Story of Wojtek the Bear to be turned into delightful animated film
Already regarded as something of a cultural phenomenon in Poland, and to a lesser degree in Scotland, the story of Wojtek the Syrian brown bear that served alongside Polish troops during WWII, is to be made into an animated film.
Written by Wojciech Lepianka and directed by Iain Gardner, the project is a Polish-British initiative financed by the Polish Film Institute, Screen Scotland and the UK-government supported Young Audience Content Fund.
Adopted as a cub by Polish soldiers in Iran in 1942, the bear later passed into the care of the 2nd Transport Company (which would later morph into the 22nd Artillery Supply Company).
Christened Wojtek, he became more than a mascot, learning to march alongside the troops, salute and carry cases of ammunition.
Awarded his own paybook and ration card, Wojtek’s exploits soon became legendary, with the bear often using his leisure time to wrestle with his colleagues, not to mention drink beer and smoke cigarettes alongside them.
Following them on a campaign trail that would eventually lead to Monte Cassino, Wojtek would later join his unit in Scotland where he was resettled in Edinburgh Zoo after finally being demobilized in 1947.
A popular figure, not least as a regular guest on children’s programmes such as Blue Peter, Wojtek lived to see the age of 21 before finally passing away in 1963.
Already commemorated in Poland and Scotland via numerous plaques and memorials, now his story is to gain an even bigger audience with the announcement that a film is to be made about his life.
Speaking to TFN, co-producer Iain Harvey revealed how his initial scepticism was quickly dispelled: “I’ve known the director for many years but if I’m completely honest, my first thoughts were ‘just how much of this story is true’.”
Choosing to investigate further, Harvey called his long-term friend (and co-producer on the film) Wlodek Matuszewski.
“He immediately told me how highly Wojtek was regarded in Poland and I think that was something of a lightbulb moment – I realized this wasn’t some fantastical yarn. For once, the magic was real.”
Billing it as a story of both loss and hope, Harvey emphasizes that the film is not to be treated as a documentary.
“We’ve tried incredibly hard to ensure historical accuracy,” he says, “but this is a story based on true incidents rather than a documentary. The Polish soldiers Wojtek befriended, for instance, are composite characters.
“Likewise, we’ve tried to avoid being overtly political. Yes, Poland was betrayed and then forgotten, but fundamentally we wanted this film to carry a message of hope.
“Coming away from it, I hope that audiences will see that even in the midst of the most overwhelming tragedy, that something positive can be born from the darkest of moments."
Though animated, Harvey is also keen to stress that the film will not be a cartoon.
“The director was adamant that Wojtek should be treated like a bear,” he says. “He didn’t want him grinning or grimacing as if he was some cartoon figure. This bear was real, so we wanted to maintain a level of realism. The director is interested in how we relate to animals culturally – the bear is often represented by humanity as a savage beast, but here it is the most peaceful soul caught amidst human horrors.”
Careful to ensure the story is awarded the respect it warrants, the collaborators have worked closely with their Polish colleagues so as not to misrepresent the bear.
“I’m hopeful this will appeal to anyone over the age of five or six,” says Harvey. “There are moments of comedy, but this is also a story of war and humanity. There’s a lot of strong and positive elements that I think will attract anyone who likes a story that is real.”
Capturing this in animated form has not been without its complexities, but Harvey is certain that the right balance has been found.
“The animation quality has to be aligned with the spirit of the story,” he says. “Animation is quite an imprecise form when you’re working with a team of eight or ten animators, so to find consistency is a challenge, but we have a wonderful animation director (Bafta Winning Ross Hogg) and the team has already formed a very strong bond.
“Moreover, we’re not working with a Hollywood-style budget, so we’re looking more at broad brush strokes rather than the close detail of the big budget productions, but for us it wasn’t so much about the detail as it was about the mood.”
In this, the music has been key, and the recruitment of the multi-Oscar winning composer Normand Roger (Father and Daughter, The Man Who Planted Trees, The Old Man and the Sea) is being viewed as a masterstroke.
“The music and film have to be able to merge as one,” says Harvey, “and working with Normand you realize just how much he adds to a film.”
Likewise, the voice talent has also been expertly assembled to feature names such as Bill Paterson (Truly, Madly, Deeply), Shauna MacDonald (The Descent, Filth), Piotr Baumann (EastEnders, Coronation Street), Tomek Borkowy (Doctor Who, Dom), and Marcin Dorocinski (Queen’s Gambit).
“We’re shooting in English then the Polish team will revoice in Polish language,” says Harvey. “We felt it was important that the key Polish characters could speak clearly enough in English but with a Polish accent, which is why we didn’t want to go down the route of having American-style voices. The right accents were really important to us.”
Particularly exciting, says Harvey, has been the addition of Bill Paterson.
“I think he’s one of the most outstanding actors currently working in Britain, so he’s almost done us a favour by appearing,” he says.
“He plays the role of the zookeeper, and whilst this is quite a small role, it’s also hugely important to the story. Although it is never his intention, he has the ability to steal a scene with the nuances he adds, so working with him was very exciting. He’s really raised the level of what we’re trying to achieve.”
Harvey is equally keen to throw praise in the direction of his Polish colleagues.
“I’ve known Wlodek for 20-years or so,” he says, “so there’s already that strong level of trust. Because of that, any difficulties are easily solved. Both of us understand the film couldn’t have happened without the joint-financing, but we also have a clear vision guided by the director and I think, given the circumstances, it’s as straight-forward as it gets for a complicated production.”
Should things proceed on schedule, A Bear Named Wojtek will premier next autumn.