamed lands, the beauties of the nature, but also the adventures they had while encountering wild beasts or – sometimes savage, sometimes friendly – indians.
James Fennimore Cooper was one of many successful authors who started writing adventure novels as early as the 1820s that were set in “The Frontier” and told adventures that resulted from when Progress and Civilization clashed with the unbound beauty, but also the savagery of the uncivilized lands. Tales like these fascinated the readers, even while they were happening cocurrently. The frontier was a place of longing and of the unknown – it was a place where civilization didn’t reach, a place that remained untouched and free, but also lawless and unforgiving.
The men and women who lived in these territories became legends during their lifetime. Some of them made a living out of this fascination: One William Frederick Cody, for example, worked as a Scout and Buffalo Hunter in thePrairies. But he found his true calling as a showman, when he became famous once he joined a travelling theatre, and from December 1872 onwards he told captivated East Coast audiences romanticized versions of his exploits in a stageplay called “The Scouts of the Prairie”. By that time he was better known under the nickname ‘Buffalo Bill’, and he would use his experiences off and on stage to create a travelling circus that would transport the myths and the legends of the “Wild West” throughout the country and beyond the Atlantic.
When the first film makers started to make movies in the United States, they preferably did so out west, mostly due to the specific climate: Early filmmaking depended on places with much natural sunlight and warm, arid climate, which were ideal conditions for the rather unstable celluloid used to capture the moving pictures on. California was such a place. Early movies were rather simple affairs that steadily grew in length: From shooting interesting scenes as they happened, to staging a few loosely connected sequences that told simple three-sentence-stories, to eventually telling entire tales over ten minutes – or more. Of course, filmmaking was a young endeavor, and hiring seasoned actors was an effort too expensive for the budding enterprise. So filmmakers grabbed whatever extras who were willing to earn an extra dollar or two – and many a cowboy from the local ranches was happy to oblige. So naturally, Western tales became a regular staple of Early American Film, and especially in the beginning, they even starred real, American Cowboys.
The novels of Cooper and other authors, the stage antics of Buffalo Bill and his many emulators, and the short clips of the early film pioneers thus told tales that had quite a few things in common: The clash between civilization and wilderness, the conflict of lawless freedom and ordered safety. Where the law doesn’t reach, a code of honor steps in its place, and in its name brave men and women need to step up to keep their community safe – even if that means that in doing so, said person has to give up a bit of his own civility. It’s a harsh personal justice that takes the place of courtrooms; tales of revenge, retribution and redemption are commonplace. The ‘Western’ was born out of the American Frontier, and its myth birthed and spread by American minds.
But does it necessarily have to BE American?
The Western as an international phenomenon
Tales from the American Frontier did not only enlighten the imagination of East Coast city dwellers. Even back in the 19th century, they found a deeply interested audience back in Europe. Germany in particular was quite fascinated by Western culture, but also in Scandinavia, Spain or Italy people were deeply interested in hearing adventures from the frontiers of civilization. Buffalo Bill’s travelling Western Circus was an enourmous success in Germany, France, England, Bohemia and many other regions. Many people watched the shows, because they wanted to see and feel what it must be like to live in the frontier and experience the exciting life these people must lead.
The early- and mid 19th century were particularly hard times for the average European. The early 19th century was marked by the Napoleonic Wars, harsh winters and several crop failures throughout Northern, Central and Southern Europe. Farmers who had large families could hardly produce enough to earn any money; and even if you had money, there wasn’t enough food produced to actually buy. Also, the countries in Europe only slowly made their way out of feudal times; in many a place, what little fertile land was left was usually owned by the aristocracy. If farmers had more than one son, tradition usually dictated that when the father died, the land would be split up among them – resulting in an even smaller patch of land to plant crops on. Learning a trade was also becoming increasingly difficult. Some were forced to live as day laborers on foreign fields; others tried their luck as menial labourers in the big cities, which became increasingly crowded as industrialization moved along. But if someone couldn’t find a job, or couldn’t hold a steady one with a reliable income, they ran the risk of being arrested as vagabonds. Being arrested meant being a criminal, and in some places like Bavaria, jails were so full that criminals were exiled rather than incarcerated. In short: Many people had next to nothing, and nowhere to go. Attempts at revolution were made, but rarely proved successful.
