Watch on king’s hand or mistakes in films

After watching a completely untrue motion picture showing important historical events people will think that’s how it really happened. And the cinema may be a more powerful creator of history than professors writing books.

The latest “Znachor” [“Forgotten Love” or, literally, “The Quack”, 2023]. The year is 1935, perhaps 1936. An envelope full of banknotes appears on the screen. A glance inside – there is a note that reads “Ban Emisyjny” [“Issuing Ban(k)”]. So the Bank of Issue in Poland which issued the so-called “młynarki” in the General Governorate, i.e. under German occupation, from 1940 to 1945. Very similar pre-war banknotes had the words “Bank Polski” [“Bank of Poland”] on them and such money would have been in the envelope…

Films set in the past – for instance, in the communist era, but also earlier, for example before WWII, such as the above-mentioned “Znachor” – appear on the screen quite often. The Ministry of Culture had informed in a brochure that 42 historical feature films have been made since 2018 while another 50 were in the making. Since the brochure was published some have moved from the second group to the first. People who are not experts in history don’t see errors in them. But some things are quite easy to spot.

A lorry from the 17th century

There are people who watch films very attentively and are able to point out most spectacular mistakes in the production. In any case, those most outrageous have been described in a number of articles in various magazines. For example, in “Quo Vadis” one of the Romans wears modern sports shoes. In “Pan Wołodyjowski” [“Colonel Wołodyjowski”], a lorry appears in one scene. In turn, in the work “1920. Bitwa Warszawska” [“Battle of Warsaw 1920”] television antennas can be seen on a rooftop. While in “Katyń”, a fragment of a yellow “M” letter can be seen behind a poster pillar against the red background of McDonald’s.

Such examples can be multiplied. In the once-popular series “Czterej pancerni i pies” [“Four Tank-Men and a Dog”] on the roofs of some houses, as in “Bitwa Warszawska”, you can see television antennas, while many soldiers shoot with Kalashnikovs, which weren’t produced until 1947. In the earlier production “Krzyżacy” [“Knights of the Teutonic Order”] king Władysław Jagiełło had a watch on his hand, although this is not really certain as later versions of the film were slightly renovated and there is no such thing. This is why, in some articles, available on the web, deliberations continue: was the watch really visible or was it merely a mark of it on the bronzed hand of Emil Karewicz, who played Jagiełło?
Frame from the film “Krzyżacy” directed by Alexander Ford, 1960. Photo: TVP reproduction
But the truth is that it is difficult to avoid mistakes of this kind when making a historical film. Just 20 or 30 years ago, Wrocław could easily “play” Berlin or any other German city, especially one dating back to the war, a bit run-down, dilapidated and dirty. But now Wrocław looks more and more beautiful – and it is difficult to find places that are “not contaminated” by modernity.

The situation is similar in smaller towns and villages. If we see country cottages with thatched roofs on the screen, we can be 100% sure that they were filmed in an open-air museum. This is the case in the new “Znachor”, in which the Lublin Village Museum “starred”. Of course, an open-air museum does not look like a living town, it needs to be “characterized” appropriately – so that it gives the impression of a place where people actually live.

You can find old tenements in almost every city, but they require significant measures to make them look pre-war or 19th century. You need to cover modern notes, put up old-fashioned signs, and make sure that street lamps look like they used to. Computer technology can help, but it is expensive and does not necessarily produce good results. In the heavily criticised film “Tajemnica Westerplatte” [“1939 Battle of Westerplatte”], the computer-created German battleship Schleswig-Holstein looks worse than if a model had been built. Trying to cover it with some strange fog floating on the water looks at least strange...

Trouble with guns

In the case of war films, the matter is especially complicated. Yes, there are numerous reconstruction groups in Poland, excellently equipped and perfectly aware of the old times – from medieval knights to World War II soldiers. But the more modern ones only have dummy weapons, because there is no other way; and weapons must be delivered to the set as real as possible.

Filmmakers say that when, in 1958, the film “Wolne miasto” [“Free City”] was made about the defence of the Polish Post Office in Gdańsk on September 1, 1939, there were a lot of Polish and German weapons from the beginning of World War II and they were still quite functional. In 1967, “Westerplatte” was being shot, also set in September 1939 – by then the number of these weapons had decreased significantly. Now it is even more difficult, although there are institutions and people who have very good equipment and willingly rent it to film producers. Of course, some have better weapons than others – and producers as well as directors should know it.

A sad example of the accumulation of historical errors is the film “Orlęta. Grodno’39” [“Eaglets. Grodno ‘39”]. Browsing the forums where experts discuss the subject, one can notice that the first mistake they noticed was the use of a Czech light machine gun (probably ZB model 26) instead of the Polish Browning, and the second – post-war gas mask bags.
You could say that these are details, but there are many more serious mistakes and they do not only concern the weapons used. As one historian noted, the fighting for Grodno from September 20 to 22, 1939 is already very well known; it is known on which street, when and which Soviet tank was destroyed, as well as what happened to its crew. But the film’s director didn’t care about it much – the film does not feature any real characters from among the city’s defenders, and the scenes of the Soviet attack on the bridge over the Neman were filmed in... Poznań, which does not resemble Grodno at all. Everything possible was stuffed next to the barricade defending the bridge, from an anti-aircraft gun (in fact, there were such guns in Grodno, but they were fired from a hill) to an anti-tank gun (which the defenders did not have at their disposal). It was supposed to look nice, but nice doesn’t necessarily mean true and sensible.

