Treasured Stereotypes


If the principles that led to Charlie Chan being shanghaied off Fox Movie Channel were applied across the Atlantic, more than 100 million Europeans would be denied access to two of their most beloved fictional characters.

Those would be the wise Apache Indian Winnetou, and his trusty sidekick Old Shatterhand, who were dreamed up by the 19th century German writer Karl May. May, depending on your source, either never traveled to the United States, or only did so four years before his death. The Winnetou books were huge across Europe, but took on a life their own in the communist East, where the propagandists approved of their pre-Costner portrayals of Native Americans as heroes, and cowboys as villains. In the 1960s and '70s a series of popular Winnetou films were produced in the East Bloc, typically with Yugoslav Gojko Mitic in the lead role, and various Bulgarians and gypsies fleshing out the tribe. (In a fun Cold War twist, American commie Dean Reed, a.k.a., The Red Elvis, would sometimes play a villanous cowboy.) As usual, however, the censors couldn't control how individuals reacted to the art, and soon audiences in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary were starting hardcore Winnetou societies, where once or twice a year they would dress up in full costume, head out into the woods, and play impressively complicated war games, completely in character. More than one Winnetou-mad friend of mine has described these outings to be some of the few times they felt truly free to speak their minds, and inevitably the talk would get around to bashing the regime. (The pastime, by the way, is more popular than ever today.

But try to tell a Hungarian Winnetou enthusiast that his beloved Yugoslav film adaptations of a German novelist's fantasies might be a tad inaccurate, and possibly stereotypical … and he might scalp you on the spot.

NEXT: Caribbean Bedlam

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  1. i think it is offensive when american writers portray ancient europe as sort of a “dungeons and dragons” enviroment – you know, lots of stereotypical dudes in armor that say “thee” and “thou” a lot.

  2. Reminds me of mentioning to French friends just how nationalistic and racist Asterix is. They were shocked at first, but once we rewatched a few with their kids, there was no denying it. They’d just never thought to apply their critical thinking to their culture.

  3. And the Simpsons with the fat little German boy, and South Park with the Chinese restaurant owner screaming about his, “shitty wall,” are these stereotypes also offensive. Or because they are done with full knowledge that they are stereotypes, does this make it okay, because then it’s just stereotyping for laughs. Who in the hell gets offended by this sort of thing anyway. Sounds like pansy ass European mo’s to me.

  4. Hey Matt, did this have anything to do with (or overlap) the “tramping” thing all those Czechs did, dressing like hoboes and riding the rails to fake hobo jungles where they sat around eating hobo stew and playing hobo songs? (Also, they bought tickets instead of hopping freights. The first time I encountered a carload of faux hoboes on the way to Slovakia, they figured out I was ‘merican & immediately began reciting their lore in English. (“I am the Klondike Bob, meanest hobo of town,” etc.)

  5. We had some German exchange students who came because they wanted to see Indians (like in Dances With Wolves and I guess those May books). So we took them to a reservation. They were pretty disappointed.

  6. In Mexico City, it’s fun to stand and laugh with the Indians who have been working selling things in the street all day and watch the 1/2, 1/8, 1/16 Indians – most of whom seem to be college teachers and sociology students – doing traditional Indian dances.

  7. How about the inaccuracies in some of those spaghetti westerns? I remember seeing one years ago with the Alps in the background. The Indians had beards and chest hair (blond in some cases), and names like Paolo.

    And BTW, Sergio Leone must have gone apeshit trying to direct those “Gunfighter with No Name” movies. Eastwood was speaking English, but half the cast was speaking Italian with the translation dubbed in. How can actors manage to coordinate their timing and reactions when nobody even understands what anybody else is saying?

  8. Matt: You are pretty much right about the anti-communist sentiment of all those “hobo” clubs, but that’s not all. Having grown up in communist Czechoslovakia, I was also part of them, and the origins go much deeper than just a few books and movies (even though I must admit having read all Karl May movies at least twice).

    In the pre-communism era, youth in Czechoslovakia was organized pretty much as boy scouts here, but much more tightly. Everybody was a member, and those scouting organizations often served as secondary educational institutions as well. When the communists came, they have reworked the system completely (ironically, the new “boy scouts” were renamed to “pioneers”), and all the knowledge about the boy scouts was outlawed. I still have about 50 pounds of magazines from that era, but I’m one of the few; the knowledge of boy scouts has been preserved mainly in oral form. In 1968, during the Dubcek era, censorship was put temporarily on hold, and virtually all Karl May books were published within a few short months (most of those books were later put on index again). Mixed with these books and the vague (and often distorted) knowledge of the boy scouts, people came up with the cowboys and hobos. However, while movies like Vinnetou played their role, they only served as a matrix for people to follow, not as a reason to have these clubs.

