By Sonja Simonyi
This article explores the concept of the frontier, central to the western genre, and its function within two Hungarian films produced in the country’s socialist period. Adhering to the generic conventions of the western by appropriating its visual and narrative tropes, these productions explore a distinctly Hungarian cultural and historical realm. Essential to the reflections on the specific socio-cultural context of Hungary is the representation of the Hortobágy in both films, a stretch of scenic flatland in the northeastern part of the country. 1 Complexly coded on national as well as transnational levels, this landscape performs key functions in the films as both an instantly recognizable frontier milieu evoking the cinematic Wild West and a realm pregnant with cultural and historical significance expressing Hungarian national identity.
While the 1976 film The Wind Blows under Your Feet (Talpuk alatt fütyül a szél) directed by György Szomjas heralded an explicit appropriation of the genre by revisiting the rural milieu of Habsburg Hungary in the early 19th century, the Hungarian-American co-production Brady’s Escape (1984) focused on a more recent historical moment, placing its (military) frontier adventure within the context of the Second World War. Despite the diverging time periods addressed in these works, the films share a conscious use of the western iconography and its frontier imaginary placed within a unique cultural realm, and an ambitious dedication to reconstitute their Hungarian environments as veritable cinematic frontier universes. The exploration of Hungarianness through the visual markers of the nation is key to this process in both films. Yet while they employ virtually identical symbols associated with Hungarian culture, these motifs fulfill different functions within the two works. Szomjas abundantly employs them in a mode of ironic and critical self-reflection, while in Brady’s Escape these icons become part of a passive enactment of aestheticized exotic imagery, meant to form a visually appealing background to an American soldier’s adventures in a foreign country.
In order to understand the purpose of Hungarian frontier symbolism in these films, in particular through the layered meaning ascribed to the landscape central to both narratives, it is important to establish some historical and cultural reference points through which the frontier identity of Hungary, and in particular its puszta geography, emerges and the ways in which these issues relate to broader processes of national mythmaking and expressions of national identity.
Hungary on the frontiers of Europe
The importance of the frontier as a historical, and cultural construct has been irrevocably entwined with expressions of American national identity, in particular through the work of historian Frederick Jackson Turner. In his “frontier thesis” (1893), Turner established a unique and exclusive connection the American West as a distinct frontier land and the cultural and political values of American society. This conceptualization of the frontier, which as Turner stressed developed distinctly from European culture, has strongly influenced representations of the West in a variety of popular cultural contexts, notably cinema. Yet despite the undeniable centrality of the frontier experience in expressions of nationhood in America, the frontier as a historical and cultural construct has also been central to a number of diverging geographical frameworks of which Hungary provides a notable example.
Essential to the country’s cultural identity is a sense of ambiguity, or in-betweenness, a characteristic it shares with most nations constituting the Eastern European region. Such ideas are historically rooted in the area’s position as a fluid geographical zone between Europe and Asia, and its ongoing position as the site of lengthy political, military and ethnic conflicts, a complex ever-shifting regional identity effectively evoking the image of a frontier area. 2 Such notions have been central to both conceptualizations from abroad, as well as forceful expressions of national identity from the 19th century onward in specific nations of the region, including Hungary. Situated between east and west, an image importantly informed and reinforced by the, to this day contested, origins of the Hungarian people from the Asian continent, the “Western images and stereotypes of the (Magyar) Hungarians and the Hungarian self-images oscillate between two poles.” These historically constructed visions, one negative, the other idealized, pervade both historiography and literary, as well as broader cultural contexts, which identify them on one hand as “Asiatic barbarians, rapacious, wandering, horse-riding nomads ill-placed in civilized Europe,” while in the period of Romanticism increasingly “an exotic image of freedom loving Hungary surfaces, involving the picturesque ingredients huszárok ‘hussars,’ cigányok ‘gypsies,’ puszta ‘Hungarian steppe.’ and csárda ‘inn on the puszta’” [author’s emphasis] as László Marácz succinctly summarizes. 3
The Great Hungarian Plain: a national frontier space
The Great Hungarian Plain poses an important mythical realm onto which these ideas were mapped. A vast stretch of land, which encompasses plains and wetlands, it has been designated as the place where the ancient Hungarian nomadic people settled toward the 9th century. The site of military conflicts, notably between the Austrian Habsburg Empire and the Turkish Ottoman army, which lasted until the late 17th century, the area remained a sparsely populated region, where moderate agricultural and economic development only arrived in the second half of the 19th century, amidst societal upheavals.
The complex ethnic, social and economic structure of the region, combined with the striking landscape of seemingly endless open spaces, figured centrally in the descriptions of the foreign travelers who visited the region, the imaginary constructions of the Hungarian frontier land presenting a fascinating sphere for mythical constructions of the familiar and of the foreign, the familiar often established through parallels drawn to the iconic images of the American West. The isolated layout of modest homesteads dotting a largely deserted landscape, and an economy based on pastoral activities such as cattle herding and horse wrangling, as well as the persistent presence of outlaws until the late 19th century also contributed to identifications of the area as a remote frontier region, solidifying its image as a veritable “wild west” of the East.