There were, however, tales of a place that needed settlers, a place where land was plentiful, where anyone who dared could become a landowner, be free of the whims of aristocracy and take his fortune into his own hands: The Western tales of the American Frontier promised the freedom and the independence many poor Europeans could only dream of. Back home, people were starving, tired of war and had little prospects, with next to no chance of owning land – over in America though, land was plentiful, and the possibilities sheer limitless. So the wave of emigration began: Families pitched all their money together to send one or two out of their midst to America. Once they struck success, they could send money back home, and the rest of the family would follow. These weren’t isolated decisions, either: Whether in Scandinavia, Scotland, Germany or elsewhere in Europe, sometimes entire villages basically packed up and moved to America over generations. For example, at least four and a half million germans left their home countries between 1820 and 1910 for the United States; by comparison, the German empire itself had about 45-49 Million inhabitants. With roughly one in ten Germans emigrating, chances were high that any random family had a relative, or at least knew somebody, that had left their home for the US (some of which had quite an adventurous journey of their own, as my wife – whom from here on out I shall refer to as ‘The Missus’ – could attest). Similar could be said in many other European countries.
The Wild West, as viewed through a domestic lens
Those left back home had little means of keeping contact with their relatives in the new world. “Letters from America” became a matter of general interest for entire communities, and particular success stories were often printed in the newspapers – usually in quite embellished forms. These letters were fueling the flames of imagination even further; and more often than not, the lines between true stories from the frontier and fabricated fiction began to blur.
Over time, European authors also started to write ‘Western Fiction”, often disguised as actual travel reports. The most famous example of this type of novellist was the German author Karl May, who first became known for his “true accounts” of journeys through the middle East, before striking fame and fortune as an author of “Young Adult” novels detailling the adventures of the ficticious Apache Chief Winnetou and his Western friends (who just happened to be German immigrants). His Western adventures, written between 1890 and 1910, were quite popular throughout Central and Eastern Europe and were eventually also translated into Hebrew, Vietnamese and Chinese.
But as famous as these novels were in Europe – they are hardly known in the United States. Even though they took the guise of travelogues, Karl May had never been to the Frontier himself. While May’s novels share many Western themes – the savage beauty of nature, the conflict between order and lawlessness, the Code of Honor that allows a community to endure – they were heavily tinged by German culture, emphasizing nobility over the grittiness and more violent aspects ‘true’ Western Stories often encompassed.
As early as the 1920s, European production companies had tried to capture the “frontier spirit” in movie form themselves, mostly in the form of literary adaptions, like the German “Lederstrumpf” from 1920 (based on Cooper’s ‘Leatherstocking’ novels) or the Rusian 1926-movie “По закону“, which was based on Jack London’s short story “The Unexpected”. Neither of these films were hugely successful; they all lacked the air of ‘authenticity’ American Westerns had, which also came with a healthy dose of grit and action European filmmakers weren’t used to.
It wasn’t until the 1960s before the “Eurowestern” really took off. German filmmakers were the first to produce a successful “Non-American Western” when Constantin Film adapted the works of Karl May to the Silver Screen. Better known still are the Italian movies, also known as “Spaghetti Westerns”, whose unique direction and – quite often – high emphasis on violence created an entire subgenre in their own right.
Once these countries had shown that a successful Western doesn’t have to be made by Americans in the first place, other countries followed suit. These days, “Westerns” have been made the world over. Some are set in the United States; others relocate the action to the Austrian Alps instead of the Rocky Mountains, the Australian Outback instead of Monument Valley, the shores of the Caspian Sea instead of California or the Mandchurian wilderness instead of the Texan plains. Thematically, they are all “Westerns”; though Westerns viewd through a different cultural lens, tinged with themes and morals not usually found in your typical American movie.
These films usually lie in the shadows of the big American productions, considered to be mere imitations of the “Real American Westerns”. But it’s worth to shine a light on these “foreign Westerns” in their own right. Some are considered national treasures – if only in their home country. Some are even considered classics or hidden gems. Others, while inherently flawed, possess a unique style only their home country could provide. And others… others are just plain bad.
These, therefore, are the “Unamerican Westerns”.