In A Nutshell
“Red Westerns” were Western films produced in the Soviet Union. These movies used the Russian landscape to substitute for American scenery, and many subverted Western cliches in order to criticize American culture. Some of these films such as White Sun of the Desert have gone on to become Russian classics.
The Whole Bushel
During the Cold War, America’s number one enemy was the Soviet Union. Originally inspired by the ideals of Karl Marx, the USSR quickly descended into a totalitarian dictatorship and dedicated itself to spreading communism and defeating capitalism. So what was the Soviet Union doing making Westerns?
When it comes to movies, it doesn’t get any more American than the Western. Films like Stagecoach mythologize America’s past, and actors like John Wayne symbolize American ideals. But despite their origin, Westerns have a universal appeal, and they were wildly popular in Mother Russia; so popular, in fact, that Soviet filmmakers started making their own. These homegrown horse operas were nicknamed “Red Westerns” and often approached their subject matter from a very eastern perspective.
Many Red Westerns took American trappings and gave them a unique spin. Both Little Red Devils and At Home Among Strangers are set during the Russian Civil War. The cowboys have become Red soldiers, and the savage Apaches have transformed into the anti-communist Whites. These films also relied on unique landscapes such as the Ural Mountains and Volga River to provide that rugged ambience.
Other directors used the Western genre to take a few shots at American corruption. Whereas traditional Westerns depicted Native Americans as bloodthirsty savages, Soviet filmmakers portrayed Indians as the heroes and US cavalry men as the villains. During the ’60s, East Germany produced a string of Native American films nicknamed “Indianerfilme” in which the Sioux fought valiantly against the American government which represented Western colonialism.
But not all films had a political agenda. Lemonade Joe had fun playing with Western cliches while White Sun of the Desert was a Russian retelling of The Magnificent Seven and has become one of the most popular Russian films of all time. (Cosmonauts even psych themselves up before launching by listening to the film’s soundtrack.) Even Joseph Stalin was a fan of Westerns and had director Mikhail Romm remake John Ford’s The Lost Patrol. But just like the USSR, Red Westerns began fade away in the 1980s, and by the time the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Red Western had ridden off into the sunset.