British scholar’s Arthur John Patterson’s descriptions of Hungary from 1869 provides an apt illustration of such formulations of the puszta, in a text which emphasized both the economic opportunities presented by the country and its disappearing “virgin soil” as well as the visual echoes it presented of the “newly planted settlements on the skirts of the western wilderness” of America. 4 A. N. J. den Hollander’s two part essay The Great Hungarian Plain: A European Frontier Area from 1960 presents a more recent, key historical study framing the Hungarian Plain as a frontier region usefully embedding the iconic representations of the region as a frontier within a broader historical and socio-economic survey of the area, arguing that underdevelopment and remoteness remained its defining characteristics well into the era of modernization. 5 That the popular tropes associated with the frontier have been sustained in popular representations of the puszta, despite broad transformations of the region brought about by the numerous socio-cultural and political shifts during the 20th century, can be witnessed by the circulation of this imagery in tourist publications, which to this day perpetuate its “Wild West” identity as the essence of Hungarian culture. 6
Parallel to these developments, the puszta landscape became a powerful symbol of processes of nation-building from the 19th century onwards, a representation, which continued to affect the self-image of Hungarians well into the socialist era, as the films under discussion illustrate. Importantly, the processes of national awakening in this period were throughout Eastern Europe tied to romantic depictions of the land and the peasantry. The puszta in particular effectively evoked ideas of freedom and openness through its seemingly endless, striking geography. 7 In this way, the remote region of the Alföld, the cradle of the Hungarian nation, played a central role in the development of national consciousness in the 1800s as expressed by the literature, poetry as well as the visual arts of the period. Turning to the complex regional character of the country, these representations sought to negotiate the dual identity of the nation as westward looking, while exploiting and idealizing the distant image of the non-European origins of the Hungarian people. 8
During the 20th century, images of the puszta circulated widely in both domestic as well as foreign contexts through the expanding field of mass-produced visual culture, including illustrated magazines, as well as travelogues and newsreels, strongly entwined with the developing field of tourism. This landscape was notably rediscovered through these channels, along with its horsemen and herdsmen, celebrated in the interwar period by ethnographers, as well as photographers and filmmakers. Hortobágy is a notable example from the field of cinema, a lyrical film by Austrian director Georg Höllering (1936), which employed non-professional actors (the horsemen, or csikós of the region playing themselves) to relate the story of agricultural expansion impinging on this ancient equestrian culture, and ultimately engaged the tensions brought about by an increasingly modernized society. The loose narrative of the film, perhaps not incidentally revealing themes explored in western narratives as well, merely serves as a backdrop for the visually stunning scenes of the noble inhabitants of the puszta, which include poetically framed shots of horses roaming across the plains. 9
The large-scale processes of Soviet-style collectivization, implemented across the rural areas of much of Eastern Europe immediately following the Second World War, held extensive consequences for the societal structure and landscape of the region. Much of the Great Hungarian Plain was transformed through the reorganization of the land to accommodate large-scale agricultural developments and a forced resettlement of the area’s population. The 1960s are generally associated with a marked loosening of most socialist dictatorial systems of the Eastern European region, processes that reflected varying degrees of anti-Soviet sentiments growing within the political elites of these countries. Broadly speaking, the forced celebration of communist internationalism of the initial postwar period coexisted by then with a renewed interest in innocuous symbols of the nation and its well-known folk motifs, which served on a basic level to form national coherence, employed as a tool to legitimize socialist ideology within a given nation state.
As already suggested, the developments described in relation to the circulation of the puszta imagery in the 20th century are closely entwined with the field of tourism. Tourism under the socialist period also served, within the domestic framework, to solidify national cohesion through a culturally and historically meaningful geographical space. 10 During the 1970s, the Hortobágy underwent considerable transformations, importantly becoming a national park in 1972, with tourism steadily established as a prime industry in the area. The activities of horsemen became exclusively sustained within this controlled field of cultural expression, as the skills of the csikós were performed for the lens of domestic and foreign tourists alike, their strong identities as plainsmen increasingly reduced to a trite visual attraction of historical Hungarianness.
The centrality of the puszta was similarly sustained in the socialist film and television culture of this period. For instance, the 19th century outlaw culture of the region was the subject of the television series Rózsa Sándor (Miklós Szinetár, 1971), which related the adventures of the famed historic outlaw involved with the failed Hungarian 1848 uprising against the Austrian Habsburg Empire. Set on the Hortobágy, the show employed populist folk motifs, the peasantry standing in for the working class, and an idealized vision of the landscape to depict an idyllic, romanticized Hungarian milieu within which Rózsa’s heroic feats were executed. 11 An earlier, formally rigorous investigation to destabilize these puszta-tropes and this specific historical moment of the 19th century, was presented in Miklós Jancsó’s seminal film The Round Up [Szegénylegények] (1966). Set during the aftermath of the 1848 revolution, it centers on a group of peasants imprisoned, and questioned by the authorities as they are thought to have ties to the revolutionary figure Rózsa. Shot on the puszta, in a formally rigorous style which alternates extreme wide shots and close-ups, and patterns of people and horses captured with striking geometrical precision, the quasi-abstraction of the landscape in this film subverts its mythical iconography, in order to investigate the complex power-relations and historical processes embedded in this quintessentially Hungarian frontier landscape. Importantly, Jancsó’s films echo the formal attributes of the western in general, and John Ford’s filmmaking in particular, an influence which implicitly pervades the aesthetic language of this important film, in particular through the striking use of the frontier landscape as a national icon, the Hortobágy replacing the vistas of Monument Valley so powerfully featured in Ford’s key westerns. That Jancsó’s visual language has deeply impacted the ways in which the puszta landscape has been featured in Hungarian cinema from the 1960s onward, is also significant to note.
