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Winnetou I, Lex Barker

German postcard, E 23. Photo: Constantin. Still from Winnetou I (1963, Harald Reinl) with Lex Barker. Caption: "Old Shatterhand has also been sentenced to die at the stake. He regrets emphatically, that he rescued Winnetou from the Kiowas. An ordeal by battle will decide."


For many people born in the 1950’s or 1960’s Winnetou was one of our favorite heroes. Based on the novels written by Karl May (1942-1912) German director Harald Reinl and producer Horst Wendlandt came up with a series of eurowesterns which didn´t copy the American western. The European audience rewarded this and Winnetou I (1963, Harald Reinl) became a huge success and was followed by the sequels II and III. Nonetheless Winnetou I (officially Winnetou - 1. Teil and in English titled Apache Gold or Winnetou the Warrior) wasn´t the first film about the fictional Native American hero. One year earlier Horst Wendlandt had produced Der Schatz im Silbersee/Treasure of Silver Lake (1962, Harald Reinl) which became the most successful German film of the 1962/1963 season beating such films as Dr.No. Ok, The Karl May films are most fun to watch, when they remind you of your childhood, otherwise they may seem a bit too naive and cheesy.


Der Schatz im Silbersee/Treasure of Silver Lake and Winnetou I starred Lex Barker in the role of Old Shatterhand and French actor Pierre Brice as Apache-chief Winnetou. They both came up with a very fine performance and Brice, born in 1929, stayed Winnetou throughout his whole life. He played Winnetou in several sequels and after the Karl May period started to fade he performed this role on several stages in Germany. The music of German composer Martin Böttcher remains one of the best soundtracks ever composed. In 1962 the Winnetou theme stayed at top of the German charts for more than 17 weeks. Böttcher’s soundtrack with its famous title melody played on the harmonica by René Giessen is still breathtaking and works well with the romantic landscape. Principal shooting usually took place in national park Paklenica karst river canyon, Yugoslavia now Croatia. The early films preceded the Spaghetti western.

The storyline of every Karl May film is basically the same. The two friends Winnetou and Old Shatterhand try to solve the problems between red and white people and in the end they succeed, of course. According to Karl May's story, first-person narrator Old Shatterhand encounters Winnetou and after initial dramatic events, a true friendship between Old Shatterhand and the Apache Winnetou arises; on many occasions they give proof of great fighting skill but also of compassion for other human beings. It portrays a belief in an innate ‘goodness’ of mankind. Karl May was with about 200 million copies worldwide one of the best selling German writers of all time.


In the books of Karl May Winnetou became the chief of the tribe of the Mescalero Apaches (and of the Apaches in general, with the Navaho included) after his father Intschu-tschuna and his sister Nscho-tschi were slain by the white bandit Santer. He rode a horse called Iltschi (Wind) and had a famous rifle called "Silberbüchse" (The Silver Gun, a double-barrel rifle whose stock and butt were decorated with silver studs). Old Shatterhand became the blood brother of Winnetou and rode the brother of Iltschi, called Hatatitla (Lightning). Karl May's "Winnetou" novels symbolize, to some extent, a romantic desire for a simpler life in close contact with nature. In fact, the popularity of the series is due in large part to the ability of the stories to tantalize fantasies many Europeans had and have for this more untamed environment. In 2001 a parody of the Winnetou films, Der Schuh des Manitu, was directed by Michael Herbig.


"A thief, an impostor, a sexual pervert, a grotesque prophet of a sham Messiah!"..."The Third Reich is Karl May's ultimate triumph!" wrote Klaus Mann, son of Thomas Mann in 1940. To which Albert Einstein replied: "...even today he has been dear to me in many a desperate hour." Herman Hesse called his books "indispensable and eternal" and the director Carl Zuckmayer even christened his daughter Winnetou in honor of May's great Apache chief. Yet, the English-speaking world is almost totally ignorant of May and his heroes Winnetou, Old Shatterhand or Kara Ben Nemsi and his Arab friend Hadji Halef Omar who shared many an adventure in what is now called Kurdistan just over a hundred years ago. The reason is simple. Almost none of May's books have ever been translated into English.


Sources:Wikipedia, Julian Crandall Hollick (Karl May's Imaginary America), and IMDb.

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Taken on December 25, 2008