Europe’s Fascination with the Wild West

Actor Pierre Brice in his role as chief Winnetou in the movies based on Karl May’s novels about the American West (found on http://www.dw.de)

On June 6, 2015, French actor Pierre Brice, an actor I have seen in plenty of movies when growing up in Austria, passed away. He was most famous – at least in Austria and Germany – for his portrayal of Winnetou, a fictitious Mescalero Apache chief, in eleven movies based on novels by German author Karl May. Winnetou, and thus also Pierre Brice, shaped for many German and Austrian teenagers their view of Native Americans and the American West. Karl May portrayed Winnetou as the noble savage, who fights for justice and peace hand in hand with his white friend and blood brother, Old Shatterhand (portrayed by Lex Barker in the movies). It is rare for someone who grew up in Austria not to remember the Karl May books or the Winnetou movies. And even though plenty of readers learned about the West based on these novels, Karl May had never been there but relied on others’ descriptions for his books.

Karl May’s book at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2011 (found on http://www.commons.wikimedia.org)

Pierre Brice’s passing last weekend reminded me of an article I recently found in an old copy of the magazine American Cowboy in a stack of reading materials left behind by former tenants in a California beach rental. The article “The Widest Loop” by Lauren Feldman in the April/May 2013 issue of the magazine highlighted and analyzed Europeans’ fascination with the American Wild West and the idealization of the cowboy culture. And it is so true; every time I drive from the Munich airport home to Austria, I pass a theme park called Pullman City in Bavaria. It looks pretty much like any old town in the Western U.S. but with shows such as Native American pow wows, Western shows (lasso tricks), American history shows (Gold Rush and Pony Express), line dancing and more. So it is not much of a surprise that I drag my husband to pretty much every rodeo or bull riding event in town and have been to pow wows here in California.

Lucky Luke and his horse Jolly Jumper by Belgian cartoonist Maurice De Bevere (found on devianart.net)

The article, however, reminded me that this fascination seems to be very typical for Europeans. According to Feldman, for Europeans struggling with the effects of Industrialization and Imperialism, the American Wild West was a welcomed escape. In 1946, Belgian artist Maurice De Bevere created the cartoon Lucky Luke about an American cowboy who “could draw faster than his shadow” and his loyal and smart horse Jolly Jumper. Italian artists Gian Luigi Bonelli and Aurelio Galleppini created the comic series Tex, based on a cowboy hero. Even though kids might have never been to the American West, they have grown up with it via books, cartoons, movies, and theme parks. Interest in Western riding and horses as well as rodeo events has been growing in Europe, and as Feldman points out in her article “the language of cowboy is universal.” So now I know: I can’t help it; my fascination with Western boots and rodeos came with my European upbringing.

Rows of Western boots line a local store

Rows of Western boots line a local store

Cowboy hats for sale at the local store

Cowboy hats for sale at the local store

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