Before Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns were worldwide hits in the 1960s, there had already been a hugely successful European overhaul of the American western format by a series of West German westerns shot in the ‘wild west’ of Yugoslavia and based on the works of Karl May. His frontier novels depicted the adventures of Mascalero Apache warrior Winnetou and his white ‘blood brother’, Old Shatterhand. In other stories, such as Among Vultures, Winnetou is teamed with another hero, Old Surehand. When 11 of the stories were filmed in the 1960s, Winnetou was played by French actor Pierre Brice, Lex Barker was Old Shatterhand and Stewart Granger was Old Surehand. The first film, The Treasure of Silver Lake (1962) was a massive success – it was the most profitable film of all time in West Germany, outgrossing even the James Bond films, and is still popular today. The second film, Winnetou the Warrior, aka Apache Gold (1963) with Mario Adorf as the villain Frederick Santer, was an even bigger hit and remains the best of the adaptations. The series continued with Last of the Renegades (1964), which had perhaps the best cast – it featured Anthony Steel, Karin Dor, Klaus Kinski and Terence Hill in supporting roles. Among Vultures (1964 – aka Frontier Hellcat) saw Granger take over from Barker as the hero, and Elke Somer, Götz George, Sieghardt Rupp, Terence Hill and Walter Barnes cropped up in the cast.
Amazon UK is currently an interesting four-film set of German ‘Winnetou’ westerns. These films have never had an official release in the UK since they played in theatres in the 1960s. The release is a Danish collector’s edition, is good value and comprises:
The uncut, restored version of Last of the Renegades, in 2.35:1 CinemaScope, with a full English language track.
The uncut, restored version of Among Vultures, in 2.35:1, with a full English language track.
The uncut version of The Treasure of Silver Lake, in 2.35:1. This one is mostly in English, but there are several brief dialogues in German only, with no English language subtitles. I much prefer the shorter International release of this film, which is missing the bits of comedy from Ralf Wolter’s irascible scout Sam Hawkens and Eddie Arent’s butterfly collector, the Duke of Glockenspiel. If you look on Euro-western collector’s DVD sites, you’ll find the abridged international print easily enough. This DVD release is still an excellent version of the film however and the diversions into German don’t spoil this magnificent Euro-western too much – especially given that the film features unsubtitled Indian dialect mixed in there too and the plot is straightforward enough to follow.
Winnetou the Warrior (1963) is also the uncut German version, in 2.35:1, but this differs considerably from the English language release. Much was cut for the International print which is now pacier, with no diversions for comedy. The German version runs 107 minutes, the English language release 87. The full German language version features Chris Howland as an effete, bumbling English photographer, Lord Tuff-Tuff, who is trying to take pictures of Indians for the Oxford Times – all his awful comedy scenes were removed from the international cut of the film. There’s also many bits of German dialogue, from asides to full conversations, from Howland and scout Ralf Wolter (notably a scene where he romances a plump Apache squaw) which mar the pace (and have no English language subs). This is a good example of an International edit prepared for foreign distribution vastly improving a film. If you’re buying this solely for Winnetou the Warrior, then you’d be better off looking for the abridged English language print. The film is worth seeing however for the best set piece of all the ‘Winnetou’ films, the spectacular Battle of Roswell.
The DVD set also includes behind-the-scenes bonus footage (no sound), a short doc on Karl May, and original trailers, all in German with no English subs. The four Winnetou disks are also wrongly labelled, with the film titles indicated differing from those on the disk, but all four films are there. As a bonus, the set also includes Sergio Corbucci’s wintry western The Great Silence (1967) in English language, in a wooden collector’s box.
The four Winnetou movies offer an interesting snapshot at what Euro-westerns looked like before Leone. They boast excellent, percussive scores from Martin Böttcher, some of the greatest CinemaScope and Eastmancolor cinematography of the 1960s, stunning locations in areas of outstanding natural beauty in the former Yugoslavia, and of course plenty of action.
To buy this set, visit Amazon UK.
There’s more about the ‘Winnetou’ films in my book, Once Upon a Time in the Italian West: The Filmgoers’ Guide to Spaghetti Westerns.