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Wojtek was a magnificent 500lb Syrian bear who served in World War II alongside a unit of Polish soldiers. Believing that he was a man, Wojtek shared their beer, their cigarettes and eventually their fate...
Wojtek the Bear that Went to War, is largely an anthology of Wojtek's life. Beginning in Iran in 1942 when a group of Polish refugees discovered Wojtek as an orphaned cub, through to his time as a decorated soldier, and finally his death at the age of 22 in 1963. Wojtek touched many lives as he travelled through seven countries from Iran to Scotland, eventually ending up in Berwick Upon Tweed on the Scottish Borders.
As the war progressed Wojtek became more than a mascot to his friends, he was a child, someone to take care of, when their own families had been torn apart. He was also a source of enormous pride, as one Polish veteran said, "We had very little, but we had a bear".
He gave valuable hope and reassurance to his homeless Polish friends during a time of madness, fear and hostility. It was at the battle of Monte Cassino, that he was to have his most famous hour. Picking up a box of artillery shells and helping to move them into a waiting truck won him praise from his colleagues, and was immortalised by the 22nd transport company insignia. From then on an image of a bear carrying an artillery shell adorned the uniform and vehicles of the troops.
The film interviews some of the people that came into contact with Wojtek, but I couldn't help feeling that the real story was lost somewhere in amongst the interviews. In fact, I wasn't overly sure that this wasn't an elaborate hoax from start to finish - maybe the Scottish zoo where Wojtek spend his last days had dreamt up the story in a bid to attract visitors. And, even at the end of the documentary I wasn't convinced that the whole thing wasn't a joke that had gotten out of hands. Maybe there was a bear that somehow managed to fight with the Polish soldiers, but was that really the same bear that spent his last years in Scotland? I'm still not overly convinced, but there's no doubting that the interviewees appear genuine.
The documentary suffers from an understandable lack of real 1940s footage of Wojtek and his army, but I'd have thought that someone, somewhere would have though a bear helping to carry ammunition shells was worthy of a photo or a few feet of film... but apparently not. So we get several photos of a bear (could be any bear to be honest), some pictures of a bear with soldiers (obviously legitimate) and some footage of a young bear play fighting with a soldier. There's also some modern footage of recreated scenes.
Extras include three extended and deleted scenes: Invasion of Poland 1939 (3 min, 20 sec); Wojtek Causes Trouble at Camp 1942 (1 min, 32 sec); and Wojtek Seen at Monte Cassino 1944 (1 min, 13 sec).
While an interesting enough film, £20 is a little steep for this release. Thankfully most online retailers are offering it for under £10.