The close analyses that follow address the above-outlined issues relating to visual expressions of Hungary’s historical frontier identity, and some of the rich intertextual references the films evoke in their diverging assessment of the essential symbolism of the Hortobágy region. In this way, these cinematic frontier adventures respond to the deeply engrained historical and cultural construction of the puszta milieu, and by extension, an essentialized mode of Hungarianness, negotiating the specifics of this manufactured image in different ways.
The Wind Blows under Your Feet
The Wind Blows under Your Feet, Szomjas’ first feature, is set in the 1830s and centers on the efforts of townsmen to implement a canalization system in the wetlands of the southwestern area of the Alföld known as the Nagykunság. The film’s plotline evokes the well-known frontier trope of the disappearing traditional way of life, transposed onto the puszta milieu. It thus references a key historical period in the development of the area in the early and mid 1800s before it became an important agricultural region, a time when horsemen and herdsmen, as well as outlaws, still roamed the plains. While a number of politically engaged “westerns” of the 1960s and 1970s explore similar narrative conflicts of impending industrialization in order to address issues of social injustice, which require active resistance by the peasant population (often with the help of an outlaw hero), Szomjas diverts from presenting such a clear critique of capitalist societal development. 12In the cultural context of socialist Hungary, it is precisely the avoidance of depicting a heroic, Robin Hood-like outlaw, what historian Eric Hobsbawm termed a “social bandit” that can be considered a notable reformulation of the country’s frontier environment. To this end, the superficially anti-capitalist tale of agricultural modernisation is deemphasized in favor of the stylized representation of the Hungarian frontier milieu and the powerful visual symbols associated with it. These importantly function within a broader representational system, through which Szomjas aims to thoughtfully deconstruct the puszta universe and its inhabitants, and the idyllic vision of Hungarianness it has come to represent. 13 In one interview, Szomjas described his film as an effort to subvert the népiesch imagery of popular representations of this realm, a term that fuses the Hungarian adjective népies (folk) and the German phrase völkisch, to critically designate a diluted, superficial display of folkloric themes, as well as prettified and exaggerated motifs of folk culture, and the ways in which such images falsely and superficially came to represent the essence of the nation. 14
To this end, the puszta constitutes a central protagonist in the film, and the conflict between Gyurka Farkas Csapó, the aging outlaw who returns to the area after a lengthy prison sentence, and his long-time adversary, the sheriff in charge of capturing him, connects deeply to the vanishing frontier universe of the flatlands. Their strong ties to the land form the essential link within their relationship, as they strongly oppose the inevitably disappearing frontier life brought about by modernization. As the sheriff, indignant that a young outlaw mocks his elder’s age explains “we both are getting old, and the puszta along with us” reinforcing the biological connection between the soil and their kind through the dialogue, foreshadowing that the transformation to the land will also produce the downfall of the hero. As the narrative comes to a conclusion, the outlaw is betrayed, not by his sheriff double standing in for the ancient laws of the puszta, but by his own people, his lover, and the young amoral bandit he took under his wing. The downfall of the brigand hero that concludes the narrative once again contains a series of distinct generic motifs, from a stylized duel to his death by hanging, which unfolds against the wintry backdrop of the empty plains. The marked shifts from the autumnal to the wintry landscape serves to symbolically represent the death of the hero, and thus enforce the symbiotic relation between the land and this figure. Yet the land is markedly featured in less than romanticized terms. 15 For example, a scene of pursuit on horseback between the sheriff and the outlaw is intercut with shots of a herd of grey cattle, a well-known iconic Hungarian breed, and a herdsman standing still among the animals, a carefully staged shot which intertextually references the popular representation of these puszta icons in painting, photography and film. But this seemingly picturesque shot gets subverted, as a close up of the man’s feet reveals his bare feet in a heap of freshly produced, steaming cow dung, undercutting the image of the nurturing Hungarian soil, plainly featured as excrement.
In exploring the puszta, Szomjas creatively recontextualizes a number of its iconic symbols, integrating them into the recognizable visual and narrative patterns of a western narrative. Beyond the visually striking flatland, beautifully captured through carefully staged wide angle and traveling shots which emphasize its openness and wide expanse, the csárda becomes an important location within the plot. This locale, a type of inn traditionally associated with the puszta region and its popular imagery, represents one of few solid structures and forms of permanent human presence on the plain. Here, it also stands in for the saloon of dusty American frontier towns, complete with a “wanted” sign, casually used as a target practice by a local outlaw. This setting becomes a site to key generic elements, such as extended bar brawls, which distinctly imitate the outrageous, acrobatic antics of comedic Italian westerns starring Bud Spencer and Terrence Hill, whose films were hugely popular throughout Eastern Europe, and to a certain degree came to supplant for many viewers classical American westerns as ultimate reference points for fictional frontier adventures.
