Sunday, June 7, 2015

Pierre Brice (1929 - 2015)

What Clint Eastwood was for the rest of the world in the 1960s, Pierre Brice (left in the picture above) was for West Germany. The Frenchman, who died on June 6, was Germany's peculiar embodiment of an idealized American West, one more idealistic than the West Eastwood inhabited in Italian and American westerns. After toiling in peplum and horror films (most notably 1960's Mill of the Stone Women), Brice found a life-defining role in Harald Reinl's Treasure of Silver Lake in 1962. That was his first portrayal of Winnetou, the noble Indian of Karl May's German western novels. It was a prelude to an official Winnetou series begun by Reinl and continued by others. In these, Brice is seconded by an American or English actor, most notably Lex Barker and Stewart Granger, who usually played a good gunfighter named Old Shatterhand, Old Surehand or something along those lines. These co-stars were the selling point when adventurous U.S. distributors tried to import dubbed versions of the German films here, usually with new and utterly generic titles. I've seen and reviewed the first two films in the Winnetou series, which show Reinl a creative action director blessed with incredible Yugoslavian locations. Despite their pictorial virtues, they seem old-fashioned compared with contemporary Italian and American westerns by virtue of their unambiguous morality, if not their odd reliance on comedy-relief Englishmen. Winnetou didn't travel as well as The Man With No Name, and that must have had a lot to do with the fact that the noble Indian is a goody-good at a time when audiences were feeling more cynical or more bloodthirsty. Also, for some reason global audiences in the 1960s were less inclined to identify with Native Americans as symbols for downtrodden militancy than they were with Mexican peasants, and while American audiences would embrace Indians anew in the 1970s, their idealized Natives were more spiritual and trippy than the relatively stodgy Winnetou.

Still, Winnetou struck a chord with Germans that the character had struck often (with a readership including Adolf Hitler) since he first appeared in print in the late 19th century. If Brice wasn't exactly typed -- he and Barker tried a more spaghetti-esque western, A Place Called Glory, but it isn't very good --  he could still always return to his most beloved role, the last time on TV in the late 1990s. After that, he appeared regularly at Karl May festivals to be adored anew by aging generations of fans. Brice was a singular phenomenon in the wild world of cinema: the particular western star of a single nation and the center of a kind of alternate universe I've found interesting to visit and where many Germans have lingered long -- and now return with nostalgic sadness for a West that never was, but is missed just the same.

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