Monday, June 20, 2016

DVR Diary: RAMPAGE AT APACHE WELLS (Der Ölprinz, 1965)

Winnetou, Karl May's Apache hero, had a number of white friends in his fictional career. Taking his cue from such American heroes as Old Hickory (Andrew Jackson), Old Rough and Ready (Zachary Taylor) and Old Fuss and Feathers (Winfield Scott), May made many of the white protagonists of his German westerns "Old" men. The best known of these is Old Shatterhand (played by Lex Barker in the West German westerns of the 1960s) but there was also Old Firehand (Rod Cameron) and Old Surehand, Winnetou's sidekick in Harald Philipp's adaptation of May's novel The Oil Prince. Stewart Granger was the token Hollywood star for the Surehand films. He makes Old Surehand more of a smartass than Barker's Shatterhand, who was nearly as stolid as Winnetou himself, as played by the improbably idolized Pierre Brice -- though to be fair I've only been able to judge Brice by the emotionless, charisma-less dubbing of the American versions of his films. Surehand is more likely to taunt his antagonists, especially when he has the advantage on them. There's an almost Tarantinian moment in Der Ölprinz when he's caught a villain in the act of imposture, pretending to be the scout he'd murdered, whose body Surehand has just brought into town and identified. "Is your name Billy Forner too?" Surehand asks with wolfish interest, repeating the question until his man is terrified. It's good to see that Granger invested what he may have seen as a thankless role signifying his decline from stardom with some personality, especially since Brice remains crippled, from an American perspective, by the robotic dubbing. But for all I know, a certain Spockish emotionlessness may have been part of Brice's appeal all along.

It's disappointing initially to see Philipp reuse the exploding oil refinery footage from the earlier Winnetou Part II (Last of the Renegades) to introduce his villain (Harald Leipniz), who is only ever known as "the Oil Prince." But after the blatant process shot placing Leipniz and another actor in front of the stock footage Ölprinz reverts to the good form of German westerns with spectacular natural locations. In this story the Oil Prince (so-called or self-styled?) wants to get rid of white settlers who are in the way of his prospecting. He proposes to eliminate them by having some Indians wipe them out, first by convincing the impressionable natives that the settlers are hoarding gold on their wagon train, then by having one of his own men knife an Indian searching a wagon, so that the settlers will be blamed and a massacre ordered by an angry chief and father who demands fifty lives for his son's. It's up to Surehand and Winnetou to track down the knife-thrower we know to be the true killer and convince the old chief that this man, and he alone, could have murdered the brave. It's all too neatly resolved, but from what I read this film is taken from one of May's more juvenile-oriented stories. Like other German westerns, this one's weighed down a bit by oldschool comedy relief, from both Surehand's white sidekick Wabble (Milan Srdoc) and from a fat, fussy German composer working on a western opera (Heinz Erhardt) -- the sort of role S. Z. Sakall would have played in the classic Hollywood version of this story. Like Winnetou Part II, Ölprinz features Mario (Terrence Hill) Girotti in a minor good-guy role as proof of the shared genetic pool, so to speak, of the German western cycle and the Italian spaghetti westerns. Unlike Klaus Kinski in Winnetou Part II or Mario Adorf in its predecessor, Harald Leipniz isn't that impressive a villain, apart from wearing a black suit very stylishly. Nor is Philipp the equal of Harald Reinl in directing action, though this film does sport an impressive flaming-arrow attack from a commanding height on a wagon train and an arduous rescue of rafters on dangerous rapids. Ölprinz has many of the seeming shortcomings that left the Germans far behind the Italians in the race to colonize the American west, but like the other German westerns I've seen it has an almost refreshing earnestness about it and a definitely refreshing approach to landscape, as opposed to the Italian preoccupation with desert and dust. Whether you like these films or not, all western movie fans owe the German genre a look.

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