The imperative to put butts into theater seats is apparently one that has been shared by film industries throughout the world, regardless of what political system they operated under. And whether those butts were capitalist or communist seems to have made little difference. Thus it was, in 1966, that East Germany’s state run DEFA studio decided to try their hand at what had been widely considered an exclusively American genre, the Western, in an attempt to entice those audiences who had been staying away from their usual, more dryly ideological fare in droves with more thrilling, action-oriented entertainments.
Of course, DEFA had no intention of aping Hollywood’s approach to that genre, and would ultimately put their own, distinctive spin on it. Going a long way toward achieving that was their decision to tell their film’s story from the point of view of its Native American characters, with whites settlers serving as the villains, a conceit that would also provide a convenient platform for critiques of American imperialism and greed. But lest you think that choice was just a cynical appropriation of a suffering people’s history for crass political ends, let me point out that there was an abiding German fascination with Native Americans and their culture that had existed since long before the communist divide, the responsibility for which can pretty much be placed at the doorstep of one man.
It’s difficult to touch upon a figure like Karl May in passing, because the temptation is so great to simply reel off the strange and colorful details of his life at the expense of the subject at hand. But for the sake of brevity, let’s just say that, prior to becoming one of Germany’s most popular authors ever, Karl May had seen his share of hard times, and was no stranger to the inside of a prison cell. His tendency to be light-fingered had scuttled his teaching career early on, leaving him to fall back upon a well established habit of thievery and fraud that some today believe was the byproduct of a clinical personality disorder.
The years 1869 through 1870 saw May embark on a particularly impressive crime spree, during which he repeatedly employed a ruse in which he posed as a police lieutenant to confiscate “counterfeit” deutschmarks from various shopkeepers. After a run from the law that involved the employment of disguises and a number of narrow escapes, May was finally captured and sentenced to four years in the Waldheim penitentiary. It was during this stay that May, inspired by the works of James Fenimore Cooper and travel accounts of the American West, discovered and refined his gift as a teller of adventure stories. Soon after he was released, he began writing the first of a phenomenally popular series of novels, the most enduring of which would featuring a noble Apache chief named Winnetou and his white, German-born blood brother Old Shatterhand.
Of course, given that May had never once set foot on American soil at the time of writing them, the Winnetou stories were far from documentary in terms of their representations of frontier life, and of the lives of indigenous Americans in particular. They were in fact tainted by sentimentality and rife with “noble savage” clichés, to the point that he even had Winnetou renounce his Indian spirituality and convert to Christianity at one point. Still, they were unusual in their time for their sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans and their acknowledgement of the depredations perpetrated upon them by the white man. They were also imaginative enough in their telling to inspire many of the Germans who read them to take an interest in Native American culture beyond what was described in their pages. Some of those readers even went on to form “Indianerclubs” — a number of which still exist today — whose mostly white members would not only immerse themselves in that culture but also dedicate their holidays to trying to emulate it as best they could.
It was inevitable that the characters from May’s Western adventures would eventually make their way to the big screen, and, in 1962, West Germany’s Rialto Film Preben-Philipsen made it so, initiating a series of films that were to become wildly popular throughout Europe. The majority of these starred French actor Pierre Brice in the role of Winnetou and American actor — and former Tarzan — Lex Barker as Old Shatterhand, and used locations in Yugoslavia to sub for the American West. Eventually coming to comprise eleven entries in all, they came to be known as the Winnetou Films, and are generally considered to be the seed from which the Italian Spaghetti Western sprang, a connection driven home by the presence within them of such genre stalwarts as Klaus Kinski and Terence Hill.
DEFA saw their own first venture into the Western genre — or Indianerfilm — as a response to, rather than an emulation of, the Winnetou films, and were determined to outshine their West German counterparts in terms of the historical accuracy and authenticity of their product. To this end, they chose as their source material The Sons of Great Bear, a young person’s novel written by East German author and historian Liselotte Welskopf Henrich that was at the time considered to be scrupulous in its depiction of Native American life and customs. Veteran Czech director Josef Mach was invited to take the reins of the picture and, to star as its hero, the fearless and incorruptible Sioux warrior Tokei-Ihto, a chance was taken on an unknown young Yugoslavian actor named Gojko Mitic.
