Full Description

We think of the West as quintessentially American, the place that most perfectly expresses the American psyche. So why have Europeans for more than a century been writing about the West, painting it, making movies about it, forming cults around it and building their own Western theme parks?

The Old World and the Old West is a 90 minute non-fiction film about the fascination of the American West around the world, a cultural revolution which arrived in Europe over a century ago and unites people to this day. It is a story that has never been told on film before.

The film is currently in pre-production. It is being shot in HD and will be finished in late 2014. In line with its subject, the film is aimed at a broad international audience, primarily viewers of American and European public television. It will reach that audience through primetime broadcast, international film festivals, and DVD sales. It will also be distributed to classrooms, libraries, and to academic and community groups both in the US and in Europe. In addition, the film’s broadcast will coincide with other cultural events such as art exhibits, screenings of both well-known and rarely seen international Westerns, Western re-enactments, and meetings of European Western societies.

BACKGROUND

When Buffalo Bill Cody and his “Wild West” show toured Europe – three times in 1887, 1890, and 1903 for a total of 9 years – millions of Europeans flocked to outdoor arenas to see lavish re-enactments of Western exploits. As the real West was fading into history and before the arrival of the Western movie, the live “Wild West” show — with its sharpshooters, horses, buffalo, attacks on settlers’ cabins and stagecoaches – enthralled audiences with exotic characters, locales and depictions of a black-and-white world of heroes and villains.

Almost overnight Buffalo Bill became an international celebrity. Written up in the newspapers and endlessly discussed, the “Wild West” made Europeans start to look differently at their own worlds. The American West seemed like a golden land of liberty, free from convention, a fantasy place where the shackles of the modern world could be discarded and people could behave as they pleased. It was escapist entertainment for Europeans in the throes of political upheaval, the Industrial Revolution and World War I.

From the streets of London, to the salons of Paris, to the cafés of Berlin, to the operahouses and film sets of Italy, gunfights, rebellions, cowboys, Indians, and the Gold Rush became part of everyone’s culture.

What explains this unique and enduring attraction of the American West to the rest of the world? For Europeans looking for new ideas and systems, the West represented freedom, adventure and mystery. It offered a projection screen for each European country’s particular myths, prejudices, cultural biases, and psychological needs – a new way of looking at themselves.

Europeans began to identify with the American West. For the next century, they produced a huge body of art set in the West: novels, films, music, and theater. This European West was escapist entertainment, offering a fanciful, often distorted image of the American West. It sold millions of books and brought millions into movie theaters. And made people think about the United States in a new way.

To trace the “Wild West”’s impact on Europeans, the film will take us on a cultural road trip from Europe of the late 19th century to today, mixing historical footage with comments and reactions from famous Europeans both living and dead.

 

Part 1. THE WILD WEST IN EUROPE – treatment

…. Grainy archival footage that at first appears to be a scene from an early Western feature – Indians attacking a, a sharpshooter on a galloping horse shooting at glass balls in the air, cowboys rescuing women captives, wild buffalo on the run. But as Buffalo Bill Cody rides into the arena on a white horse and waves to the audience behind the camera, we realize it’s the real thing. We are in the arena in 1903, at a live performance of “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” – watching some of the earliest documentary footage in existence.

…. Frankfurt, Germany, today. A group of people is watching the same archival footage on a large monitor. A modern German art museum, the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, is putting on an exhibition called “I Like America: Fictions of the Wild West”. Visitors listen intently to two enthusiastic tour guides as they describe the history of Germany’s fascination with the American West.  As they talk, the camera walks us through the various rooms of the exhibit, discovering paintings, photographs, posters, monitors showing examples of early German Westerns, and newspaper headlines from the past.

As the tour guides tell their German visitors, Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West” wasn’t the first vision of the West to take hold in Europe – James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales had brought the frontier myth to Europeans over a half a century earlier, and Germans already knew about the West from paintings, photographs, and live exhibits of American Indians. Nor was it the most long-lived and lucrative example – German adventure writer Karl May’s Western books and films have been read and seen by over 50 million people. But what Buffalo Bill did first and most effectively was make Europeans believe that what they were experiencing was the authentic Wild West, the real thing.

A montage shows a late 19th century publicity blitz for “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” in London: posters, write-ups, cartoons, poems, photos, pictures of Queen Victoria receiving Buffalo Bill in the arena, Native-Americans on display ….

The following year 1887, the “Wild West” was invited to participate in the American Exhibition at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in London. On March 31 the company of two hundred people, of which 97 were American Indians, sailed on the steamship “State of Nebraska”, accompanied by horses, buffalo, elk, steer, mules and deer.

The effect of the “Wild West” on England was documented mainly in the British press, which dwelt adoringly on America’s “advancement of civilization” and “conquest of savagery”. The spectacle was so lifelike; the cowboys, Indians, horses, buffalo, guns, tepees, and stagecoaches so obviously real; the intensity of the struggle between white men and Indians so convincing, that Londoners were transported into a new and powerfully attractive world, one with messages that resonated strongly at the time: personal heroism and freedom on the one hand, the triumph of European civilization over barbarism on the other. A new bond between the two countries was seen as the result. The London papers were full of articles, cartoons, quotes. Cody was “Nature’s Nobleman”. As historian Joy Kasson tells us, “To…..British aristocrats, the Wild West evoked a world of risk and dominance, of virility and exoticism that formed both the amusement and the serious business of the British Empire.” Yet others saw these armed visitors as crass and commercial. Then as now America was a paradox. But, whether admired or feared, the success of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was the first sign that America itself and the West in particular was about to become a source of world wide fascination.

