Franz A. Birgel, Ph.D.
The Only Good Indian is a DEFA Indian:
East German Variations on the Most American of all Genres
Whereas Winnetou in May's novels and their film adaptations struggles to maintain peace
between his fellow Indians and the white settlers, fighting against bandits and profiteers
alongside his white friends Old Shatterhand and Old Shurehand, DEFA's Indian heroes
come to realize that peaceful coexistence is impossible: they must either fight for
their lands or migrate to Canada. Due to the shift of emphasis, the theme of blood brotherhood
(which in the case of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand has an implied homosexual subtext)
appears only in one DEFA film.
The story of
(Blood Brothers, 1975) begins where Ralph Nelson's "Soldier Blue" ends, with the massacre
of the Cheyenne by Colonel Chivington (named Iverson in Nelson's film) at Sand Creek
on November 29, 1864. Black Kettle had been given an U.S. flag by President Lincoln
a few months earlier and told by Colonel Greenwood that as long as that flag flew above
his tepee, no soldier would shoot at him. The flag does not deter the cavalry from shooting
the inhabitants of the village, including the children huddling around Black Kettle.
During the final part of the assault, the stars and stripes goes up in flames, evoking
images of flag-burning protests during the Vietnam War. Witnessing the slaughter, the
cavalry's flag bearer Harmonica breaks his flagpole and is therefore imprisoned for
treason. He escapes with two other soldiers, but during their flight, these two shoot
two Cheyenne Indians. Harmonica cares for the wounded Indian maiden Fawn, yet on the
following morning is captured by the Indians and sentenced to death. Fawn intervenes
on his behalf, and instead of death, Harmonica is forced into a race reminiscent of the
one in "Run of the Arrow" (1956). As her brother Hard Rock pursues Harmonica, he slips
climbing a mountain, and the white man brings him back to the village. Hard Rock is
humiliated and cannot understand why Harmonica did not kill him. Gradually he learns
to respect Harmonica, who goes native like Kevin Costner in "Dances with Wolves" (1990),
falls in love with Fawn, and marries her. The preparations for the wedding ceremony
are an example of DEFA's attempt to present authentic Indian customs. Shortly thereafter,
she and their unborn child are killed during another attack by the cavalry.
As Gerd Gemünden has pointed out, there is a "racist blindspot" in these films.
Like films made under Hollywood's production code against miscegenation, Fawn, the
Indian wife of a white man, is doomed like Sonseeahray, Jeffords's wife, in "Broken Arrow",
and Chihuahua, the apparently Mexican-Indian girlfriend of Doc Holliday in "My Darling Clementine"
(1946). The same is true for the mixed-blood hero played by
Armin Mueller Stahl
in "Fatal Error". Depressed after Fawn's death, Harmonica leaves the tribe and becomes
the town drunk. But when he sees Hard Rock captured and in chains, he plucks out his beard
like an Indian, helps his friend escape, becomes his blood brother, and fights on his side.
The film ends with a freeze frame of Harmonica and Hard Rock jumping off a rock while
attacking the cavalry, implying that the struggle against U.S. oppression continues.
"Blood Brothers" was co-written by and stars the American expatriate actor, singer, and
political activist Dean Reed, who became a bigger star in Eastern bloc countries after
he settled in East Germany than he had been in the United States. Made when the popularity
of the genre was declining, "Blood Brothers" borrows very freely from Karl May's "Winnetou"
and Hollywood films: the white man and the Indian must fight against each other before they
can become friends; the marriage between the white man and the Indian woman is doomed,
but unlike Old Shatterhand's relationship with Winnetou's sister Nscho Tschi, Harmonica
doesn't want his fiancée to be sent to a white school and become civilized;
the death of the Indian wife/fiancée eventually leads to a stronger male bond
between the Native American hero and the white man, a motif also presented in "Broken Arrow";
the murderer's necklace in the hands of Fawn is reminiscent of Old Shatterhand stealing
Winnetou's necklace, and finally, there is the ritual of blood brotherhood.