Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Finnish Westerns, part one

The publicity photo of High and Mighty, 1944
The Festival of Finnish Cinema was held in Turku, Finland last weekend. I'm part of the group organizing the festival and it was my idea to show this year Finnish westerns films. You might ask: "what in the name of God are Finnish westerns?" But in fact westerns are an European invention. The first westerns were written and/or directed by Europeans, and there are lots of westerns that have been made elsewhere than in the USA. Italy of course is the best known of these countries that have produced lots of their own westerns, but he have also Germany, Soviet Union, France, the Great Britain, India, Japan... and Finland.

There are six feature films made in Finland that can be called westerns - five, if you're more strict about the genre definition. There are some more if you look at TV movies, short indie movies and TV commercials and such. There are also some films that utilize the same motifs and types of plots as many western movies - many of these are situated in Lapland or the Ostrobothnia area in the Western coast of Finland with its violent "häjy" culture. These films are truly about the edge between the civilization and the frontier, as the more actual Finnish westerns are not - they are merely about playing with the conventions of the genre and trying to cash in on with the more international fads.

The first real Finnish western film is a borderline case, as it's set in Mexico and resembles more the Zorro stories and films. Herra ja ylhäisyys ("High and Mighty" might be a good translation; see photo above) was made in 1944 and at the time it was the most expensive film made in Finland. The film was based on Simo Penttilä's series of books of lieutenant general T. J. A. Heikkilä, Finnish soldier working for the Mexican government. The books deal more with Heikkilä's amorous adventures, and the film follows suit. I haven't actually seen this (at least so I can remember something about it) and it wasn't shown at the festival because of the technical limitations (it's available only on nitrate film), so I can't really comment.

Director and screenwriter Aarne Tarkas, a somewhat legendary figure in his own right, made the next Finnish westerns. The Villi Pohjola AKA Wild North trilogy doesn't represent the true western thematic, as the films don't take place in the American Wild West. Instead they're set in a Never-never-land that shares some of the characteristics as the actual westerns: people ride horses, shoot six-guns, wear stetson hats, dig gold, but then they also have machine guns (Stens, to be exact), drive jeeps and wear wrist watches. And then there's the startling fact that the American Indians are replaced with the Sami people! It makes the films pretty funny - unintentionally of course - at times, but it also goes to show that the Indians in real westerns are a fictional construction.

Tamara Lund in The Gold of the Wild North
I didn't have a chance to see the first Wild North movie (simply called The Wild North, 1955) at the festival, but it's pretty easily available on DVD and elsewhere. The other two films are more difficult to come by. The second film, The Gold of the Wild North (1963), is according to some the best of the three films. It's fast-moving, though there's also the usual sloppiness of director Tarkas with too long scenes and a very bad climax at the end (it's actually quite incomprehensible - the words fail me). The film tells about the three Vorna brothers who are digging for gold somewhere in the utopic North of the films. The plot is pretty thin and meaningless in the end, as this is a mere spectacle of the beautiful Finnish scenery, fist fights and horseback riding. The film has also the charm of the very sexy young Tamara Lund - she plays a foxy lady who's also good with guns.

(Here's Tapio Rautavaara (of the London Olympics fame) singing one of the songs in the first Wild North movie.)

The third Wild North movie, called The Secret Valley of the Wild North (another one from 1963), is the rarest of the bunch as it's been last shown in TV in the early 1980's and it's not available on DVD (nor it was available on VHS either). It's also the wildest one, as it boasts a science-fictional theme of the lost civilization. The Vorna brothers run into a gang of bad guys who are searching for the secret valley they have a map of, but the Sami Indians with their medicine man fight back hard. There is some hilarious action and also some unintentionally funny stuff about the Sami Indians, and the film is fast-moving enough not to be boring, but there are also some scenes that must've looked pretty embarrassing even in the early sixties, such as the two of the Vorna brothers trying to pick up some Sami girls who are out doing Midsummer magic tricks.

The Vorna brothers in The Gold of the Wild North
The Wild North films have largely been seen as parodies of the western genre (and I thought so earlier, too), but having seen the two films I can't concur. It's obvious Aarne Tarkas was pretty enthusiastic about his efforts to bring western thematics and iconography into Finland without having to resort to doing a fake version of Wild West. There's of course humour - some of its largely unintentional, as I've pointed out -, but that's not the same thing. The stuff about the Sami people substituting Indians was a critical mistake, but now it seems only funny. (I don't know how the Sami feel about it themselves.)

One thing about the Wild North films still: the Finnish horses look too big, too muscular compared to the horses in the American or Italian westerns. They don't look right. Some of the guns also look dead wrong (not to mention the Stens), but I can live with that.

Coming up in the 2nd part: the western films of Spede Pasanen (and possibly a cable channel oddity called The Gold Train to Fort Montana).

Here's a stylish song with some parodic overtones, sung by Rose-Marie Precht, from The Gold of the Wild North. (More Overlooked Movies here.)


Todd Mason said...

Part 2 coming soon? Impressive window into the European westerns we don't see over here even more than most non-Italian ones...

Juri said...

Todd, sorry, it's been a rather long day around here. I'm not sure if it's sensible of me to do the part 2 right now.

Todd Mason said...

I'll look forward to it if and when!

Juri said...

Just did!