As Philip French suggests in his discussion of the western, “the location of the westerner in his landscape is a matter of paramount importance, and there are relatively few movies which do not begin with a single man or group of men riding through the countryside.” 16 The shot in which the outlaw first appears maps this iconic image of the lone westerner onto the puszta. The figure appearing in the distance, enveloped by the endless, desolate, landscape, as the sun rises behind him over the horizon, this image immediately shows the director’s self-conscious play with the western’s visual lexicon, also evidenced by the subsequent shot of the outlaw stopping near a gallows, on which a raven is resting (here the seemingly harmless raven, ubiquitous in the Hungarian countryside, creatively standing in for the ever-threatening vulture associated with death in the American frontier desert). The extended shot of the lone horseman, which lasts several minutes, becomes the backdrop against which the cursive titles of the credit sequence appear, while a folk music track, sounds of a plaintive violin and zither accompanying male vocals, explicitly marks the image as foreign to the habitual western universe of North America.
Djoko Rosic, a Yugoslav-born Bulgarian actor who started his extensive Hungarian career in the western-inspired outlaw film Unruly Heyducks [Hajdúk] (Ferenc Kardos, 1975), plays the phlegmatic outlaw of the film. Rosic’s striking features and horse-riding skills made him an appealing actor to embody rugged frontier-dwellers in all Hungarian manifestations of the western, effectively channeling the ambiguous outsider status of such characters. That his association to the genre remained central to his established career in the cinemas of the region can be attested by his roles in other cinematic frontier adventures, including some East German productions as well as the Bulgarian film The Judge [Sadiyata] directed by Plamen Maslarov (1986). His brief, but memorable appearance in Béla Tarr’s film Werckmeister Harmonies [Werckmeister harmóniák] (2000), in which he is simply credited as “Man in Western Boots,” provides a more recent confirmation of Rosic as an enduring icon of the locally produced western in Hungarian culture.
The characteristic sheepskin clothes of peasants and herdsmen populating Eastern Europe historically provided a visual reference to their un-Western (barbaric) nature. These modes of dress simultaneously marked them in the eyes of foreigners as exotic others and inferior beings engaging primitive lifestyles. 17 Szomjas enhances the image of these figures and their savage, alien identity, through playfully inserting them into a recognizable cinematic frontier setting. Importantly, these representations of the primitive inhabitants of an ancient pastoral realm also reference the nomadic, non-European, non-Western roots of Hungarians. This dual exposition of the people of the puszta as ambiguously Eastern thus creatively grafts the diverse myths of the Hungarian squarely onto a “western” frontier milieu.
The scene, in which the outlaw protagonist encounters, and subsequently kills a fellow bandit who denounced him years before, serves as a salient example. The man appears sitting alone on the muddy land, a small fire smoking in front of him, his head poking out from the bulky sheepskin that fully envelops his body, his eyes concealed behind a worn out hat. A subsequent closer shot of this seemingly limbless furry creature of the plains reveals not only the unwelcomingly peeking muzzle of his gun, hidden inside the fur, but also his dirty feet, comically poking out from below the hide. Szomjas defamiliarizes the Hungarian “native” of the puszta as he deconstructs the iconic imagery associated with the landscape and its people. This emblematic visual illustration becomes in this framework fused with the generic invocation of the Indian Other in westerns, relocating both images to the realm of the strange and the unfamiliar.
Throughout the film, a diverse list of animals characteristic to this region appear, such as the mangalica pig, the longhaired racka sheep, or the already evoked grey cattle, their presence marking the unique geographic territory on which the narrative unfolds as unmistakably Hungarian. Further on, the film presents what could be considered the most widespread of stereotypes about Hungarian culture from the realm of gastronomy, the country’s best-known paprika-meat dish: the goulash (gulyás). Again transposing a recurring trope from the western onto the Great Plains of Hungary, that of the consumption of food around a campfire, one scene shows the horsemen surrounding a kettle of steaming goulash instead. In a fixed shot staged as a tableau, the men are shown taking their time to smoke their pipes, a kuvasz, again, a distinct Hungarian dog breed, calmly standing between them, in a makeshift straw structure that signals the itinerant nature of the horsemen’s routine. Presented in popular culture as an ancient Hungarian meal, and served to tourists in similar ways since the 1960s, that is, in large kettles above open fire as displayed in this scene, the goulash has grown to be an irreplaceable item of consumable local culture. Here, its presence serves no other purpose than a tongue-in-cheek addition of a widely recognizable Hungarian flavor, a gastronomical ornamentation of frontier folk culture. 18 Confirming the key role of the dish as an exemplary icon of the Hungarian cultural essence one critic noted, while reviewing Szomjas’ second western feature, that his nastier foreign colleagues would no doubt label Hungary’s new cinematic exports “goulash” or “paprika” westerns. Goulash western has indeed become the term designating Szomjas’ two explorations of the genre in the 1970s, a term neatly aligned with the similarly stereotypical culinary monikers, such as the Spaghetti western, and subsequent national explorations of the genre from across Europe and beyond. 19
Szomjas, when preparing to shoot this Hungarian western, was unable to find “virgin areas” of the Nagykunság region to convincingly represent the untouched wasteland about to be transformed by progress in the 19th century. He was ultimately forced to move his film crew to the edge of the Hortobágy National Park, interestingly the area, which to this day most artfully represents a distilled sense of ancient Hungarianness to its visitors, within the context of an artificially sustained frontier area. In a remarkable repetition of historical processes, the director also came upon actual canalization work being conducted in the area, which he featured fully in his film. 20
Szomjas’ first feature challenges rigid generic categories and simplified notions of national belonging as well as the superficial exploitation of history and folk culture. In employing irony and visual excess through the relentless exploration of iconic images of the Hungarian landscape, he creatively fuses western icons and symbols of Hungarianness, as my examples have shown. As mentioned earlier, the ideological conflicts unfolding on the frontier serve predominantly as dramatic devices played out on the endless puszta landscape, but the narrative seems to distinctly divert from taking an explicit political stance. The real concern of this film remains a critical, humorous reconsideration of different myths of the Hungarian, enveloped in the fictional universe of western frontier encounters.
