HISTORY OF POLAND: "BOHDAN KHMELNITSKY" AND "WITH SWORD AND FIRE" (MOVIES)
The Ukrainian Uprising against Poland in 1648
The film Bohdan Khmelnitsky tells the story of the Ukrainian uprising against the Polish in 1648. It is based on the real-life story of the title character, though it seems to paint Khmelnitsky in a very favorable light. Khmelnitsky is a Cossack who has been under the oppressive thumb of the military of Poland for some time. The people of the Ukraine have grown increasingly disenchanted with their situation in regards to the Polish but several of their uprisings have failed. It was not long after he his return to the region that Khmelnitsky begins fighting with the Ukrainian peasants in an attempt to overthrow Polish rule.
The film shows several scenes of Ukrainian peasants being tortured and beaten by the Polish military. However, they are often shown completely unbowed by this and even laugh off attempts of the military to silence them. Their resistance continues to grow until war erupts. After two bloody and hotly contested battles the Ukrainians emerge victorious and gain their independence from Poland. However, Khmelnitsky has lost a great deal in the pursuit of this victory, including his lover Helena who tried unsuccessfully to poison him. The film ends with Khmelnitsky rallying his people and proclaiming that they will never be beaten by an outside force because they are too strong.
The film was made in 1941 and is a clear attempt by the Soviet Union to rally Ukrainians to their cause in the war against Germany. In fact, the film depicts German mercenaries who work for the Polish landowners against the Ukraine people. The Cossacks and the Ukrainians in general are depicted as true underdogs who battle against a completely malevolent force in the Polish. The Ukrainians in general and Khmelnitsky in particular are all portrayed as heroes willing to die valiantly for their country's freedom.
The peasants in the film are depicted quite differently from Khmelnitsky, who clearly sees the seriousness of their situation. The peasants are far less disciplined than he is and they have a clear affinity for vodka. In fact, vodka serves as a continuous reminder of all that is good in the Ukraine. Khmelnitsky is even defined at one point as a man of nobility who still drinks vodka. This I meant to denote that even though he is clearly of a higher class, he is also one of the common people. It is meant to make him seem even more heroic in their eyes. This is important because at times it seems that if the people would be left to their own devices they would simply descend into wild crowds and parties instead of the disciplined fighters who ultimately defeated the Poles.
While Khmelnitsky and his friend Krivonis are treated as unquestioned heroes, their enemies are only seen as vicious and vindictive. They seem to take pleasure at one point in announcing their intent to torture two peasants who are in their midst. Similarly any traitors to the Cossack cause are viewed on equal footing with the Polish, as is the one woman with a prominent role in the film, Helena. She is viewed as manipulative and ultimately as a traitor who tries to kill Khmelnitsky. The Russian Embassy is seen as a friend to the Cossacks and helps them to achieve their independence. This seems strange since the Ukraine would eventually come to regret joining with Russia in the coming centuries.
With Fire and Sword
By adding a love plot to the film With Sword and Fire, director Jerzy Hoffman has introduced an interesting subplot into the story of the Khmelnitsky uprising. In this version, Khmelnitsky and a Polish knight both fall in love with the same woman, Helena. It is intriguing because they seem to be fighting over her with just as much passion as when they fight over territory. In this sense Helena serves as a symbol of what the two enemies are attempting to attain. She has become the Ukraine caught between the Cossacks and the Poles.
The love story also serves another interesting purpose, however. It shows that the two characters, though separated by nationality and loyalty, are not so very different. They see the best in this girl and both fall hopelessly in love with her. Once again, it is easy to view her as a proxy for the land over which they are fighting. Each of them has a very good reason for wanting to win and each can say that they truly love both her and the land.
Finally, the love story serves to show the two combatants as real human beings with real feelings. They are not merely warriors caught in a fight to the death, they are both men who have both strong and soft sides to them and who feel strongly a variety of emotions. The love story serves to humanize both of them in direct contrast to the way the figures in Bohdan Khmelnitsky were portrayed. These are complex men who are not easily identified as good or evil. Each of them has a strong sense of right and wrong and each of them is capable of great good and great evil.