As It Happens

Pierre Brice: A French actor who became a German hero by playing a Native stereotype

Pierre Brice, a childhood hero to generations of Germans, died this weekend. The French actor became a household name in the '60s by playing the "noble" Apache chief Winnetou in German Westerns.
Pierre Brice played Winnetou in a series of German Westerns, a role that defined his career. (Photo: YouTube)
Listen5:48

You've probably never heard of Pierre Brice. But, in Germany, he was a household name.

Brice was a French actor who played an Apache chief in German Westerns. He died this weekend at 86. The headline on one obituary: "The hero of our collective childhood is dead."

The role that defined Brice's career was "Winnetou" -- a stereotypical "noble Indian chief" character that originated in the immensely-popular novels of Karl May.

The books were read by generations of German children. In the '60s, the books were made into a series of hit movies starring Brice. And the films then became a staple on German TV.

"He was a sort of part of our collective consciousness," German writer and translator Cora Buhlert tells As It Happens host Carol Off.

"[Winnetou] was generally a good and heroic character . . . He stood for peace and cooperation and he also stood for friendship because he had this great friendship with Old Shatterhand."

Pierre Brice played Winnetou alongside Lex Barker, who starred as the settler, Old Shatterhand. (Photo: YouTube)

Old Shatterhand was the name adopted by the lead German character in the stories, who settled in the Old West to escape unjust imprisonment at home.

The German Westerns were distinct from American ones. They were less macho. There were no high-noon shoot-outs.

"The First Nations people were the good guys, not the villains," Buhlert says. "Mostly the villains were greedy, white capitalists.

"When German kids were playing 'Cowboys and Indians,' everybody wanted to be the Indian."

A still from the original 1963 German film, Winnetou I. French actor Pierre Brice had the starring role. (Photo: YouTube)

Still, looking back at the movies now, Buhlert sees that the depiction of Winnetou was highly problematic.

"It's still a stereotype. I don't think we were aware of that when we were children," she says.

Even Brice felt conflicted about the role. When the director of the films first approached him to play Winnetou, he didn't want to do it because he feared the character would be one-dimensional. But he was convinced and it came to define him as an actor.

"After a while, he made his peace with the role because it was what he was remembered for and what he was loved for."

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