What Were The Original “Camembert-Westerns” Of Early 20th Century France?

I’d heard tell of an ancient horse breed that lived in the wilds of the Camargue – a large marshy coastal plain surrounded by salty winds and age-old customs that gave it more than a hint of mystery in the south of France…

Fully prepared to find pretty pictures of horses frolicking in picturesque backgrounds of sand and sea, I typed in ‘Camargue horses’ and went on the hunt for some photographic evidence.

Sure enough, I came upon the photographs I’d expected – beautiful white horses (or ‘grey’ to use the correct terminology), semi-feral and ridden in a free style by their traditional keepers of the Camargue – the ‘gardians’.

Gardians are horse and cattle drovers – local men and women who dedicate their lives to protecting and aiding the native breeds of the Camargue landscape. But I hadn’t really expected to find this – what was a woman, a horse, and a cowboy doing on a beach – and why was she naked?

This felt like another world, something faintly magical and surreal that had touched the area before it became widely documented by 21st century visitors. Had the search turned up something more secret about the Camargue for me?

After a bit of digging, it turns out that this striking shot is taken from a still of the 1922 silent film Le roi de Camargue, directed by André Hugon (1886-1960) and set on the book of the same name , ‘King of the Camargue’, by the French writer Jean Aicard (1848-1921).

Written in 1890, with original illustrations by the then-famous French artist and book illustrator George Roux (1853–1929), it tells the story of Renaud – a handsome and brave horse drover or ‘gardian’ (meaning ‘guardian’, in French) – mounted on his white steed.

He encounters danger on the Camargue’s salty beaches and murky marshland whilst seeking to protect his beautiful, innocent fiancee Lisette from the curse of ‘Zingara’ – the story’s ‘Gyspy Queen’.

This is a character that haunts the young couple by calling down a prophecy upon them due to a mistake made by Lisette earlier in the story.

It is the village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, capital of the Camargue, that hosts the action. Here, the gypsies and their Queen have taken up residence to celebrate ‘the feast of Saintes-Maries’ – an ancient custom that has survived for centuries as an important and pivotal part of the town’s seasonal celebrations.

Today, it draws many thousands of pilgrims, including a large number of Roma gypsies, to its shores, and ancient rites include carrying statues of the Marys into the sea – a feat that can attract up to 40,000 visitors to the town for the week.

Just so we’re all up to date – it was on the beach of this village, so the Christian legend goes, that the three saints Mary MagdaleneMary Salome and Mary of Clopas landed in their boats whilst fleeing persecution in Alexandria.

Closely linked in the gospels with Christ’s crucifixion and their finding of the empty tomb, they are said to have used their ‘skirts and their long, thin veils’ as sails for their boat as they set upon the sea, along with their two serving women – Sarah and Marcella – as they fled persecution in Alexandria. They landed safely here in the Camargue, whereupon at least two of their remains – Mary Clopas and Mary Salome – were ‘discovered’ in the 15th century.

The town has been a religious pilgrimage for Roma Gypsies, Catholics and many other travellers from all over the world ever since.

In fact, it is still customary today for the girls to ride through the town in traditional Arlesian dress on the backs of their white Camargue horses every summer. The beautiful fiancee Lisette could have been inspired by any one of the girls of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer…

The story moves on to the more remote landscape of Camargue coast as Renaud (our ‘cowboy’) and Lisette (the tale’s compulsory ‘damsel in distress’) are desperate to escape the gypsy Zingara’s curse… Set in the Rhône River delta of the Camargue, it provides the perfect coastal setting for an infinitely more elusive (and French) version of the American Wild West –

And yet the idea to shoot westerns in the Camargue itself was helped along by total chance…

It has to do with a certain showman called Buffalo Bill. When one French film director’s brother – cattle rancher and Camargue gardian Folco de Baroncelli – attended a performance of Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West Show” in Paris he watched in amazement. For in the show, he thought he recognised scenes from the novels he had enjoyed as a child.

Buffalo Bill during one of his reenactments

After a career ‘subduing’ the American ‘Old West’ by brutal force, Buffalo Bill turned his most infamous skirmishes with Native Americans into a kind of travelling reenactment show, which came to Paris in 1905. The similarities between the pictures of Buffalo Bill on his white steed ‘herding’ American buffalo and those below of traditional gardians working in the French Camargue may not seem so striking to us today. A more contemporary audience may seek to distance themselves from such a figure associated with domination and cruelty, but to a gardian from the Camargue, where they spent their lives herding with black bulls and white horses, one can see how Baroncelli felt there was an aesthetic connection.

A traditional Camargue gardian’s dwelling, early 20th century.

Baroncelli was inspired to ask film director Jean Durand and screenwriter, stunt rider, and actor Joë Hamman to shoot a series of films in the Camargue he knew, including Cowboy in 1906 and The Desperado in 1907, which were both written by and starred Hamman.

Hamman stunt-riding for Buffalo Bill in Paris.

According to him, Cowboy (in 1906) was the first ever Western. Hamman and Durand are both considered to be ‘pioneers’ (a fitting description) of the genre outside America. What I love about this is that the French western was actually called “western-camembert” in some circles…

Cast and crew of one of the earliest Camargue westerns.

Shot pre-World War I, they in fact use cowhands and cattle from Baroncelli’s own farm near the village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

Folco de Baroncelli’s brother, Jacques de Baroncelli (1881-1951) would also later film his 1935 version of Le Roi de Camargue here, no doubt inspired by the approach of his brother. The Camargue landscape, customs and characters continued to capture the imagination of many more film directors over the decades following those first French Westerns, including Jean de Marguenat’s Le Gardian in 1946, starring the singer and actor Tino Rossi.

Strikingly, like the posters, it’s surprising that the original novel and films that followed, were so remarkably uninhibited –

Bearing in mind that the book was written in 1890 and included hand-drawn illustrations of a naked woman associated with both Christianity and the occult.

It’s not a little staggering then that its publication doesn’t seem to have been censored in any way…

Albert Lamorisse’s Crin Blanc (‘White Mane’) was much tamer.

Filmed in 1952, it tells the story of a young boy’s bond with the wild white horse that has escaped from its keepers.

And here we have D’où viens-tu… Johnny? (‘Where Are You From, Johnny?), starring young French singer and 60’s heart-throb Johnny Holiday.

It included a love interest both on- and off-screen – Sylvie Vartan, who played the besotted female lead –

And they would later announce their engagement shortly after the film’s premier.

Johnny and Sylvie were one of several couples who were in love or already married who played the male and female leads in the Camargue westerns of early 20th century France – perhaps a testament to the enchanted feel of the Camargue, which they also used for its famous horses and setting in 1963.

The Camargue remains an incredibly rare opportunity to see this relationship between people, horse and land that remains strong as the ancient folklore that winds through it today…

I think I’ll be planning a little trip to the south of France next year…

Dreaming of white horses…

In Love&Light, FS XOX

You can read the full text of the King of the Camargue and watch a clip from Crin Blanc here.

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