Well, Krzysztof Łukaszewicz seems to be finishing his next film “Czerwone Maki” [“Red Poppies”] about the battles for Monte Cassino. This film may be shot in Bulgaria, which, as we know, is very similar to Italy. But we must hope that this time a more historically accurate work will be created.

Money is not everything

The fundamental problem in the case of contemporary Polish films is the obvious lack of money. In the past, hundreds or even thousands of extras played in “Krzyżacy” or “Potop” [“The Deluge”], the latter including 70 leading and 600 supporting actors, as well as 40,000 extras! Now you have to economise.

In one of the reviews of “Tajemnica Westerplatte” (directed by Paweł Chochlew) we read: “In the first attack, about 220 people from Lt. Henningsen’s assault company tried to take the outpost by storm. I don’t require a human phalanx to be thrown in front of me in [the film]. I’m not arguing that two hundred stormtroopers should have jumped out from behind the brick wall like devils from behind a bush. Nevertheless, when watching the film, we have the impression that the depot is being captured by 10 extras gathered in a group, representing the attacking side, plus a single cameraman (...). In the film, the viewer sees a maximum of a few extras at a time, which is typical of the film’s battle scenes, which are very “economical” in their scope. And one more quote: “Fights involving the outpost (commanded by seaman Rygielski) are something of a curiosity. Five Germans attack positions as utter idiots along an exposed beach in daylight, in terrain as open as a billiard table, and the firefight between the attackers and the outpost begins and ends invariably at a distance of 10-15 metres – half the assault distance”
It’s worse when the director has more than modest knowledge of history and the military, but decides to create a work that requires some knowledge. This was the case with the film “Orzeł. Ostatni patrol” [“Below The Surface. ORP Orzeł”], directed by Jacek Bławut, criticized primarily for its weak script, in which the crew spends most of the time dolefully and aimlessly wandering around their ship.

But in the FilmWeb discussion forum, one of the viewers pointed out something else: “Probably the most absurd scene of the film was the unnoticed entry of an OCEANIC SUBMARINE into the shallow basin of a Dutch harbour and the observation of a wedding on the coast. I don’t know where the Poles got the periscope on the , but it was truly space technology. How else can we explain the fact that the sailors could use a zoom to see clearly a mother dancing with her child while a black man was cheerfully playing the saxophone. (…) At one point, our brave ship surfaces to get some air, aware that German ships are circling around. The emerges and starts firing RIFLES (!!!) at the German ships. Why, if the ship was armed with a 105 mm gun and a twin 40 mm anti-aircraft gun? (…) Among other – pardonnez-moi – stupidities, it is worth mentioning banging a key on the ladder to lure German ships towards you. I don’t even know how to comment on it”.

At least PLN 12 million was spent on “Orzeł...” and PLN 14 million on “Tajemnica Westerplatte” – at least this is the official information.

Consultants were missing?

Of course, money is not the only problem, but it is important. The excellent “Dunkirk” cost at least $100 million, or PLN 420 million. When trying to compare it with a similar Polish film, there comes to mind “1920. Bitwa Warszawska”, which cost over PLN 25 million (not taking into account inflation and exchange rate differences). Well, yes, but “Bitwa Warszawska” is full of historical errors, not at all related to finances. First example: the film features a Soviet armoured train (computer-generated), completely unreal, looking like some sea battleship on wheels. Second: Soviet armoured cars are replicas of pre-war Polish models: 29 and 34, only slightly “characterized” and not at all resembling those from the Polish-Bolshevik war. And one could at least cover them with plywood! And the third one: the priest, Ignacy Skorupka, has a stole introduced after the Second Vatican Council (as it is now), not one from that time, widened at the bottom. Meanwhile, the original stole of Rev. Skorupka is kept in the Polish Army Museum…

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE This must be surprising, because the film had consultants – primarily the late professor Janusz Cisek, director of the Polish Army Museum in 2006-2012. Unfortunately, we cannot ask him why he did not notice these errors. Or maybe no one listened to him?...

Of course, you can take comfort in the fact that others make mistakes too. There are many lists of the worst films in this respect on the Internet. There is, among others: “Pearl Harbor”, where we can see a barbaric act by the Japanese – the bombing of a civilian hospital – that never happened. There are others, from “Shakespeare in Love” (apparently everything there is untrue) through “The Patriot” (lots of errors) to “Braveheart” (very much the same).

One may get the impression that the creators consider the average viewer to be completely ignorant of history, so they can “sell” any story they want because the recipients won’t notice that something is wrong. Those who do notice, a few, will argue on various websites and point out mistakes, while others will be happy to have the chance to write another article or make another YouTube video from the “mistakes in films” series.

What’s worse is that after watching a completely untrue motion picture showing important historical events people will think that’s how it really happened. And the cinema may be a more powerful creator of history than professors writing books.

– Piotr Kościński

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki
Main photo: On the set of the film “Katyń” directed by Andrzej Wajda. Photo: TVP – Piotr Bujnowicz, album from the producer Fabryka Obrazu
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