SAUERKRAUT SAGEBRUSH SAGAS.(westerns from Germany).




Before the Italian western there was the Spanish made western(Paella) ie; SAVAGE PAMPAS and also at around the same time during the early 1960’s we had German made western. But lets not forget movies that fall into the western category that were made by British film makers, Yes British westerns, examples of these include, THE OVERLANDERS (1946) and THE HELLIONS (1961), which although not set in the old west but in Australia and South Africa respectively, both were essentially westerns, THE OVERLANDERS in more modern times but still had elements that could be referred to as being western genre orientated. THE HELLIONS was more of a traditional western with a storyline similar to the classic movie HIGH NOON, the role of the law man being taken by Richard Todd who played a policeman or trooper in a small town and the bad guys who were looking for him included Lionel Jefferies, James Booth, Marty Wilde and Colin Blakely, it was an effective yarn which was directed well by the accomplished film maker Ken Annakin, with Lionel Jefferies producing a convincing performance as an evil and vindictive outlaw who with his out of control offspring is out for revenge, the music by the way was the work of the harmonica man Larry Adler.




The British western did not stop there in fact British directors produced some effective movies within the genre that included THE HUNTING PARTY in 1971 which starred Oliver Reed and Candice Bergan, Director Don Medford created a violent and at times harrowing movie that was influenced by the then already popular Italian made western. A MAN CALLED NOON (1973) was also deemed to be a British western because of the director Peter Collinson, and lets not forget THE SAVAGE GUNS which although was shot in Spain was also British because of its links with director Michael Carreras of Hammer films fame, music for this was the work of Anton Garcia Abril who also worked on a couple of Spaghetti westerns.



Then there was GUNFIGHTERS OF CASA GRANDE which was scored by British light music man Johnny Douglas. It is a pity that neither SAVAGE GUNS or CASA GRANDE soundtracks have ever been released in any format, and maybe this would be a project for a small label at some point in time. Then of course we had CARRY ON COWBOY and not forgetting THE SHERIFF OF FRACTURED JAW from 1958, which was a joint venture between British and German studios and starred Kenneth Moore with a score by Kenneth V Jones and Robert Farnon, who incidentally scored SHALAKO in 1968 and another British western to boot with Sean Connery and Brigitte Bardot in the leading roles. And whilst Brigitte Bardot is being discussed there was also a French western entitled THE LEGEND OF FRENCHIE KING which also starred Claudia Cardinale and had a rather energetic soundtrack courtesy of Francis Lai.


A story that was kind of recycled in 2006 for the French/American/Mexican movie BANDIDAS, which starred Penelope Cruz, and there was Brigitte Bardot again in VIVA MARIA and lets not forget the western scores of French composer Andre Hossein which included CEMETARY WITHOUT CROSSES and had a catchy song performed by Scott Walker, plus LE GOUT DE LA VIOLENCE (THE TASTE OF VIOLENCE). Both of which were directed by the composers Son Robert.


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Before we go to the German western, Britain can claim a western with a difference , well was it a western, MOON ZERO TWO was billed by Hammer as a Western in space, yep, anyway moving swiftly on lets go to the German westerns.  I think this collection of movies from German film-makers was equally as entertaining and also important as the Italian western in shaping and influencing future western productions. The German made western was quite different from the Spaghetti western, it was more of an extension of the American produced western.



The genre more or less mirrored the Hollywood western borrowing themes and plots from the likes of John Ford and John Sturges, whereas the Italian western when it had properly established itself was to become not simply a genre filled with lookalike films based on tired cliches from the Hollywood cowboy films, but would end up actually influencing future American produced examples. German westerns were clean cut and had somewhat recycled plots that audiences had seen so many times in one form or another and although these worked and became hugely popular they still had a distinct Americanized flavour and appearance to them, this was apparent when we see the good guys wearing white hats and being clean cut and the bad guys often wearing black and being unshaven or unkempt in their appearance oh yes and the good guys always won. The most popular movies that came out of Germany were the cinematic interpretations based upon the writings of Karl May, these were WINNETOU, OLD SHATTERHAND and SUREHAND.



The musical scores for these Sauerkraut sage brush sagas was the work of just a handful of composers which included Gert Wilden but most notably Martin Bottcher and Peter Thomas, or at least these are the three composers that most associate with the genre. The music that these three highly talented composer, arranger conductors provided, was in many ways as cliched as the films that they worked upon within the western genre. The melodies being romantically adorned and sweeping but at the same time containing an almost easy going pace. The themes were even melodic when dramatically infused, the composers relying upon the string section and also the use of bold sounding brass and percussion punctuated by bass guitar to fashion a sound that had significant links to Americana but also had to it a slightly clinical persona and a contemporary freshness. Bottcher in my opinion was the more original sounding of the three at least when scoring westerns, his music for the movie WINNETOU ll in particular being outstanding.




Music in the German western as I have already stated did draw on elements and styles that were present in American films, German composers often utilising established instrumentation that was associated with the western as in harmonica and jaunty sounding saloon pianos. However, whereas they would employ it in a more traditional manner, Italian composers such as Ennio Morricone very often put a twist on the situation to create some sinister moods and atmospheres as in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, where the harmonica becomes the pre-cursor to a death or a moment of violence rather than an easy going little ditty that acted as a background to camera shots of grasslands and deserts. I know it sounds as if I am not a fan of the German western score, but that is not the case. The music in German westerns was consistently very good, but maybe was not raw enough or even different enough for it to truly stand out apart from a handful of examples. Years ago THE BEAR FAMILY record label issued a number of soundtracks from westerns, which were quickly deleted and are now rare items. There were also soundtracks such as THUNDER ON THE BORDER or Winnetou and Old Firehand to give it its original title issued on compact disc which had a score by composer Peter Thomas that was wonderfully written and served the movie adequately and had the bonus of being great music to listen to away from the film.