    That said, I’ve never heard the term “dobro” in Slovakia before 😉

  9. And one more thing: the lead role (Winnetou) was portrayed by the Frenchman Pierre Brice. The movies were usually a French/German/Yugoslavian co-production, so not entirely communist (we’re talking about Western Germany and Yugoslavia, which, while communist, tried to keep away from Moscow, quite successfully).

  10. Having worked in the ongoing battle between the real cowboys and the real indians for a few years (western water rights) I can assure you all that America too has some beloved stereotypes. The film archives at the Bureau of Reclamation would be rich indeed.

  11. Does that mean that televising “Lash Larue” is now verboten?

  12. Karl May’s popularity was broad, indeed, and included Adolf Hitler, who had an expensive complete set of the novels.

  13. Having grown up in Germany in the 50s, I remember the Karl May characters well. He not only wrote about the American West, but also about travels and customs in the Middle East and Asia, always cloaked in adventurous tales of danger, heroism and villany.
    When we 8-10 year olds played Cowboys and Indians, nobody wanted to be a Cowboy. They always lost. Instead of the now prescribed stereotypes and prejudices, I came away with a profound sense of awe and admiration for other people and their cultures.
    The enduring friendship to the point of risking their lives between the Indian Winnetou, the white man Old Shatterhand and the mixed race Old Shurehand were inspiring to us kids. And yes, I too was a fan of Pierre Brice and missed none of his movies.
    Invariably, the most bungling characters in the Wild West stories were a bunch of German immigrant greenhorns, who got everybody into danger and had to constantly be rescued. They spoke Karl May’s native Saxonian dialect, completely strange to me West German boy. Saxony was that distant land on the other side of the fence.
    Karl May’s vivid descriptions of Yellowstone and many other American geographical landmarks were awesome. He wrote enough of these storybooks to fill a sizeable shelf and I had them all.
    Too bad, we kids defied today’s common wisdom and looked at the adventures first and not at the prejudice. Most kids, even today, live in a world of their own, far removed from adults’ real stereotypes. Have we forgotten? Why do we so intently force them to grow up out of their imaginations?

  14. Martin, Karl mochte klare Beschreibungen von Yellowstone und viele andere amerikanische geographische Grenzsteine ist in der Tat bemerkenswert und betrachtet, da? er nicht Amerika bis besuchte, ungef?hr vier Jahre bevor er starb.

    Und ich denke den Grund, den wir nicht so versessen gezwungen wurden, aus unseren Phantasien heraus aufzuwachsen sind, weil wir nicht ganz da? viel (B&W) Fernsehapparat aufpa?ten, als wir Zicklein waren. Fernsehapparat hat viel getan, um Kindheit zu verderben.

  15. May’s works were translated into English, starting around 1910. The odd part is, how awful the translations apparently were back then. (I hear about this sometimes… )

  16. no nazi speak, please.
    Joder, habla cristiano!

  17. “no nazi speak, please.”

    What insulting nonsense! Why don’t you learn some German instead? It’s only spoken by a third of Europe’s population …

    For those who want to know what Siegfried said, he was basically remarking on how incredible it was that Karl May was able to give such vivid descriptions of American geographical landmarks without ever having visited the U.S. Siegfried then goes on to lament that “television has done a great deal to corrupt childhood.” I suppose he means its’ ability to replace the vivid images stirring descriptions inspire within us with the mundane pictures that replace them when we watch TV.

  18. Thank you for coming to my defense, Abiola. I guess this response could?ve been in French, or Spanish, Dutch, or Italian, and you probably would?ve understood me just as well ? unlike the anonymous intruder, ?Joder.?

    What Joder must not have realized ? and I don?t blame him; I blame government schooling ? is that my above post (in German) was for the benefit of Martin?s eyes, who must have had an enviable boyhood, growing up in West Germany.

    Joder, if it helps make up for your ?school?s? negligence, please allow me to mention that ?German? doesn?t always or necessarily equal ?Nazi,? OK?

    But it may not be too late for you: Just hit the books (or the Net) and we?ll see you back here in about a year or two.