Yugoslavia was a popular — i.e. cheap and accessible — shooting location for foreign producers at the time, and when representatives of the British production Lancelot and Guinevere came to the Belgrade sports academy where he was training, looking for a stunt double for star Cornel Wilde, Mijic, an accomplished student athlete with the necessary riding skills, suddenly found himself in the film business. From there he went on to do stunt work and bit roles in a variety of films, including a number of Italian Peplums, before making his way into the Winnetou films. Mitic started out in small, uncredited parts in the Karl May Westerns, but worked his way up to the point where he had a substantial supporting role in 1964’s Frontier Hellcats (aka Unter Geiern), which is presumably where the producers of The Sons of Great Bear first caught sight of him.
The Sons of Great Bear‘s action takes place against the backdrop of the U.S. government’s forced relocation of the Dakota Sioux in the aftermath of the discovery of gold in the Black Hills. a territory that was considered hallowed ground by the Sioux, and which had formerly been protected by a treaty entered into in the days before it was thought to have any value by white settlers. Tokei-Ihto’s Bear Band is one of a number of groups of Sioux who are determined to resist the relocation by any means necessary, and as a result they become a target of, not only the U.S. Military, but also the scruffy and shifty-eyed bunch of frontiersmen charged with doing their dirty work. The most scruffy and shifty eyed of all of these is Clarke, aka The Red Fox, a rogue who seeks to weaken the tribe by tempting its members into alcoholism and vice, and who, in the film’s prologue, is shown to have murdered Tokei-Ihto’s father. Clarke is played by Czech actor Jiri Vrstala with a level of menace convincing enough that I was given considerable pause to learn that he had for years played a popular children’s character called Clown Ferdinand both on East German TV and in the movies. Based on his performance here, it’s easy to imagine that being made to watch Clown Ferdinand was, for East German children, just a more modern equivalent of being taken behind the woodshed.
After Tokei-Ihto leads a successful raid against a scouting party lead by the scheming Lieutenant Roach (Gerhard Rachold), he is betrayed by the Bear Band’s elders and delivered to Roach and his men under the pretext of negotiating a treaty. Roach has him imprisoned, then has his people driven by force from their land and moved to the barren, rock-strewn reservation that the government has assigned to them. Tokei-Ihto is eventually freed, thanks in part to the sympathetic efforts of conscientious frontiersman Adams (Horst Jonischkan), and becomes determined to lead his band across the Missouri River to make a better home. Such exodus, of course, does not conform to the plans of the white authorities, and so Clarke and his men set out to thwart it, leading to a final, violent confrontation between Tokei-Ihto and his father’s killer.
For a fledgling genre attempt by a company accustomed to producing output of a very different kind, The Sons of Great Bear is remarkably sure-footed, the only evidence of its status as a novice effort being a narrative rhythm that is at times a bit odd and halting. I think that’s in part a result of the filmmakers trying to deliver the required amount of kinetic thrills while at the same time providing the necessary historical background. It must be said, though, that there appears to have been an assumption on their part that the film’s audience would come to it with at least some knowledge of that background, because what information there is, is far from spoon-fed to us. The movie jumps right into its action without preface, and what historical context there is has to be gleaned from odd exchanges of dialogue that pop up between those scenes that move the story along. Of course, this does not prevent the producers from earning their government paychecks via some heavy handed political messages — including a couple of lines that could easily be interpreted as making analogies to Vietnam. But it’s fairly clear that those producers were at the same time fully cognizant of the fact that they would lose their audience if those messages were delivered at the expense of the expected amount of gun fights, Indian raids, and fancy riding by the movie’s athletic star.
While it may be that the creative team behind the film didn’t quite have a grasp on the classic Western’s vigorous pacing, it is clear that they had an understanding of it’s grandiose scale and mythic dimensions. Cinematographer Juroslav Tuzar’s lyrical widescreen compositions take the film’s Montenegro locations and imbue them with a sense of limitless expanse appropriate to the metaphorical American landscape they stand in for. The images are at times so captivating that the filmmakers themselves seem to have become entranced, resulting in a number of overly lingering shots that further contribute to the film’s odd ebb and flow. Soundtrack composer Wilhelm Neef matches this effort with a score that shows he can step up to the plate when majestic sweep is required, though he also manages to serves up some of the type of rinky-tink cheese that we’ve come to expect from the Germans during this era, including a weird little, ska-tinged tune that accompanies Tokei-Ihto’s raid on Lieutenant Roach’s scouting party.
But, handsome trappings aside, it is the performance of star Gojko Mitic upon which The Sons of Great Bear stands or falls. And Mitic, somewhat miraculously, comes through. Saddled with the burden of portraying a character who is more monument than man — essentially the spirit personified of his noble and long suffering people — Mitic shoulders an onus that would have toppled many more experienced actors and perseveres. Given that the stoic Tokei-Ihto is a classic man of few words, this involves on Mitic’s part the projection of an unnervingly steadfast soulful intensity — or, if you’re feeling less charitable, the employment of a fixed, blank stare that is given intensity by weight of Mitic’s undeniable natural charisma.