Brady’s Escape, completed in 1984, provides a remarkable contrast to Szomjas’ western adventure, although this film revisits the visual motifs of the sweeping puszta, its horsemen, flora and fauna beautiful lensed by cinematographer Elemér Ragályi, who also worked on The Wind Blows under Your Feet. Despite the visual elements echoed throughout both films, and the sometimes near identical framing of the puszta landscape, which, as discussed above, conjures up stock images circulating about the region throughout the 20th century and beyond, these elements nevertheless fulfill a markedly different role, one that undermines the potential for a critical gesture so strongly pervading Szomjas’ work.
While the Hungarian title of the film, Hosszú vágta (Long Ride) stresses the connection of the protagonist’s journey with the film’s central equestrian motif (vágta in Hungarian means gallop), the English language title emphasizes the centrality of its American character, and unquestionably frames the narrative as his unique journey. 21 An American – Hungarian coproduction, hailed as the first to be established between the socialist country and the United States, was much awaited ahead of its release and signaled, within the film industry as well as the broader cultural realm the increasing weakening of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence on socialist Hungary in the 1980s. 22 The story originated from its director Gábor, while the American author William W. Lewis penned the screenplay, whose personal experiences as a World War Two pilot served as a primary inspiration for the film. 23
The narrative centers on a U.S. pilot, the eponymous Captain Brady of the film’s English title, who while flying over Hungary in 1944, is shot down, making a forced landing on the Hortobágy. His co-pilot dies, but Brady survives, receiving shelter and assistance from a number of local horsemen, as well as the town doctor and his English teacher daughter, while the SS officer overseeing the region relentlessly pursues him across the plains. During his days in hiding, the American captain befriends a young Hungarian boy, Miki, and develops a love affair with the schoolteacher. After an extended pursuit, much of it on horseback, he safely makes his way to Yugoslavia, and, it is implied, back to the United States, but the young boy he decides to take along is fatally shot in the final stretches of their flight.
The film provides a hybrid generic format, merging motifs of the western with those of a regional, Eastern European subgenre of the war film broadly referred to as the “partisan film.” The latter was a staple of 1960s and 1970s socialist Yugoslav popular cinema in particular, but other national contexts produced their domestic versions as well. Such films, directly inspired by classical Hollywood cinema, narrated the invariably heroic acts of local resistance fighters against villainous Nazi invaders during the Second World War, historical points of reference framed through large-scale, adventurous and exciting narratives. In this way, they fed into broader processes of national mythmaking, confirming the essential role of history within the newly founded socialist states, while engaging the basic narrative structures of popular cinematic genres. These films have been described, both informally and in a number of recent scholarly sources, as so-called “red westerns.” Nevena Daković, for example, argues that the similarity resides in the ways in which both genres seek to present “frontier narratives” through “the genre-ingrained task of mythologizing and ideologically naturalizing the (national) past.” 24
That the film markedly frames the resistance of the citizens of occupied fascist Hungary through their connection to the U.S. soldier, the characteristically American cowboy from Wyoming, is notable in this regard. Pointing to a clear detachment from the state-prescribed communist historiography regarding the pivotal historical events of the Second World War, the resistance of the Hungarians is shown independently from the imminent efforts of liberation by Soviet troops, a historical moment altogether missing from the film’s narrative in general and the victorious final escape of the American hero in particular. Brady’s initial plans to meet up with advancing Russian soldiers on the eastern front notably fails, forcing him to seek an alternative route via neighboring Yugoslavia and its partisan faction. 25 Elsewhere in the narrative, the Soviet army is shown collecting the belongings of the local population, Hungarians distinctly framed in these brief scenes as the victims of their “liberators,” clearly embedding the harsh realities of the imminent dictatorship of postwar decades within this historical moment. Thus while the Yugoslav “partisan films” sought to legitimize the official history of the newly formed socialist state, Gábor applies its central elements to destabilize Hungary’s communist historiography.
