Polish-Soviet War has no luck with cinema. Why?

The dramatic story from the 1920 simply demands a great film worthy of its name. Meanwhile the best motion pictured ever made , the 1930 “Starry Squadron” is unsuccessfully sought after all around the world.

The Polish-Soviet War (aka the “Polish-Bolshevik War”) is one of the few military conflicts of the 20th century in which our country was victorious. No wonder then that a number of films were made about it in the inter-war period. Later on, during the communist regime, silence fell for half a century. And in contemporary Poland that war somehow didn’t attract directors. It has only been portrayed in one big but terrible film and a descent TV series. On the other hand, we cannot see pre-war films because they have either been lost or remain in fragments.

Two super-productions to start with

Clashes with the Bolsheviks were still going on when, in 1920, a film (silent of course) entitled “For you, Poland” [“Dla Ciebie, Polsko”] was shot. Alas, only 32 minutes of it have survived to this day.

It was directed by Antoni Bednarczyk who, before the war, was known mostly as an actor; the names of the actors starring in it are rather unfamiliar today – it’s Antoni Różański (landowner Marcin Oksza, a veteran of the 1863 uprising), Henryk Rydzewski (Franek, a Polish soldier) or Ryszard Sobiszewski (as the Bolshevik Sasha). After 1945, he and his brother ran a popular dance school in Warsaw.

The film is set in 1919 in the Vilnius region. Following the withdrawal of the German army the Polish-Soviet War breaks out which brutally enters into the lives of a couple in love: Franek and Hanka. Bolshevik hordes wreak havoc on Polish villages and estates. At squire Oksza’s estate the invaders throw a drunken party. The Polish cavalry arrives to the rescue just in the nick of time. Franek wins popular acclaim for capturing a Russian spy. Important documents that were found on him contribute to the capture of Vilnius. The bloody fighting ends with the Polish army having entering the city. The film concludes with a documentary record of the celebrations related to Vilnius’ incorporation into Poland, with the participation of Józef Piłsudski.

Sadly, the half an hour of film fragments available to viewers today doesn’t allow them to judge the work as a whole. Some scenes (especially indoors) are acted in a very theatrical manner and the fighting looks rather unnatural, although there is one battle shown in which the key role was played by “huge tanks from abroad”, in fact – from today’s perspective – small machines of the Renault FT 17 type. Back in the day however, the battle, watched en the screen, must have been very impressive for the spectators. Anyway, the creators put a lot of effort in filming it: the Polish infantry, supported by advancing armoured vehicles, shells explode, there is fire and smoke all around…

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE Filming of the battles couldn’t have been a problem, as these events had taken place only a year earlier. Although specifically during the shoot a new battle for Vilnius was taking place – it is therefore hard to say, whether the Gate of Dawn scene was actually filmed there or whether there was a need to set up decorations.
The motion picture “For you, Poland” was made in 1920, while the war was still going on. Photo: frame from the film. Photo:
Not more than a year later the motion picture “Miracle on the Vistula” [“Cud nad Wisłą], commissioned by the then Propaganda Department of the Ministry of Defence, was completed. 53 minutes have survived to this day.

It was directed by Ryszard Bolesławski, by the way a veteran of the Polish-Soviet War (he fought in the 1st Józef Piłsudski Chevau-légers Regiment) who went to America and became one of Hollywood’s top filmmakers. He made movies with Greta Garbo and Marlena Dietrich.

“The Miracle on the Vistula” featured some of the biggest names in pre-war cinema. One of the main characters is Krysta, played by Jadwiga Smosarska. Other well-known actors include Stefan Jaracz as a Bolshevik agitator and Kazimierz Junosza-Stępowski as a Bolshevik agent. There is also Michał Znicz, playing an actor.

The film’s plot begins in the winter of 1919 in the village of Kręzy on the Western Bug, where Krysta lives. Then we see Warsaw. One day a boy from Kręzy ends up in the hospital where the doctor Jan works. After the boy is saved, the grateful family invites the doctor and his beloved to their estate in Kręzy. In 1920 the Red Army launches a sudden offensive and the Bolsheviks quickly approach the outskirts of Warsaw. The Battle of Warsaw begins. In the film, we can see, among others, a Polish detachment, commanded by Rev. Ignacy Skorupka fighting a Red Army unit. Soon after the battle is over the two couples, i.e. Krysta and the squire Jerzy along with Jan and Ewa – get married. The film concludes with a documentary sequence showing the celebrations of the presentation of the marshal’s baton to Józef Piłsudski on November 14, 1920.

Unfortunately, this motion picture can’t be seen either but what has remained is much better than “For You, Poland”. Perhaps on account of the director and perhaps also because at least several exquisite actors starred there. And although the film is silent, they play much less theatrically than in the previously mentioned production.

Alas, not all the of battle scenes have survived – and it was those that were particularly applauded by the then press. Journalists even questioned whether they had been shot for the film purposes, thus suggesting that they could be authentic war footage.