In any case, less of Tokei-Ihto’s communication is done through looks than action, and the latter proves to be a language to which Mitic is ideally suited. Despite being required to do what had to be a truly grueling amount of stunt work, Mitic accomplishes a dizzying assortment of perilous moves with all the grace and agility suited to the fearless, nearly superhuman warrior he’s charged with portraying, whether he be leaping down upon his prey from a perch high in the trees, or jumping from the saddle of one charging horse to another. It also doesn’t hurt that Mitic, sculpted from head to toe and half naked for much of the film, is an exquisite physical specimen, an ocular treat for anyone with an appreciation for the male form regardless of their gender or preference. Red blooded guys who fear that a film like this might leave them tainted by exposure to socialist propaganda can rest assured; Watching The Sons of Great Bear won’t make you a commie. However, it just might turn you gay.
While it’s true that Tokei-Ihto is more of an idealized archetype than a flawed human being, and his primary nemesis, Clarke, is a purely evil, melodramatic villain of the highest order, it cannot be said that, beyond that, The Sons of Great Bear presents its conflict in strictly black and white — or white and red — terms. Aside from sympathetic white characters like the aforementioned Adams and the American major’s daughter Cate Smith, both of whom give aid to Tokei-Ihto at various points, we are also shown traitorous Indians who work alongside the whites, as well as dissension and infighting within the tribe, such as that which leads to the elders betraying Tokei-Ihto. Neither can it be said that the conflict between the whites and the Indians is framed as simply one between the powerful and the weak, as the lot of Clarke and his fellow frontiersmen, facing encroaching irrelevance in the form of the coming railroad and the establishment of European-style “civilization”, is shown to be in some ways more miserable than that of the persecuted Indians, who at least have their rich culture and deep bonds of community to fall back upon. Of course, one doesn’t need to dig too far beneath this to find the underlying message that capital and its brute machinations are the real villains, but the filmmakers should be given credit for not sacrificing complexity in favor of creating characters that simply stand in for ideological talking points.
Of course, the major stumbling block to appreciating The Sons of Great Bear‘s many positives is the fact that all of its Native Americans are so obviously pasty white Europeans in redface and black wigs. But anyone who has been able to overlook that type of minstrelsy in American Westerns — which was usually in the service of a far less sensitive portrayal — shouldn’t have too much of a problem with it, even though I admit that it was hard getting used to hearing guttural German phonemes issuing from these Indians’ mouths. Aside from this probably unavoidable casting quirk, though, the film does a fairly good job of avoiding becoming little more than a camp artifact. True, a couple of Wilhelm Neef’s musical cues, as already mentioned, are a bit on the cheesy side, and there is a regrettable man-in-a-suit bear mauling scene, but overall the movie comes across as a well made and exciting adventure, with an interesting perspective, that has much more to offer than simple kitsch value.
By the time filming on The Sons of Great Bear was nearing its end, Gojko Mitic, who considered the film a one-off effort on his part, had had it. The actor would later admit to some churlish onset behavior brought on by homesickness and impatience. Given that, it was probably a “good news/bad news” situation for him when the film went on to meet with a success that was far beyond the expectations of anyone involved in it. Overnight, Mitic had become the most popular film star in East Germany, and the East German Indianerfilm DEFA’s most in-demand genre. Eleven more such films would follow, all starring Mitic in roles very similar to the one he portrayed in Great Bear, ending with 1983’s Der Scout. Despite the fact that he would eventually front a wide variety of films for DEFA — including Gottfried Kolditz‘s science fiction epic Signals: A Space Adventure — he would come to be commonly referred to as “The most famous Native American in Eastern Europe”, and would appear on German television as recently as 2006 in the role of Karl May’s Winnetou. Because of this, Mitic can count as part of his legacy the fact that, for a certain generation of Germans, he changed the rules of playing “Cowboys and Indians” forever.
Release Year: 1966 | Country: East Germany | Starring: Gojko Mitic, Jiri Vrstala, Rolf Romer, Hans Hardt-Hardtloff, Gerhard Rachold, Horst Jonischkan, Josef Majercik, Josef Adamovic, Milan Jablonsky, Hannjo Hasse, Helmut Schreiber, Jozo Lepetic, Rolf Ripperger, Brigitte Krause, Karin Beewen | Writer: Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich | Director: Josef Mach | Cinematographer: Jaroslav Tuzar | Music: Wilhelm Neef