RED WESTERNS.

I think it would be true to say that we have all heard of the Hollywood western, with the likes of John Wayne and directors such as John Ford and John Sturges, The Italian western, with the likes of Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef, and Sergio Leone at the directorial helm, The German western, with Old Shatterhand, Winnetou and the stories of Karl May being brought to life on screen. The Turkish western which although not set in America and including the likes of bandits in films such as LOVE AND BULLETS, and even The British made western as in THE HELLIONS, THE HUNTING PARTY and SHALAKO to single out just three examples from the UK because there were so many others.

THE HELLIONS was by the way 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, film was set in Australia and Todd played  a British trooper or law official trying to uphold the peace, the music by the way was the work of the harmonica man Larry Adler.

But, what about a genre that is often forgotten, THE RED WESTERN, yes Red, these Russian or Eastern European movies were popular within their countries of origin and also did generate great reactions at the box office in the old Soviet Union. Often filmed in locations that were set up to resemble that of the more traditional look of the western as utilised in American made examples of the genre. These movies would also often focus upon partisans, revolutionaries, or freedom fighters in the period of the Russian civil war or even the particularly ravaging and brutal days of the Russian revolution. These were interesting productions, filled with tales of adventure and featuring acts of heroism, patriotism and contained within their frame-work elements of romance, passion and had to them a lighter side at times.

I do not profess to actually know a great deal about this genre, all I know is I found the concept interesting and wanted to find out more about this collection of movies, and whilst looking at them I also discovered information about composers who were involved in the scoring of these movies, some of which contained innovative and inventive scores, that included symphonic, electronic and vocal tracks. So, I thought I might share this info with you and add my thoughts for what they are worth. The Ostern, as it was called, which came from the German word for east, so I am informed, is a genre of film that took two forms each one following a slightly different path.

As far as I can see a true RED WESTERN was set in the days of the Wild West in America, but although bared some resemblance to the shall we say traditional western, did deal with completely different issues and included varying themes from the Hollywood sage brush saga.

There are many examples of these as in LEMONADE JOE (1964), THE OIL THE BABY AND THE TRANSYLVANIANS (1981), and THE SONS OF GREAT BEAR (1966) which were mainly produced by studios in Czechoslovakia and what was then East Germany. But were at times influenced by westerns that were produced in the west of Germany as in the WINNETOU movies and OLD SHATTERHAND etc.

Then we have THE EASTERNS (Osterns), which were normally set on the windswept steppes of Russia, or the more Asian territories of Russia (USSR) and more often than not were also set in the times of the Russian Revolution or as I have already stated the bloody Civil War that took place in the country after the Revolution. These were presented and inspired by the American made western, Again, there are many examples including, WHITE SUN OF THE DESERT (1970), THE BODYGUARD (1979), THE ELUSIVE AVENGERS (1966) to name but three.    

Initial thoughts on RED WESTERNS were mixed but at times they were often compared with the Italian or Spaghetti westerns, which had become popular from the early 1960’s. Which as we know were themselves inspired by German westerns from the same period. The main reason for the comparison to the Italian productions was the way in which they were filmed and also the locations that were utilised, as in sets were constructed in areas that did not look unlike American settings, but were in fact in either Yugoslavia and Mongolia. Some of the films within the genre did become dubbed Sauerkraut westerns, another take on a food terminology being used to describe a collective of movies, Italian spaghetti, pasta or Macaroni and Spanish westerns, becoming known as Paella Westerns. Characters from the American western as the cowboy and the Indian were often replaced by Bandits and slaves, there was also a sub-genre that was I suppose an equivalent to the OSTERN produced exclusively by Yugoslavian filmmakers called GIBANCIA WESTERNS but this was a short lived, they often would be known as Partisan films, and were set in the second world war, with freedom fighters or resistance fighting the Nazi’s.  Plus, there were also the GOULASH westerns, which were the films of Hungarian filmmaker Gyorgy Szomjas, these were just two movies, THE WIND BLOWS UNDER YOUR FEET and WRONG-DOERS which were both released during the 1970’s.  

But, I begin with an East German western which I thought was entertaining, and also had a great score by composer Hans Dieter Hosalla, APACHEN (1973), was literally flooded with music, but it was music that was well written and it certainly made its mark upon the watching audience as in it supported as well as standing on its own, at times up-beat and even having to it a style not unlike that of Francesco De Masi or Bruno Nicolai. The film itself had the look and some content that I suppose could be looked upon as a watered-down version of the Nathan H. Juran directed movie LANDRAIDERS (1970) and also had elements or little nods of acknowledgement to the WINNETOU films that had been produced a few years previously in West Germany. Directed by Gottfried Kolditz who co wrote the screenplay with the film’s star Gojko Mitic the film was set in the middle of the 19th Century, with the plot focusing upon a treaty that is signed by the Mimbreno-Apaches, the treaty was between the Apaches and a Mexican mining company and gave the Mexicans permission to mine on the land where the Apache lived, but there was some interference and resistance from American geologists, who want the mining rights and set about wiping out the Apache, but their leader Ulunza, (Gojko Mitic) rallies what is left of his warriors and takes revenge on the murderers.