Yet although these elements suggest a notable reformulation of official historical narratives propagated by the socialist state, the construction of the moral universe of the puszta and that of the caricatural villain of the plot, the German Nazi officer, leaves no space for nuanced exploration of this tumultuous period of Hungary’s past. This unquestionably stereotypical articulation distinctly shifts the horrific actions of the war years onto this uninspired stock character, fully removed from a Hungarian context. 26In this way, the simple citizens, and the ur-Hungarian horsemen are framed solely within a heroic fantasy of resistance, while leaving the obvious military and political opposition between an American soldier and the German-allied Hungarians, the complicated, albeit real historical framework of the narrative, underexplored. An initial remark from a horseman, stating that Brady’s sort “are the bastards bombing us” briefly addresses this given, which is subsequently absent from the film, supplanted by a rather unconvincing innate urge of the csikós to help the cowboy in peril. It is perhaps in this way, that the detached exoticness of the puszta landscape and its inhabitants is granted its dual functionality within the narrative, to at once provide an aesthetically pleasing frontier background for the actions of the American hero, and bury the historical complexities and contradictions of 20th century Hungarian history within an easily palatable, but decidedly superficial fantasy. This schematic representation no doubt aimed to make a Hungarian historical fiction film palatable for foreign (American) audiences, exempted from having to untangle the country’s sociopolitical coordinates.
The central plot of the film is introduced in flashback. Brady, by then a grandfather, is introduced in the film on his Wyoming farm, where he is forced to put his beloved, but aging stallion Aranka to sleep. This traumatic act propels the memories to Hungary many years prior, to the fateful encounter between American cowboy and Hungarian mare. The equestrian symbolism remains central to many key action sequences in the plot, and provides the basis for the fundamental identification of the Hungarian puszta as a distant, unknown realm of horsemen, presented as strange and exotic, yet also familiar as a frontierland of cowboy-like figures. Several narrative and formal strategies used in the film reinforce this idea, painting the csikós as one-dimensional figures, evoking the noble savage trope pervading tales of the American west.
While Szomjas consciously subverted such simplified notions of Hungarianness, here, these elements become integrated within a conventional adventure film, visually enhancing the central story focused on the American. The film notably enacts the perspective of an outsider in constructing the image of the puszta –extending Brady’s perspective of the Hungarian frontierland onto the presumed foreign audience. In doing so, the film ultimately adheres to the very essentialist, népiesch figures of Hungarianness, which Szomjas sought to revert.
The connections between American cowboy culture and Hungary’s fundamental identity of a horse-riding nation is embedded within this artificially constructed puszta milieu. While Szomjas relied on easily identifiable visual tropes and narrative elements to construct the instantly recognizable western-like frontier universe of Hungary, Brady’s Escape forces this comparison to be virtually omnipresent, visually as well as through the dialogue. The young csikós Miki notably self-identifies as a “cowboy,” and it is Brady’s own cowboy identity that ultimately establishes the powerful connection between him and the locals. 27
The outsider’s perspective cast onto the land is established early on in the film, which finds Brady crashing down onto the Hortobágy. As he hits the land, we see the scorched earth of the puszta underneath his flapping parachute, an image, which lends a decidedly strange otherworldly atmosphere to his first contact with the land. As more of the landscape is revealed, a vast flatland dotted by shallow marshland, the environment vaguely echoes yet simultaneously differs from habitual western frontier settings. It is the human presence on the puszta that subsequently intensifies the analogy. As Brady looks up to survey the unfamiliar environment, he suddenly finds himself facing a small group of horsemen, shadowy figures framed menacingly from a low angle. The first medium close-up of a horseman, captured from Brady’s point of view, is that of a csikós played by Djoko Rosic, whose sudden appearance may have served as an insider’s joke to Hungarian viewers, announcing the generic parameters of this domestic western in this early scenes.
The culture evoked by these horsemen is directly tied to the land, their mud huts, simple tools, and exclusive use of horses as modes of transportation revealing a marked engagement with an idyllic, picturesque representation of old ways of life. The opposition of traditional lifestyles butting against efforts of modernization resurfaces as a familiar premise. But here, this generic motif becomes superficially mapped onto the wartime military context. While Hungarians are invariably shown within their idyllic rural setting, suspended in the peaceful, timeless landscape, the Nazi officer and his army are strongly associated with markers of modern life encroaching on the tranquil puszta. This conflict is visually emphasized in a number of scenes, which show the horsemen or the doctor’s horse-drawn cart crossing paths with the Nazi officer’s automobile en route to the nearest town. Similarly, the carefully choreographed final showdown between German officers and the brave csikós of the puszta, one armed with machine guns the other with whips, depicts a dramatic encounter carefully staged on an empty stretch of land. This confrontation sees the horsemen perish one by one, executed by the Nazi officers who shoot them down from their cars.
