Thursday, July 18, 2013

WINNETOU PART 2 ("Last of the Renegades," 1964)

In the year of Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dollars Harald Reinl released his third western based on the writings of German novelist Karl May. Reinl's head start availed him not as numerous Italian rivals passed him by on the way to the western film canon, while the German Winnetou series continues to languish in relative obscurity. As I suggested while reviewing Winnetou Part 1, Reinl suffered from bad timing, at least as far as the world outside West Germany was concerned, working at a time of relatively low interest in American Indians. His films are also inescapably more corny than most Italian westerns. The second Winnetou film, reuniting Pierre Brice in the title role and top-billed Lex Barker as frontiersman Old Shatterhand, reiterates that corniness, but also reinforces Reinl's standing as a superior action-adventure director.

The sequel makes a somewhat bad impression right away as our Apache hero intervenes in a fight between Ribanna, an Indian maiden (Karin Dor), and a bear. There's really no way to make it look good, but the scene does set up a romance between Winnetou and the woman of the Assinaboin tribe. Neither can speak the other's language, but both know English, and their courtship is carried on in regrettably stilted fashion. In the English dub, they tend to speak of themselves and each other in the third person. Fluent otherwise, they suffer from what Daffy Duck might call pronoun trouble. Also, while Pierre Brice became a beloved film idol in German playing Winnetou, the actor dubbing his lines into English makes the Apache warrior sound like a complete stiff. I hope Winnetou sounds better auf Deutsch.

Do you see a tragic romance in the making? Congratulations, but it isn't as bad as you might first fear. To spoil things a little, Ribanna is still alive when the film is over. But Winnetou isn't the only man who falls for her. Another is a U.S. Cavalry officer captured by the Assinaboin (my spelling is speculative) but freed thinks to Winnetou's intervention. Later, this Lt. Merril gets the bright idea of furthering peace between whites and Natives by marrying Ribanna. Everyone's impressed by this idea except for Ribanna, but even Winnetou, who seems like an ever-self-sacrificing sort, sees the wisdom of the plan, and Ribanna's dad, the chief, urges her to take one for the team. In time, Ribanna and Merril bond while protecting themselves and the Assinaboin women and children from the film's villains, so if the end is somewhat sad that applies to Winnetou only. At least he had a girlfriend for a while. His buddy Shatterhand is stuck with sidekicks -- not one, but two. We see and hear mercifully little of the one who only talks in rhyme -- he does it all the time! -- while the late Eddi Arent proves more tolerable as this movie's comic Briton, apparently a necessary ingredient in Karl May movies. It's not as if spaghetti westerns did without comic-relief characters, but the comic relief weighs down the Winnetou movies more than you notice in the Italian films.

I ought to note that Lt. Merril is played by Mario Girotti, who had yet to change his film name to the once globally recognized Terence Hill. The presence of the future Trinity makes Winnetou 2 seem slightly like a rough draft of a spaghetti western. Mario Adorf gave the previous film some of that vibe playing its villain, and Reinl's challenge for Part 2 was to cast a villain to rival or top the mighty Mario. Where oh where will a German director find someone up for that challenge?

Reinl doesn't quite nail it; Klaus Kinski is only the number-two villain of the story, though he easily makes a stronger impression than Anthony Steel, who gets the role of greedy would-be oil baron Joe Forrester. This guy wants to expand his holdings onto Indian land and is willing to provoke a war to do so, using his right-hand man Lucas (Kinski) to massacre Indians, so the army will be blamed, and settlers, so Indians will be blamed. Lucas proves a resourceful, dangerous character. Captured by Merril and left with the Indians for safekeeping, the bound Lucas manages to free himself with a burning branch from a campfire and kill two guards while making good his escape. It's very disappointing, then, to see the Kinski character die in long shot, in a hail of anonymous gunfire, rather than in epic combat with Merril, Shatterhand or Winnetou. Even more than Girotti/Hill, Kinski signifies the potential of Euro-westerns already present in the Reinl films.


Once the film gives up on the Winnetou-Ribanna romance, Reinl really picks up the pace of the action. Again working on German and Yugoslav locations with cinematographer Ernst W. Kalinke, the director deftly coordinates the movements of multiple forces -- Shatterhand and Castlepool (Arendt), Merril and Ribanna, the Assinaboin warriors, the U.S. Cavalry, Forrester's private army, the escaping Lucas and eventually a lone Winnetou -- until all converge at a spectacular mountain site riddled with picturesque caves. Before that, he had staged a spectacular and dangerously explosive battle at Forrester's refinery, which the villain chooses to blow up in an effort to kill Shatterhand, setting an alarming number of stuntmen on fire. In general, Reinl has a panoramic way with the moving widescreen image. After first filling the frame with men and landscape, he pans to show you something more that had been going on just out of sight. Combining his natural and financial resources, he gives the first two Winnetou movies an epic energy that more than makes up for the dismal comedy and stilted romance. They don't catch the zeitgeist of the time they were made the way so many spaghetti westerns do, but they're big and entertaining adventure films that earn a small but respectable place in the history of westerns.

1 comment:

dfordoom said...

I've been meaning to catch up with those German westerns, especially as I've grown increasingly bored with spaghetti westerns.