It’s an entertaining watch even if it was just to hear the score, that sadly as far as I am aware was never issued onto a recording. The opening seven minutes or so of the movie was scored with continuous music, which plays over and under the action that was taking place in the pre-credits and also accompanied the film’s opening credits, it’s a mix of both atmospheric, dramatic and melodic. Like the West German examples of westerns the score at times leans towards a more easy listening sound and style, echoing a theme that evokes THE WINNETOU MELODIE at times, but this is in no way a negative as it made it more enjoyable and listenable and also I think made it more prominent. I have looked through the composer’s credits and can’t find any more westerns, but he was continually active within film scoring from the late 1950’s through to the early 1990.s working on a wide variety of genres. APACHEN has a score that is made up of a strong string section that is supported by percussion and brass, the composer also adding electric guitar and at times little nuances of woods that are underlined by shakers of some sort that create a kind of ethnicity linked to the Apaches.

Obviously, one will draw comparisons between this soundtrack and the work of both Peter Thomas and Martin Bottcher who in West Germany were composers that had strong links with many westerns, because there are most certainly distinct similarities.  Plus, the composer on this occasion works into the mix a Spaghetti western undertone, via electric guitar and racing timpani for the action scenes.

Overall the score is in many ways better than the movie it was composed for, the music adds greater excitement and generates a higher level of drama throughout, with Hosalla creating a pulsating and vibrant work which underlines, supports and punctuates the storyline. APACHEN spawned a sequel which was released in 1974.

ULZANA follows on directly after the events of APACHEN. Native American warrior chief Ulzana again played by actor Gojko Mitic has found a place for his Apache tribe in Arizona. The local merchants hire Burton, a corrupt army officer lusting after Ulzana’s Mexican wife, to discredit them and move them out of the territory. The movie was again directed by Gottfried Kolditz and contained a musical score courtesy of Karl-Ernst Klasse who worked on other East German western movies such as DER SCOUT in 1983.

A western that was based upon true events, in which the U.S Cavalry carried out the genocide of the Native American Indians. The film was quite powerful and the score too commanding.  From an East German production to one that is categorised as an Eastern, and a movie that was produced in The Soviet Union, THE WHITE SUN OF THE DESERT (1970) is possibly the most well-known Eastern, and it is a film that to be honest is interesting, it is billed as a comedy although the movie is a mix of comedy music and drama, it has many attributes and does not stay exclusively within the comedic genre of film, but I would say that comedy is the thing that maybe is the binding element of the movie. But I reference again the Italian western, and the success it achieved because it too mixed genres within many of its films, and even within its ultra-violent examples made room for both romance, and comedy.

THE WHITE SUN OF THE DESERT does not focus upon one character, it has within its storyline a number of individuals, all of whom during the course of the movie are given tasks or set challenges to which all of them rise. It is a film that tells a story of dedication and of a sense of duty and pride. Initially Mos-film studios turned the project down, but then enlisted the help of different writers to tweak the storyline and make it more acceptable to audiences and the officialdom of the period. The plot purveyed a notion that if people all work together, they can achieve most things. The music was by composer Issac Schwartz and had lyrics written by Bulat Okuczhava. The song VASHE BLAGORDIYE GOSPOZHA RAZLUKA become well known in Russia which was performed by Pavel Luspekayev on the soundtrack, as far as I  can see no soundtrack was released outside of Russia, but maybe there were recordings of the score made available in the Soviet Union at the time of the film’s release, it is said that the movie was a favourite of Russian Premier Brezhnev and was giving a special screening in the United States at the little Carnegie theatre when he visited the country.

Issac Schwartz

The movie had a limited release internationally, mainly in Europe and Japan, and was only released in Brazil in 2017. The only other South American country in which it was screened was Argentina back in 1974. The musical score is at times romantic and contains several themes that are central to the work each embellishing and complimenting each other, the composer utilising strings and woodwind and then lacing this with more traditional instrumentation such as Balalaika.

Its an interesting soundtrack and the film too is at times a little thought provoking.  It’s an unfortunate state of affairs that the soundtracks for these westerns were not released, or if they were maybe not commercially or even outside of the Soviet Union, maybe the tapes still exist?  Maybe they have been lost or worse still destroyed. The genre of the RED WESTERN I think would be a popular one now if the movies were to be given an airing at independent theatres or even dusted off and shown on a specialist TV channel in the same way that Alex Cox introduced British audiences to the likes of DJANGO and other such characters from the Italian western collective on late night TV back in the 1990’s. But maybe because it is Russia and maybe things associated with the old Soviet Union are frowned upon a little these great scores will never see the light of day. These are after all tales of revolution, of civil war etc or at least the storylines are set against the background of these events.

