The Old World and the Old West: Cowboys, Indians and Europeans

This is the true story of an event that led to the worldwide fascination with the American West, which endures to this day. It’s a story that has been forgotten, and it has never been told on film before.

When Buffalo Bill Cody and his “Wild West” show toured Europe – three trips starting in 1887, 1890, and late 1902, for a total of 9 years – millions of Europeans flocked to outdoor arenas to watch lavish re-enactments of famous exploits from Western history, starring real characters they had only read about. It was like no other entertainment they had seen.

Buffalo Bill Cody was the most famous American of his time, an authentic frontier hero who turned his real life experiences into a lucrative showbusiness. Larry McMurtry called him “the first American superstar”. As the real Old West was fading into history and before Western movies had arrived, his live “Wild West” show — with cowboys, Indians, sharpshooters, horses, buffalo, attacks on settlers’ cabins and stagecoaches –- enthralled Europeans with its black-and-white world of heroes and villains. It was a compelling vision of the West: a mix of fact and fantasy, education and entertainment, melodrama and spectacle.

For the British, French, Germans, and Italians the American West stood for freedom, adventure, and possibility, the very things they were looking for. From the streets of London, to the salons of Paris, to the cafés of Berlin, to the operahouses and film sets of Italy, the West became an obsession – a projection screen for Europe’s own myths and desires – a mirror image of themselves – and a stage set for the imagination.

Writers, artists, composers, and filmmakers turned their gaze on Western subjects, satisfying a European hunger for anything American. They took this new material, but challenged its conventions and reinterpreted it for themselves, each country differently. From Puccini’s opera “The Girl of the Golden West” and the Winnetou novels of the German adventure writer Karl May, to films about the Gold Rush, Spaghetti Westerns, French and Spanish Westerns, Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo”, and “Tears of the Black Tiger” from Thailand, the West became a well of inspiration the world over, even as its myths were turned upside down.

Historical footage, modern re-enactments and interviews with artists, filmmakers and writers from many countries will tell the story of how and why the non-American American West has fascinated and endured for so long.

The Old World and the Old West is a 90 minute documentary-in-progress, produced and directed by Riva Freifeld. It is intended for international and public television release.

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