I also think that the German western scores did have an important part in influencing a handful of Italian composers in the early days of the Spaghetti western genre, and one can hear these influences in the early scores of De Masi and also to a degree Ferrio, even Morricone employed a slightly Americanized sounding score in GUNFIGHT AT RED SANDS, so I suppose we have to ask if he was influenced by Steiner, Bernstein or Bottecher during this period of his career. Italian composer Riz Ortolani worked on a German production entitled, THE APACHES LAST BATTLE or OLD SHATTER HAND in 1964, and scored GUNFIGHT AT HIGH NOON in the same year for German film makers and then worked with Spanish director Jose Luis Borau on Cavalca e Uccidi, which was three years previous to the composer scoring DAY OF ANGER the violent western that starred actor Lee Van Cleef. The German western score was also notorious for including a number of cues that I refer to as square dance tracks, ie fiddles and happy sounding ho down/hill billy pieces, which granted did have a place in the films but were slightly annoying after a while, but we all know that every genre or score for whatever film contains cues that can be annoying or aggravating.


The scores for the WINNETOU movies for example were big on percussion, strings and brass and at times the themes being performed were more akin to the sound of the big band or easy listening bands such as James Last and Bert Kaempfert rather than music to accompany galloping horses on the open prairies, but surprisingly it worked. WINNETOU movies contained some beautiful thematic moments and were written, orchestrated and performed marvellously, but as I have said there was a rawness and a power lacking that was present in the Spaghetti western soundtracks. Compare WINNETOU to NAVAJO JOE for example, WINNETOU had its sprawling melodies and its Percy Faith sound-a-like moments, and then NAVAJO JOE came along and we were treated to screams, yells and harsh sounding electric guitar riffs that were supported by booming percussion and earthy vocalising and chanting. You may say well, these were two very different movies and to a degree I have to say yes you are correct, but both involved native American Indians, the German movie again treating them as they had been portrayed in American films, the Italian take however was far removed from the Hollywood examples, with a high body count and graphic violence and the Indian (Burt Reynolds) coming out on top against a band of bloodthirsty scalp hunters.


The German western was successful, but was it original or as innovative and ground breaking as the Spaghetti I think not. But, please do not think that I am saying the German productions did not play their part in the reinvention of the western genre as a whole, if Italian film makers had not seen the success these movies were having maybe they would not have thought about producing their own, who knows.


So I suppose the German western was responsible for the eventual return of the western and becoming popular once again with cinema audiences and maybe without the German western films such as THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, THE QUICK AND THE DEAD, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, THE UNFORGIVEN, VALDEZ IS COMING and YOUNG GUNS would not have been made. So now to the music of WINNETOU, SHATTERHAND and SUREHAND.


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To recommend any one soundtrack release would be rather re-miss as there are so many, so maybe a compilation would be the right direction to go in, there are numerous collections of German western movie music on sites such as Spotify and I Tunes as these days a physical compact disc of these might be hard to come by. Which is a great pity as a collection or series of discs containing the music of Thomas, Wilden and Bottcher for the western would be most welcome. Bottcher wrote the music for ten westerns during the 1960’s the movies starred numerous well known actors and featured Lex Barker and Stewart Granger in principal roles with Pierre Brice playing WINNETOU. Bottchers tuneful soundtracks aided the films greatly and arguably paved the way for the composers such as Morricone, Nicolai. De Masi etc.

After the German western bubble burst in the early to mid 1960’s Bottcher started to work in television and made a name for himself as a composer of upbeat TV themes and scores for television films and series. Peter Thomas however worked on three westerns or four if you include UNCLE TOMS CABIN which he scored in 1965. The other three being, THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS and THE LAST TOMAHAWK which were made for German TV in 1965 and the excellent THUNDER ON THE BORDER in 1966. Thomas is an all round musician and composer arranger and has been in much demand throughout his career scoring well over 70 movies and also working in TV. His scores for the Edgar Wallace series being his best known. The score for THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS has to it a contemporary sound, with a kind of big band style in places, but it also contains cues which are highly melodic and filled with a grandiose atmosphere, the composer expressing the feelings of being in the great outdoors via horns and strings, Thomas also writes great action cues, in this score he utilises driving strings and thundering percussion with electric guitar and brass punctuating and adding a commanding sound to the proceedings. Plus we are treated to a lilting and haunting theme that is performed by the string section which are recorded with a slight echo, the composer also utilises woodwind to great affect. There is a jazz orientated persona within the score and although it does not really fully develop it is present throughout, solo trumpet to is a feature of the score along with banjo. The percussive elements within the work are impressive with Thomas being inventive and original in the way in which he deploys them. Most of the cues are relatively short, some only having a running time of about a minute and a half. Its a funny thing but when I listen to the likes of Thomas, Wilden and Bottcher I do get the distinct feeling that in there somewhere is a JAMES LAST track fighting to get out.



Gert Wilden wrote a fast paced and theme filled score for the 1965 movie THE BLACK EAGLE OF SANTA FE which was more akin to an Italian western score than anything that had come out of Hollywood, again filled with strings and resounding brass lines that were supported by percussion and upbeat tempos throughout. The soundtrack is available on Spotify in the Kino Klassics series and it  was issued on compact disc but has been deleted for a few years now and is hard to find.  If you have not seen a German western or heard the music from at least one, now is the time to do so.

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