 So, onto another movie, and this time to THE ELUSIVE AVENGERS, from 1966 tells the story of four friends who become heroes in the days of the Civil War in Russia. Directed by Edmond Keosayan and produced by Mos-film, the movie is based upon elements of the novel RED DEVILETS which was written by Pavel Blyakhin, the story had already been committed to celluloid in 1923 using the title of the novel.  The four friends who are youngsters pledge that they will help each other and are determined to have revenge on bandits who have tortured and murdered the Father of one of the boys. The bandits are causing chaos and terrifying the people in the village where the four friends come from. The comrades embark on various adventures to slow the bandits in their persecution of the villagers.

The film spawned two sequels, THE NEW ADVENTURES OF THE ELUSIVE FOUR  (1968) and  THE CROWN OF THE RUSSIAN EMPIRE or ONCE AGAIN THETHE ELUSIVE AVENGERS (1971), which were equally as successful as the original, the four friends are hailed as heroes and at the end of the first movie and are honoured by the Red Army, who straight away recruit them into their ranks, the film ends with the four riding off into the sunset in true Hollywood western style to the strains of a patriotic song, ready again to fight for their beliefs and their country.

The music is by composer Boris Mokrousov, who was born in Russia in the February of 1909. He scored , several movies in his career among the most well known are, BRIDE WITH A DOWRY from 1953 VESNA NA ZARECHNOV from 1956 and NEULOVIMYE  MSTITELI which was released in 1967, a year before the composer died on March 27th 1968 in Moscow.  The score for THE ELUSIVE AVENGERS is a dramatic one with the strings and brass section of the orchestra establishing strong and action fuelled themes, the end scenes of the movie involving the four friends escaping on a train and being chased by bandits intent on killing them all is impressive and is scored continuously with fast paced unrelenting symphonic music, in which the composer repeats a six note motif performed by rasping brass and underlined and supported by percussion and brass, in many way the music for me personally resembles the style of Maurice Jarre, with the utilisation of resounding percussive elements that are the foundation of this vibrant and robust soundtrack.

To 1966 now and THE SONS OF THE GREAT BEAR, this is a prime example of a RED WESTERN as it is set in the wild west or at least locations that are similar to the wild west as it is perceived. The movie is I have to say more or less a version of the Winnetou Karl May stories, although no credit was given to either. The movie had a highly melodic score, again it mirrored the work of West German composer’s Bottcher and Thomas who’s easy listening and dramatic stylised music had been so effective and popular, but at times the score which was written by Wilhelm Neef although very good did not work in the best interests of the action of screen, for example fight sequences and action scenes were scored with nice little tunes, that possibly would be distracting to audiences rather than heightening any mood for the movie simply because the sound and the style of the music was not exactly fitting for the scenarios being acted out on screen.  Nevertheless, it is a score that I for one would purchase in a heartbeat the composer utilising strings, percussion and brass to create a beautiful sounding score, with certain scenes being run with no dialogue or effects to allow the music to tell the story, which at certain point was successful. There were two compilations issued on compact disc that contained some of Neef’s music but these are long deleted.

The composer was born on January 28th, 1916 in Cologne which was then in the Empire of Germany, he wrote a number of film scores which were all for East German production companies, his musical career began in 1951, and he scored his first movie in 1954 which was entitled ERNST THALMANN SOHN SEINER KLASSE, he remained active as a composer until 1990, but scored his last motion picture in 1971, which was HUSAREN IN BERLIN. The composer died on 20th March 1990 in Potsdam East Germany.

THE SONS OF THE GREAT BEAR or DIE SIHNE DER GROBEN BARIN was directed by the Czech film maker Josef Mach and starred Yugoslavian actor Goiko Mitic takes the leading role and is I suppose the East German equivalent to Pierre Brice (Winnetou). It is a revisionist western, and a film that was a pioneering effort within the Ostern genre of movies which emphasises the positive role of the native American Indian and portrays the Whites as the aggressors and antagonists, it was and still is one of the most successful films to be produced by the DEFA film studios.

The composer Neef also scored CHINGACHCOOK THE GREAT SNAKE another western/drama that was released the following year and was also produced by the DEFA studios, with Goiko Mitic in the title role. The score once again was serviceable, with numerous melodic moments, the composer again relying upon strings, woods and brass to create music that depicted the great outdoors and enhanced the lavish locations in which the movie was shot. The score also included a rousing march which accompanied the French soldiers in the movie and a regal sounding composition that represented the British which also acted as the movies central theme. The film was set in the period of the Anglo-French war which was the war between the French and the British on American soil, between 1778 and 1783 so the music was perfect for the storyline

So, I have scratched the surface for you, maybe enough for you to become curious about this genre and investigate further, who knows, if you do decide to delve into the RED WESTERN check out LEMONADE JOE, THE HEADLESS HORSEMAN, ULZANA etc and see what you think of the movies and their scores.