  19. In the Fox TV comedy “Malcolm in the Middle, eldest brother Francis works at a dude ranch out west, run by “German immigrant greenhorns.”

  20. Doesn’t surprise me, Roger. Everyone was a “greenhorn” at one time or another.

    Neither does the “German immigrant” status surprise me. The west was settled by many an immigrant from Germany, Holland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary.

    In Texas, for example, numerous roads and villages have German names. Entire towns were erected by such settlers, and, believe it or not, many of today’s (American) inhabitants still speak with such European accents — even though they are 7 or 8 generations removed!

    Thank you for proving my point about why it is stupid to post in a foreign language on an English language thread. I speak 3 languages other than English (plus New Jerseyese) but I would never use any of the 4 (except NJ-ese which I can’t really control)in English-language post.
    “Joder” is Spanish for “fuck” or as an interjection it means “oh fuck” or “what the fuck.” So who feels ignorant now?
    “Habla cristiano” was a joke obviously wasted on you two brilliant linguists. It is a common expression among “non-cosmopolitan” Spaniards when someone speaks any language other than Spanish to them. Literally it means “Speak Christian!” I thought you’d get that but I guess you’re more representive of inbred Nazis than I thought.
    “Habla cristiano”

  22. ?An?nimo, qu? le hace tan enojado? Debe haber una raz?n por la que tu es tan amargo sobre alemanes. ?Algunos individuos alemanes hicieron algo realmente malo en Puerto Rico cuando era un cabrito? (estoy asumiendo P.R.? Habr?a podido ser Cuba.) ?Y ese acontecimiento se peg? contigo toda su vida? ?Es eso porqu?? ?Y ese porqu? to est? ocultando an?nimoismo?

    El escribir en alem?n era una manera de felicitar a Martin, que nos dijo de su juventud maravilloso en Alemania. Mi espa?ol no es tan bueno, pero si tu hab?a venido adelante primero, y dicho nos sobre sus experiencias de su juventud en Puerto Rico, probablemente tendr?a
    felicitarle tambi?n, respondiendo en espa?ol. (El como es.)

    Por favor, no sea tan duro contigo, y con nosotros. La vida es demasiado corta. Tener diversi?n.


    Anonymous, what makes you so angry? There must be a reason why you?re so down on Germans. Did some German individuals do something really bad on Puerto Rico when you were a kid? (I?m assuming P.R. ? Could?ve been Cuba.) And did that event stick with you all your life? Is that why? And is that why you are anonymously hiding?

    Writing in German was a way of complimenting Martin, who told us about his wonderful boyhood in Germany.

    My Spanish isn?t all that good, but if you had come along first, and told us about your boyhood experiences in Puerto Rico, I probably would?ve wanted to compliment you, too, by responding in Spanish (such as it is.)

    Please don’t be so hard on yourself, and on us. Life?s too short. Have fun.

  23. Spaniard, instead of trying to get “rises” out of people, how about contributing something positive to this blog instead?

    If you’re going to express yourself anyway, how expressing something useful that the world can use?

    You sound like a reasonable person. So let’s reason.

  24. how about expressing something useful that the world can use?

  25. how about expressing something sensible that your electronic neighbor can use?

  26. “I speak 3 languages other than English”

    Here’s a newsflash, Bozo: you aren’t unique in that regard. Emi noo le so ede pupo.???????????????????

    “”Habla cristiano” was a joke obviously wasted on you two brilliant linguists.”

    You flatter yourself too much.

    “Like you unrepentant Nazis”

    Your ignorance is astounding! If you were as well informed as you’d like to think you are, you’d know that I’m not German, much less a member of the “master race”, so how could I be a “Nazi”!

  27. For kanji?purists, I meant to write ?????????????

  28. A Spaniard is someone from Spain not Cuba or Puerto Rico, Siegfried. That I’m a redneck originally from NJ is beside the point I guess.
    The Nazi reference was just to get a “rise” out of you – but I wasn’t counting on you being as overly sensitive as you are overly pretentious.

  29. BTW siegried & abiola:
    Japanese, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hebrew..I do wish I could speak or at least read those languages but German would most certainly be at the end of my list. Like you unrepentant Nazis, it is no longer relevant and has never been renowned for its poetry.

  30. Who is the twerp who wants to learn chinese, arabic or hebrew. Forget it – it’s probably too difficult for you.

  31. EMAIL:
    DATE: 01/25/2004 06:55:53
    He who has a thousand friends has not a friend to spare,And he who has one enemy will meet him everywhere.

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