The “Starry Squadron” puzzle
The next great production is the 1930 film “Starry Squadron” [“Gwiaździsta Eskadra], which tells the story of American pilots, fighting in the ranks of the Polish army.

First, some history, the real kind. The 7th Fighter Squadron was manned by people recruited by American Merian C. Cooper, a filmmaker whose great-great-grandfather fought alongside Casimir Pulaski during the American War of Independence. In December 1919, the 7EM adopted the name of the 7th Fighter Squadron named after Thaddeus Kosciuszko; was stationed, among others in Berdychiv, Bila Tserkva and Kyiv. Cooper was shot down, but he escaped from captivity and made his way to Poland. After the war, he returned to the USA, where, among others, he co-directed the film “King Kong”, in which he also appeared - piloting a plane attacking a giant ape.

And in “The Starry Squadron” (the planes were painted with the emblem: a red rogatywka [four-cornered hat, part of the Cracovian folk costume] and two crossed scythes against the background of an American flag) there is a love story about the American pilot’s feelings for a Polish girl, inspired by the true fate of Cooper.

The motion picture was directed by Leonard Buczkowski, who also made a lot of films after WWII; the last one was “Mary and Napoleon” [“Marysia i Napoleon”] in 1966, and the most famous are “Forbidden Songs” [“Zakazane Piosenki”] from 1946, “Skarb” [Treasure] from 1948, “Przygoda na Mariensztacie” [Adventure in Mariensztat] from 1953, but also “The Eagle” [“Orzeł”] about the odyssey of a Polish submarine in September 1939, shot in 1958. The script was written by Janusz Meissner, a pilot and writer, author of many books, mainly on aviation.

As Meissner described in his memoirs called “The Wind in the Soles”, Buczkowski assumed that the film’s plot would be “sensational, fast-paced, with dramatic tension, with some kind of kidnapping, with a dangerous adventure, all against the backdrop of squadron’s combat operations of. Lots of outdoor shots, battles in the air, a big battle involving cavalry, infantry and artillery”.

Meissner recalled the making of the film: “I’m piloting a SPAD with a small automatic camera mounted on the fuselage behind my back, filming the training squadron commander chasing me in a good old Bristol disguised as an enemy plane. (Machine gun bursts of fire will be inserted later). Battle turns, circular combat, horizon mills, corkscrew spin, sky and earth alternating – are captured on film”.

And on the ground, meanwhile, a battle is being fought: “I’m flying in circles at low altitude with a brave operator who, using a hand-held camera and struggling with the momentum, shoots an unfolding bayonet attack, a cavalry charge, a hurricane of artillery fire...”. He summed up the whole thing in a minor way, claiming that the film was “melodramatic, sensational kitsch and only the aviation theme of the plot made it a great success”. Or maybe he just couldn’t praise the film about the Polish-Soviet War in the Polish People’s Republic?...
Cover of the “Wielkopolska Ilustracja” magazine from 1930 with a frame from the film “Starry Squadron”. Photo: Wielkopolska Biblioteka Cyfrowa
Not even a small fragment of “The Starry Squadron” remained, only a few stills. There is a justified theory that after the war all copies were taken from Poland by the Soviets. There is even a film being made about the search for “Squadron” entitled “The Secret of 'The Starry Squadron'”. Its director is Jan Borowiec, the head of the Ubi Leones company. We are doing extensive research, and have contacted Merian Cooper’s family, one of the film’s distributors, Franciszek Ożga, the head of the Polish American Film Corporation in Chicago before the Second World War, and the former home of the Polish Seminary in Orchard Lake, Michigan, which contains real treasures of Polish culture. So far without success, but after all, our film is primarily intended to tell the story of the “Star Squadron”, regardless of whether we manage to find it – says Borowiec - It is possible that a copy of the film is in Russia, but in the current conditions it is unrealistic to reach it. The traces lead to other countries... – concludes the director.

A lost battle

Unfortunately, today’s greatest film about the events of eighty-three years ago, although it is a super production, was not considered a masterpiece. Shown in 2011, the picture “Battle of Warsaw 1920” [“1920. Bitwa Warszawska”] has a very low rating of 4.1 on Filmweb, and the critics gave it a crushing two! What actually happened that Jerzy Hoffman made a film rated so poorly?... After all, excellent actors played there: Daniel Olbrychski as Piłdudski, there are also Jerzy Bończak, Adam Ferency, Bogusław Linda...
And yet, the reviewers were merciless. Maja Katz wrote on Filmweb: “There is an uhlan, as pretty as a picture (Borys Szyc), there is a pretty girl (Natasza Urbańska), who gives up the theatre to fire a machine gun at the Bolsheviks, and there are communists, who, led by a diabolical Lenin, desire to impose a red yoke on all of Europe. Only our brave nation can foil these dishonourable plans”. In “Rzeczpospolita” Piotr Zychowicz summed up the film as “a series of spectacular hand-to-hand combat and explosions, interwoven with the righteous statements of historical figures and the trivial story of a girl waiting for her uhlan to come home from his petty war”. Grzegorz Fortuna, for his part, on showed no mercy either: “'Battle of Warsaw 1920' isn’t just bad. It’s so hopeless that anyone who sees it in the cinema should be compensated for moral damage. I’m not exaggerating, I’m not colouring – Jerzy Hoffman, despite working with many gifted specialists (Idziak, Dębski, Szyc, Olbrychski) has produced a creation, of which, as a matter of fact, we should all be ashamed”. And he added: “Jerzy Hoffman uses symbols with a subtlety worthy of a stoned horse as if he was afraid that some of his brilliant idea might go unnoticed by those slow-witted viewers”.

