Tall Tales of the West: The Stories of Karl May

The Legacy of Karl May

May’s impact continued well into the 20th century and is still evolving today. After his death, his image, stories, and characters were further developed by his second wife, Klara, estate executors, academics, special-interest publishing houses, Karl May clubs, and public relations specialists. Over the years, May was marketed in candy wrappers, cigarette boxes, toys, movies, and even postal stamps, turning “Karl May” into a brand name. All of this provides for the continued interest in his work, as well as interest in the American Southwest and West.

In honor and anticipation of the 100th anniversary of May’s death, a new world record for continuous reading was set recently. Approximately 1,000 famous and not-so-famous volunteers and fans gathered in Mittweida, Germany, where they read 55,000 pages from stories that included Winnetou, Old Shatterhand, and Kara Ben Nemsi. In 2011, the name “Karl May” was googled 24 million times. And hundreds of thousands of fans continue to flock to the open-air theaters in Bad Segeberg and elsewhere to see re-enactments of May’s Western adventure stories.

In 1963, May’s most popular adventure story, Winnetou, was turned into a movie. Along with Der Schatz im Silbersee (The Treasure of Silver Lake), it was so successful that additional adaptations of May works followed, although the screenplays were so heavily edited that at times they had nothing to do with May’s novels beyond their titles. Winnetou was played by French actor Pierre Brice and Old Shatterhand by U.S. American actor Lex Barker. Croatia (part of the former Republic of Yugoslavia) substituted often and almost credibly for New Mexico and the American West. It was shown to the American audience under the title Apache Gold.
Apache Gold (Winnetou), American film poster, 1964.

Winnetou has been distributed in many Western European countries and Turkey with subtitles rather than being dubbed. Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Italy, and Spain saw the uncut version (101 min.).
Furia Apache (Winnetou), Spanish film poster, 1963.

Winnetou was also popular in the Eastern (Communist) European countries and was available in Russia, Yugoslavia, Romania, and East Germany.
Vinetu (Winnetou), Serbian film poster, 1964.

The West German government honored Karl May on the 75th anniversary of his death with a special stamp.
Winnetou Stamp, 75th anniversary of Karl May, 1987.

Wild West toys such as cowboys, Native Americans, and Indian play figures have been and continue to be a mainstay of children’s upbringing.
American West toys. Clay and Plastolin. 1960s. New Mexico History Museum.

The American West remains popular with Europeans. Modern American writers are translated into German to continue the saga of the American Southwest and its Native populations that May has made so popular.
Tony Hillerman, Das Tabu der Totengeister (The Ghostway), 1984.
Tony Hillerman, Die Nacht der Skinwalkers (Skinwalkers), 1988.