The pilot’s essential skills as cowboy provide an obvious link to the Hungarian csikós men who save him, a link established visually when he hides from the German officer on the prowl by donning the traditional outfit of the Hungarian horsemen: blue loose-fitting pants and blouse, as well as a rimmed hat vaguely reminiscent of those worn by cowboys, a dress which he wears throughout much of his scenes on the Hortobágy. Importantly, once the American approaches the safe destination of the Yugoslav partisan stronghold, he removes his “disguise,” once again wearing his US army uniform. Through this gesture, Hungarianness is revealed as a costume, a decorative element as mere artifice at the service of the American hero.
Similarly, an important, recurring action within the film is the training of horses, prompted to perform different actions on demand, such as lying down flat on their side. These stunts, presented episodically in the film notably suspend the action. The first one of these scenes shows the young csikós standing in a field, while the American pilot looks on (he will later learn these tricks, which will serve him to escape from his enemies on a number of occasions). The young boy executes the stunt while carefully facing the camera, a well-known and often performed segment of the popular horse-shows put on by horsemen for visitors of the region’s national parks. This sequence thus once again confirms the key performative function of the Hungarian horsemen, largely evoking a tourist-oriented visual and irrevocably superficial image of its culture.
Hungarian critics largely rejected the film’s artificial representation of Hungary, repeatedly labeling it an “IBUSZ advertisement,” referring to the visually striking but clichéd images propagated by the country’s state-run tourist bureau. 28 This negative reception of the film, while rightfully pointing to the fundamental weaknesses of the plot and its unimaginative development towards a predictable conclusion, also reveals a level of anxiety surrounding the move away from a state-sponsored structure of the film industry. In particular, they emphasize the obvious compromises made in an attempt to produce a financially successful Hungarian adventure film palatable for foreign consumption in a period that preceded the fundamental restructuring of Hungarian society and culture in the final years of the decade in which Brady’s Escape was made.
The Wind Blows under your Feet and Brady’s Escape, two examples of the appropriation of the western genre in Hungarian cinema, complicate our understanding of the functioning of popular genres produced in socialist Eastern Europe, which necessitates a more nuanced understanding of how representations of history and expressions of national identity were negotiated during the Cold War period. While these films and the Hungarian context they engage should not be seen as unique examples of the appropriation of the genre in international film culture, as evidenced by the western’s ubiquitous presence throughout socialist Eastern Europe and beyond, it nevertheless provides a salient case study for the diverging, and often contradictory role the cinematic frontier trope provides to representations of the nation, and the usefulness of the frontier imaginary in perpetuating, enhancing, or dismantling the complexly constructed self-image of a given country.
Frames # 4 1-12-2013. This article © Sonja Simonyi. This article has been peer-reviewed.
- The Hortobágy designates a specific area of the Great Hungarian Plain (or Alföld in Hungarian), which spreads across much of the country’s eastern territories. The puszta, a steppe biome, refers to the grassy flatland covering much of the landscape. ↩
- See for example Monica Spiridon “Identity Discourses on Borders in Eastern Europe” Comparative Literature vol 58 no. 4 The Idea Of Europe (Fall 2006). 376-386. ↩
- See the brief entry on “Hungarians” written by László Marácz in Imagology: The Cultural Construction and Literary Representation of National Characters. A Critical Survey eds. Manfred Beller and Joep Leerssen Studia Imagologica 13 (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2007), 175. ↩
- Arthur John Patterson, The Magyars: their country and institutions, Vol 1 (London: Smith Elder & Co. 1869) 1. ↩
- A. N.J. den Hollander “The Great Hungarian Plain: A European Frontier Area” (I) Comparative Studies in Society and History vol.3 no. 1 (Oct 1960) 74-88. The second part of the study appeared in Comparative Studies in Society and History vol.3 no. 2 (Jan 1961) 155-169. ↩
- The tourist guide Fodor’s Budapest for instance describes the “dream landscape of the Hortobagy” as “Hungary’s answer to the U.S. wild west.” Fodor’s Budapest (New York: Fodor’s Travel Publications, 2005) 218. ↩
- Peter Nemes, “Reading the Plains and the Lake: Landscape in Hungarian Travel Literature,” in Hungarian Studies vol 24 no. 1 (2010) 132. ↩
- Tamás Hófer’s edited volume Hungarians between “East” and “West” explores the multifarious ways in which this duality or “symbolic opposition” was expressed. Tamás Hófer, ed., Hungarians between “East” and “West”: Three Essays on National Myths and Symbols (Budapest: Museum of Ethnography, 1994). ↩
- The circulation of horses and other animals associated with the puszta, is an important expression of the national imaginary, as shall be explored in relation to the two Hungarian westerns. Evidently extending the frontier imaginary cast onto the puszta, the csikos have been often described in numerous foreign publications as the cowboys of the puszta. Additionally, they are a powerful symbol of Hungarianness, evoking the nomadic lifestyle attached to the founding myth of the nation. It should be noted that the equestrian motif in Hungarian cinema is remarkably rich, not only in narrative films, but also more experimental works, such as the lyrical experimental short film Elégia (Elegy) by Zoltán Huszárik (1965). ↩