What’s more, despite many historians working with the team, the film contains numerous errors. The Bolshevik armoured train looks like a real, huge battleship set on wheels – something from the science-fiction genre, because there had never been such. Two Bolshevik armoured cars are in fact replicas of Polish vehicles models 29 and 34, whose names indicate well the year of their creation: 1929 and 1934. And they could at least be covered with plywood and painted to resemble those used during the Polish-Soviet war. In turn, Polish airmen drop bombs on the Bolsheviks by hand, as was actually done, but at the beginning of WWI; in 1920, the planes already had well-functioning bomb ejectors. Polish infantry soldiers attack the enemy with bayonets attached to their rifles, when they still carry other bayonets on their belts – are they equipped with two each?... Rev. Skorupka, on the other hand, wears a post-Vatican II stole, and in 1920 the stole simply looked different – it was flared at the bottom.
It’s better not to see Jerzy Hoffman’s film “Battle of Warsaw 1920” – advises the author. Photo: PAP / Grzegorz Michałowski
It is interesting that the film reportedly cost PLN 25.5 million, which is more than another blockbuster from 2014, “Warsaw 44” (less than 25 million) or “Volhynia”, aka “Hatred” from 2016 (20 million) and is on the list of the most expensive Polish films in sixth place. Unofficial information says the equivalent of USD 9 million, or PLN 32 million at that time. And what was the effect? Well, it’s probably better not to watch the movie at all.

A victorious war

Against the background of the “Battle of Warsaw”, the television series “1920. War and Love” (“1920. Wojna i miłość), first shown on TVP on November 11. On Filmweb it has a decent rating of 6.8.

Thirteen episodes tell the story of three soldiers: Bronisław Jabłoński (a Polish nobleman and an officer in the former Russian army played by Jakub Wesołowski), Władysław Jarociński (a soldier from a peasant family from Wielkopolska, a soldier of the former Prussian army – Wojciech Zieliński in this role) and Józef Szymański (a mathematician from Lviv, an officer in the Legions, played by Tomasz Borkowski). It is a story about friendship, relationships with women and the struggle for independent Poland. The common enemy of Władek, Bronek and Józef is the Russian Aleksander Sribielnikow, a Bolshevik commissar (Michał Żurawski). Piłsudski was played by Mirosław Baka, and the cast also included, among others, Krzysztof Globisz and Lech Łotocki.

– “The Battle of Warsaw” was being filmed in a relative parallel to our series, so it was very interesting to make comparisons – says co-author of the script Janusz Petelski (the other co-author was Robert Miękus). – Maybe we managed to reach deeper, to show the events in a slightly more authentic way... – he wonders, adding: – It just so happened that several storylines are quite similar. But of course, the show has budgetary shortcomings. Where large military units are mentioned, there are a dozen or more extras on the set...

And he mentions that during the production of the series, for example, an armoured train from WWII standing at the Museum Station (former Railway Museum in Warsaw) was used. “But thanks to the use of computer programs, he drove on the tracks as if during warfare”, he says.

Of course, experts in the field also noticed mistakes. “The costume designer should be dragged over the cobbles by horses for what he does in this series. Polish soldiers sit in the trenches, and their uniforms are immaculately clean and ironed as if for a parade... so what? Were those trenches dug for them by an excavator? Not to mention the helmets, shining with brand-new paint” – wrote one of those present on the Filmweb forum. “If you only have one set of uniforms for the whole shooting period, you ECONOMIZE (…) The organisers willingly used the help of Historical Reenactment Groups. These Boys performed in their uniforms, so it’s not surprising that wearing them, they didn’t feel like rolling around in the mud”, replied another.

Difficult commemoration

The Polish-Soviet War, a great, Polish victory is somehow out of luck: a monument should have been erected long ago – it wasn’t; a museum should have been opened long ago in Ossów near Warsaw – there is merely an empty building. The dramatic story from the 1920 simply demands a great film worthy of its name. Meanwhile the best motion pictured ever made , the 1930 “Starry Squadron” is unsuccessfully sought after all around the world. Arguably, it is high time that someone overcame this ill fate because rather than about our victories, we talk and write about our defeats. When it is worth knowing that there is more to Polish history than a series of failures.

– Piotr Kościński

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki
Main photo: The TV series “1920. War and Love” is quite successful, assesses the author. Photo: Anna Gostkowska / TVP
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