Western Under the Red Banner

in 14th Kinotavr Open Russian Film Festival

by Rashmi Doraiswamy

First there was the western. Then there was the spaghetti western. But few know that there was also the socialist western. The magic of the genre extended to many of the countries of the erstwhile socialist bloc. According to Sergei Lavrentiev, Programme Director of the festival, the western spread from West Germany to East Germany and from there on to the other socialist states and was very popular from the sixties to the eighties. Films like ‘Lemonade Joe’ (Oldrich Lipsky / Czechoslovakia /1964), a pastiche of the western, according to him, were hits in the USA as well.

The action in the films takes place in the USA or in the countries where they were made. ‘The Prairie’ (France-Romania / Pierre-Gaspard Huit / 1968), ‘Chingachgook – The Big Snake’ (East Germany / Richard Groschopp / 1967), ‘White Wolves’ (East Germany – Yugoslavia / Konrad Petsold / 1969), ‘Old Surehand’ (East Germany-Yugoslavia / Alfred Vohrer / 1965) were some of the films in which the plots are set in the USA. It is also interesting that the character of Chingachgook, the trustworthy Indian, who plays the second fiddle to the white man, is repeated in several films (in this festival, ‘The Big Snake’ from East Germany and ‘The Prairie’ from France-Romania). The socialist western differs from many of the early Hollywood westerns in its attitude towards the Indians: they are not represented as backward and antagonistic. The narrative drive of the plot centres rather around group rivalries.

The Soviet films, on the other hand, mostly refer to the period of the Civil War or the period immediately after the Civil War. ‘Seventh Bullet’ (Ali Khamraev / 1972), ‘Red Poppies of Issyk-Kul’ (Bolotbek Shamsiev / 1971), ‘In Search of the Wind’ (Vladimir Lyubomudrov / 1978), ‘The Sixth’ (Samvel Gasparov 1981) and ‘At Home Among Strangers’ (Nikita Mikhalkov / 1974) were some of the films in this category. The thematic element of the stretching of the ‘frontier’, central to the Hollywood western is thus retained but transformed to include the encounter of socialism with feudal and ‘backward’ social elements and formations. Many of these films were set and shot in Central Asia.

What immediately identifies these films as westerns despite thematic differences are the topographical elements: the wide open spaces, the men on horses, the typical dress code, the city facades that include pubs, heroism, macho violence, and male bonding, often between the white man and the ‘coloured’ man – the Indian or the Central Asian.

And for those who believe that the western is an all-male genre, there was also ‘A Man From Boulevard Capucines’ by Alla Surikova (USSR / 1987), on Mr First who brings the first slapstick films to a town turning its cowboys to new leaves!