- Duncan Light, Craig Young, and Mariusz Czepczyński, “Heritage Tourism in Central and Eastern Europe,” in Cultural Heritage and Tourism in the Developing World: A Regional Perspective eds. Timothy J Dallen and Gyan P Nyaupane (Routledge: New York and London, 2009), 230. ↩
- For a discussion of the role of folk motifs and well known national histories in socialist television series in Eastern Europe see Anikó Imre, “Adventures in Early Socialist Television Edutainment,” in Popular Television in Eastern Europe During and Since Socialism, eds. Anikó Imre, Timothy Havens and Kati Lustyik (London: Routledge, 2012), 30-45. ↩
- Austin Fisher has extensively explored the ways in which the leftist political engagement pervaded the works of a number of Italian filmmakers working with the western genre in Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema (New York and London: I.B. Tauris, 2011), but frontier narratives such as Glauber Rocha’s stylized frontier allegory Antônio das Mortes (1969, Brazil) similarly speak to an anti-capitalist discourse within a Brazilian sociopolitical and historical context. ↩
- I discuss the figure of the outlaw in The Wind Blows under Your Feet, as well as Szomjas’ second western Bad People (1979), and the 1972 film Unruly Heyducks (Ferenc Kardos) in more detail in “The Sing Songs about us Here: Outlaw figures in Hungarian Westerns of the 1970s.” ed. Cynthia Miller and A Bowdoin Van Riper (Re)locating the Frontier: International Western Films (Lanham, Scarecrow Press, 2013). ↩
- Interview with György Szomjas, “Betyársztori, western módra, iróniával” (“Outlaw Tales, Western Style, with Irony”) Magyar irodalom (Hungarian Poetry) 34 (1977). ↩
- The title nicely sums up this conclusion, as “the wind whistling under their feet” references an old folk expression designating death by hanging, the fundamental physical connectedness of the protagonist to the land physically undercut in this concluding scene. ↩
- Philip French, Westerns (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 106. ↩
- Human figures depicted in hulking sheepskin furs set against the empty landscape became a visually striking way to present herdsmen in popular and artistic renderings of the flatlands. See for example Rudolf Balogh’s photograph Juhász kutyáival (Shepherd with his Dog) (ca. 1930) or scenes depicting the herdsmen through such framing in the British Pathé newsreel The Pampas of Europe from 1933, a short segment which exhausts most of the well-known iconic images of the Hortobágy landscape. http://www.britishpathe.com/video/the-pampas-of-europe/query/Hortobagy Accessed October 30, 2013. ↩
- Goulash cooking on the puszta has remained a staple of tourist activities in Hungary in the last few decades, as Eszter Kisbán notes. The dish is often prepared by men approximating the traditional garb worn by herdsmen to emphasize the historical and cultural significance of the dish-making ritual. See Eszter Kisbán “From Peasant Dish to National Symbol: An Early Deliberate Example,” in Tamás Hofer, ed. Hungarians between “East” and “West”(1994) 53 – 60. ↩
- “A hét filmje: Rosszemberek” (This Week’s Film: Bad People) Népszabadság (The Free People), August 2, 1979 ↩
- See 15. ↩
- This western-inspired adventure from the late socialist period proves an exception within Pál Gábor’s oeuvre, who was by this time an established figure of Hungarian cinema. His most famous work, Angi Vera (1978), depicts a a young woman in postwar Hungary and her experiences in a communist reeducation camp, a film that was greatly celebrated both domestically and abroad. ↩
- See for example Éva Szénásy, “A Hortobágy felett kigyulladt…Amerikai-magyar film készül: a Hosszú vágta” (“…burning above the Hortobágy. An American-Hungarian film is being made: The Long Ride”) Magyar hírlap January 9, 1983, and Károly Kristóf, “Hosszú vágta,” Füles, November 4, 1983. ↩
- Kristóf, “Hosszú vágta.” ↩
- Nevena Daković, “Remembrances of the Past and Present,” in History of the Literary Cultures of East-Central Europe: junctures and disjunctures in the 19th and 20th centuries, eds. Marcel Cornis-Pope and John Neubauer, Volume IV: Types and Stereotypes, (Philadelphia and Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, 2004), 467-468 ↩
- This narrative development directly connects the American’s struggles with the activities of Yugoslav partisans, and thereby implicitly to the genre of partisan films. ↩
- The caricatural representation of the officer extends to the dialogue, which also reveals one of many linguistic incosistencies within the film. The German officer notably speaks English with fellow German soldiers, a decision which presumably aimed to simplify the confusing exchange of languages between the Hungarians, American and Germans, as well as the subsequent international distribution of the film to English-speaking countries. ↩
- Miki is played by Kelly Reno, an American child actor who obtained considerable fame in the United States as the protagonist of the 1979 adaptation of the horse-centric youth novel The Black Stallion (Carroll Ballard, 1979, United States). While his horse-riding skills served him well in this film, the awkward layering of linguistic parameters, namely an American actor feigning to be a Hungarian boy, gradually learning to speak English from his cowboy friend, stands in the way of identifiying with this key character. ↩
- András Farkas, “Hosszú vágta” Kritika vol. 22 no. 2 (1984) ↩