A montage of Paris at the time of the newly built Eiffel Tower, posters of Buffalo Bill in French, photos of Indians in the Tuileries, ending on scenes from the Wild West re-enactment at Eurodisney today.

Parisians were fascinated by the combination of American technical progress and American primitiveness: Buffalo Bill was a “white Indian”, closer to nature, more creative, more sensitive than decadent European city people. The Indians re-enacting their defeat at the hands of whites assumed a tragic dimension and received equal space in the French press. But the cowboy with his riding and shooting skills also became a romantic figure. The two romances were soon linked, and “cowboys and indians” became the defining American image.

Back in the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, as a female guide tells German visitors about the reactions of 19th century Germans to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and about his influence on Karl May, whose adventure novels about the West have been read by more Germans than any other writer.

In Germany, Buffalo Bill found perhaps his most enthusiastic reception. European fantasies of the American West found perhaps their most vivid expression in the work of the German adventure writer Karl May. When May saw the “Wild West”, he started dressing up like Buffalo Bill. In 1893 he published what would become his most popular novel, set in the American West: Winnetou. Its literary characters were the heroic German Old Shatterhand and his Indian sidekick, the Apache chief Winnetou.  Here, the appeal was different from that of both England and France. These German novels were full of a Germanic Romantic sensibility that sympathized with the “primitive” Indians in their fight against “bad” white men, namely Americans, and applauded their rescue by a “good” white man who was German. In fact, they were basic re-tellings of old German myths of Good and Evil, reset in the American West. As art historian Pamela Kort explains, “Germans already had a long-term interest in the New World and identified instinctively with American Indians as their fictional blood brothers”. May’s novels were pure fantasy – in fact Karl May had never visited the United States. But the popularity of his novels in Germany ensured the popularity of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. In fact, it was the show’s veneer of authenticity that was so appealing to Germans whose appetite had already been whetted by May’s imaginary version. As one reporter wrote in 1891, “It is a piece of the Wild West bodily transported to our midst….. the actors are all real characters – men who have figured not on the stage but in real life.”

Part 2. The Early 20th Century European West – a history

In 1907 composer Giacomo Puccini – who probably remembered the “Wild West” from its trip to Italy in 1890 — travelled to New York and saw David Belasco’s 4 act play The Girl of the Golden West. (Two of his previous operas, Manon Lescaut and Madama Butterfly already had American characters and/or locales.) He decided to base his next operaon Belasco’s play. La Fanciulla del West premiered in 1910 at the Metropolitan Opera, with Enrico Caruso. It proved to be Puccini’s most popular opera (at the time), making him a rich man.

In 1925, French author Blaise Cendrars wrote his L’Or, based on the story of Sutter’s Gold, an allegorical tale of a European capitalist/landowner in California clashing with the ‘49ers of the Gold Rush. (This was soon translated into English as Sutter’s Gold.) In 1930, Sergei Eisenstein wrote a screenplay based on Cendrars’ novel. In 1936, Austrian filmmaker Luis Trenker, a Nazi sympathizer, adapted Cendrars’ novel into the film Der Kaiser von Kalifornien (The Emperor of California). According to Christopher Frayling, author of Spaghetti Westerns, three of these European artists “saw in the Sutter story a chance to relate the classic ‘Western’ to Old World cultural and socio-political concerns of the moment.”

Karl May’s Western stories with their escapist appeal became increasingly popular after Buffalo Bill’s visit and remained popular in Germany long after he died. 100 million copies of his “Winnetou” books have been sold. From the 1960s to the 1980s a series of films based on his stories were very successful in Germany, are regularly broadcast on TV and readily available on home video. Karl May remains the most widely read German author ever.

French, Belgian, Scandinavian and British authors wrote sensationalistic fiction about the West, featuring violence and bloodshed specifically designed to appeal to urban Europeans looking for vicarious thrills. George Fronval wrote 54 books about Buffalo Bill Cody. “The Frenchman wants guns and Indians and shooting and scalps,” he explained.

Inspired by May and these European “pulp novels”, Expressionist painters August Macke, Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Vassily Kandinsky produced a series of paintings inspired by the “Wild West”.

Europeans in crowded cities were especially attracted to the Western landscape which films could render more expressively than any other medium. The fictional West found its strongest expression in the cinema, the new medium that was replacing the live Wild West shows in the early years of the 20th century. American Westerns were exported to Germany, including 350 films made by the Essanay and Polyscope Companies, starring Broncho Billy and Tom Mix. “Cowboys and Indians” were among the most popular offerings in early Paris “film palaces”, seen by Picasso and Braque.

Part 3. The Euro-Western Today

D.H. Lawrence once wrote, “the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer”. And Sergio Leone said, “America fascinates me and terrifies me at the same time”.

Beginning in the 1950s, European Westerns were being produced which in different ways challenged the classic American Western’s basic view of good and evil. In Germany, films based on Karl May’s Winnetou books, and in Italy, Spaghetti Westerns, both set in the American West, first broke various traditions of the Hollywood Western, blurring the simple lines between good and evil, complicating the plots, and portraying American Indians and other marginalized groups as decent human beings. The audience response was of course enormous. The success of these films and later examples from Asia, Australia, Russia, and South America, provided new perspectives on the West. (to be continued)

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