Once Upon a Time: Lex Barker

Alexander Crichlow “Lex” Barker, Jr. from Rye, New York rose to the rank of major in the US Army and was awarded two Purple Hearts in World War 2. After a brief spell on the stage, Lex landed in Hollywood, appearing in small roles in a handful of films (Crossfire). He finally found his niche when he became the tenth man to portray Tarzan.

While Tarzan is a legendary cinematic character, being the tenth man to play him did not put Barker in the upper echelon. And while Barker came from money and bore an erudite demeanour, producers were not willing to let this influence his portrayal and Lex was forced to stick to a monosyllabic characterization. Additionally, the quality of Barker’s Tarzan films did nothing to elevate the franchise. Lex Barker played Tarzan in five films before giving way.

We’ve talked before in this series about Ty Hardin making the earliest of forays into European films but Lex has got him beat a mile. Barker – realizing that roles of any substance weren’t going to come his way in Hollywood – made the move to Italy as early as 1954, starring in I misteri della giungla nera (Mystery of the Black Jungle). Barker spoke five languages and so he decided to settle in Europe and continue his film career there. Not only was Barker one of the earliest expatriat American actors, he also stands out as he really came into his own in Germany.

German Karl May (1842-1912) was a small-time criminal in his youth. After release from prison at age 34, he adjourned to his parents’ home and began to write. Perhaps unique for a German of the time, many of May’s books were set in the American west. May created the character Winnetou, a Native American chief who appeared in many novels opposite his white “blood brother”, Old Shatterhand. Shatterhand was May’s alter ego and is a prototypical hero of the old west. May’s characters were adopted for use in films as early as the silent era.

Barker was tapped to portray Old Shatterhand in the film we are looking at in this installment of Once Upon a Time, our look at ExPat Cinema and the Americans who worked abroad. The Treasure of the Silver Lake (Der Schatz im Silbersee) is a 1962 film loosely based on Karl May’s novel of the same name. It was a co-production between France, West Germany and Yugoslavia and was shot in the latter country. Our film was directed by Austrian Harald Reinl who would direct many later films based on May’s novels. At the time, he was married to an actress who appeared in Silver Lake, Karin Dor, a name I recognize from her appearance in You Only Live Twice. Poor Ms. Dor was 78 years old and she was vacationing in South Tyrol when she fell to the ground after being rammed by a woman with a stroller. She suffered a gash to her head but was released from hospital. Health effects from her fall worsened though and she eventually died some months later.

Barker as Shatterhand and Brice as Winnetou.

Appearing as Winnetou is Frenchman Pierre Brice (1929-2015). Brice – descendant of French nobility – spent his life portraying the Indian chief on film and television and on stage opposite various actors portraying Old Shatterhand. Also in our film is Herbert Lom who had already been seen in Night and the City (1950) and Spartacus (1960) but who was still a couple of years away from his first appearance as Chief Inspector Dreyfus.

The Treasure of the Silver Lake is an ambitious and entertaining film about a treasure map torn in half. Bandits rob a stagecoach and kill a traveler to get one half. The other half is safely cached with a settler family. As the map changes hands, Indians get involved and a handsome man and his girl get kidnapped. Old Shatterhand and his crew race the bandits to the Silver Lake. What you get here is basically a B movie as opposed to some hidden underappreciated gem. But it’s worth seeing for its significance, yes, but mostly for the outrageously beautiful photography. There is a restored print on YouTube – hopefully it is there still – that wonderfully displays some stunning scenery. The movie was filmed in the former Yugoslavia and you’ve never seen such grandeur. The climax of the story takes place at Silver Lake and for these scenes the company headed for Croatia and Paklenica National Park. The water is the bluest thing you’ve ever seen. Click here to see this movie and particularly the incredible settings.

Here’s the thing about this film – and indeed the whole premise behind this series. Here we are highlighting not only Americans who worked in non-Hollywood films but we are learning that some actors and some films were immensely popular outside of North America. The Treasure of the Silver Lake was one of these films. It was the highest-grossing film in West Germany in the year of its release and was also extremely popular in France and the Soviet Union, eventually selling over 42 million tickets worldwide. Perhaps more significantly, the monumental success of this film and its soundtrack served as inspiration for certain Italian filmmakers.

Handsome Lex and his Ro-Lex

The score for our film comes from German Martin Böttcher (1927-2019). Böttcher composed the soundtrack for 10 Karl May films and remarkably the instrumental music for this movie spawned hits that charted in Germany. In these early scores, we see the exact archetypes of later scores by the maestro Ennio Morricone that helped make later spaghetti westerns the films they were.

Lex Barker would play Old Shatterhand in almost a dozen movies made up until 1968. Stewart Granger would also take a turn playing the character in three films. Barker enjoyed colossal success in Germany – helped no doubt by his fluency in the language – where he made scores of films. In fact, he never really returned to Hollywood but spent the rest of his professional life abroad.

Barker was married five times, once to actress Arlene Dahl and later to Lana Turner. According to Turner’s daughter, Cheryl Crane, Barker repeatedly molested and raped the child during the four years Barker and Turner were married. When Lana found out, she held a gun to Barker’s head but was unable to pull the trigger. Crane made these assertions in her memoir, Detour, published many years after Barker’s death.

Lana and Lex

Lex turned 54 on May 8th, 1973. Four days later, he was in NYC heading to meet his fiancée, actress Karen Kondazian (b. 1950). While walking down Lexington Avenue, he dropped dead of a heart attack. After his New York funeral, his estranged fifth wife took his ashes home with her to Spain.

Aside from the cloud hanging over his personal deportment, Lex Barker was a pioneer of ExPat Cinema and his appearances and success in films abroad make him a true trailblazer.


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