Official release date, Friday, November 26th 2021.
Winnetou und sein Freund Old Firehand.
Or Thunder at the Border as it was entitled in the USA and the UK, is a German/Yugoslavian co-produced western, that was released in 1966, when the Euro western was just beginning to become popular in countries such as the UK, Japan, and the USA. It was to be the last of the Winnetou/ Karl May stories to be committed to celluloid.
The brutal Siler gang are responsible for killing four young Apache braves. Old Firehand and his friend Winnetou are determined to bring the murderers to justice. So, they join forces to track down the gang of cutthroats responsible. Directed by Alfred Vohrer, the movie is probably the least popular of the movies in the Winnetou series and came in for much criticism at the time of its release, some referring to it as the lowest point of the entire series. However, in recent years the film has become more acceptable to audiences and even applauded by connoisseurs of the Euro western genre.
The musical score was also at the time of the movie being in theatres given less than positive reviews with composer Peter Thomas replacing the seasoned Winnetou composer Martin Bottcher on this occasion, it being the only Karl May penned western that Thomas would work on, which is not surprising as the composer was in great demand working on numerous TV shows and motion pictures and he also scored other westerns including The Last of the Mohicans.
Winnetou und sein Freund Old Firehand, certainly leaned more towards the violent persona of the Italian western rather than the already established format of the German western, which was looked upon as being tame compared to the Spaghetti western genre. And this is probably the reason there was so much negativity towards the film initially. The opening 10 minutes having a quite high body count for a German western as we see the gang attack a party of Apache led by Winnetou and then are themselves fired upon by Apache’s and Old Firehand and his companions who ambush them killing many and also having one of their own shot dead. Many thought that the German produced westerns which were the forerunners of the Sergio Leone directed films A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More, were too cliched and basically clones of the Hollywood produced western. But, what ever one’s opinion of the German western, it is certain that the genre played a major role in the development of the Italian western and in turn would influence American westerns that were produced after the Spaghetti westerns appeal began to lose momentum, they also influenced filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino in later years. The German western may not have been as raw or even as quirky or inventive as later Italian examples, but it was entertaining and, in most cases, memorable.
It did seem to stick to the time-honoured tradition of heroes and villains, good and bad, with good mostly winning out, and that is why comparisons were drawn up between the American B westerns of the 1950’s and the German produced westerns of the 1960’s. What always struck me about German westerns was the clean-cut heroes even if these were native American characters. Which was completely removed from those American B features and a long way off from movies such as Soldier Blue and Little Big Man. The same can be said for the musical scores, the Martin Bottcher soundtracks having to them a rich and lush sounding melodic persona, the composer creating vibrant and quite lavish sounding compositions that were appealing and haunting, these scores also had sections and passages that contained a degree of dramatic music too, but often the scores were out of step with the action and if I can say this in untechnical terms and without actually criticizing, were often too melodic, the music at times seeming out of place or as if it had been tracked onto the soundtrack without taking into consideration what action was unfolding on screen, it has at times been compared to easy listening music by some and referred to as James Last meets the wild west by others.
The score for Thunder at the Border by Peter Thomas, contains a haunting central theme which was not unlike Bottcher’s themes for Winnetou and Old Shatterhand. Thomas cleverly arranged and adapted his core theme throughout the movie to suit various situations and scenarios, which worked well but comparing these with the direction and sound of the Italian western still seemed slightly out of touch or distant from the storyline on screen. The soundtrack for Thunder at the Border was released on compact disc back in the early 1990’s on the Tarantula label, but was soon deleted, it was then re-issued as part of the Bear Family records western box set, which is now a rare item itself. So, this latest re-issue on LP and CD by All Score in Germany is warmly welcomed, and the label has done such a grand job of presenting it. It not only contains more music but also improved sound quality and boasts some eye arresting artwork and comes in a de-luxe gatefold package for the vinyl releases, I say releases because there is a Turquoise LP and a Black LP being pressed. The vinyl editions containing forty-two tracks and the compact disc release having forty-six tracks. All the tracks have been remastered to a high quality, with the CD version boasting three previously unreleased music tracks that were discovered in the vaults of the Peter Thomas estate as well as a bonus track with the composer himself on piano where he is presenting his first themes and ideas to the film‘s producer (recorded 1966 at Bavaria Tonstudios in Munich).
This is for me and probably for fans of the genre a landmark release and one that will I know give hours of pleasure to fans of composer Peter Thomas and will also act as a reminder of the inventive and innovative talent that the composer possessed. It will also in my opinion attract new fans to the music of Thomas and the Euro western as produced in Germany during the 1960’s.
The style he employed on Winnetou is an entertaining fusion of the symphonic and expansive to which he added pop and upbeat influences and colours, this approach works so well as a score and as a listening experience away from the images. It has to it a blend of sounds that resemble Aaron Copeland’s sprawling and expansive style, Ennio Morricone’s inventiveness and a melodic appealing sound that can be likened to the style employed by Riz Ortolani within many of his film scores. The latter himself scoring a German/Yugoslavian produced western in 1964 entitled The Apache’s Last Battle. It’s a not to be missed release, and hopefully All Score will be releasing more of the scores that Thomas penned in the future. And also more westerns by other composers, Gert Wilden for example.