Big names are in the frame for Wojtek: the movie
When Aileen Orr first mentioned her family connections to Wojtek the bear to MSP Mike Russell in 2008, she had no way of knowing that conversation would change her life.
Days later, over dinner with Mike and Hugh Andrews, the MD of Birlinn, the story took centre stage.
Hugh said Aileen simply had to tell Wojtek’s tale and so the journey began.
The book Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero helped Aileen pay for a sculpture of Wojtek in Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh.
She has since received more than 120,000 letters from fans across the globe for her first non-fiction novel.
And it also attracted the attention of film directors, many of whom Aileen turned down as they wanted to “Disney-fy” the story.
However, three years ago Belfast director Brendan Foley got in touch.
While now based in Hollywood with his wife, comedy writer Shelly Goldstein, Brendan’s vision for the film meshed with Aileen’s own.
She explained: “I had been approached before about turning the book into a film but they all seemed to want to Disney-fy it.
“Brendan really got the story and understood it wasn’t all about the bear – it had to tell the story of the Polish soldiers who were here with him.
“We’ve spent the last three years researching the script, taking trips to Poland and countless Skype calls and emails to get the script just right.
“Brendan was brought up in Belfast with bombings and terror close by so I know he will handle the story with great delicacy and tell it truthfully.
“It’s a story that will touch people’s hearts, make them cry but, what’s more, also make them realise what has gone before.”
Sixty-three-year-old Aileen was the perfect person to tell Wojtek’s story and that of the soldiers’ stationed in the Borders during World War Two.
For her grandfather, Jim Little – a colour sergeant and fitness instructor with the Kings Own Scottish Borderers – helped many of those soldiers get battle ready after their time in the Siberian Gulags, spending 18 months with Wojtek and the soldiers.
He also visited them when they were stationed at Winfield Camp on Sunwick Farm, Hutton.
That land belonged to he Orr family and Aileen would later marry one of the sons – Andrew.
The couple call the farm home to this day.
Aileen also recalls her grandfather taking her to see Wojtek at Edinburgh Zoo with her friend Irenie when she was just eight years old.
“We were at Lockerbie Academy at the time and I remember Irenie speaking to him in Polish,” she said.
“Wojtek was sitting on a rock but when Irenie spoke Polish, he stood up and waved his paw at us.”
While many said a zoo was a sad end for the bear, Aileen said Wojtek fared far better than some of the soldiers – and the film will ensure their stories are finally told.
“The film will be funny but dark too,” she said. “It will focus more on the plight of the soldiers.
“We’ve done a lot of research and had a lot of help – not least from Augustine Karolewski (aka Kay) who was just 19 when he came to the Borders.
“He left Poland when he was 14 and ended up at the camp with the bear. When the war ended, Kay stayed in Hutton, married and had four children.
“It’s fair to say he and Wojtek fared far better than many of their comrades.
“Some of the soldiers were kept in prison for years when they returned to Poland, others were shot as traitors immediately.
“The film won’t gloss over these facts. Much like the book, it’s a tragedy and comedy in one story.”
As for the film, it is now in pre-production and – while Aileen is sworn to secrecy – two big names are in the frame for starring roles.
Filming is due to start in the spring of this year, with locations in Poland and Scotland likely to feature.
Whether Sunwick Farm has a starring role, though, remains to be seen.
Aileen explained: “The script is now finished and Brendan has secured £10 million from, among others, Film Polski and Northern Ireland Screen.
“He has been talking to Polish and Scottish technicians. There’s a lot of expertise in this country – so it’s all very exciting.
“As for our farm, it’s a listed building so hasn’t changed over the years but the camp no longer exists. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Andrew and Kay’s anecdotes
Aileen’s husband Andrew helped director Brendan Foley with some of the soldiers’ stories, as passed down by the men themselves and members of the Orr family.
Aileen said: “While Brendan got the story from the start, he wasn’t just interested in the lighter side of it – he wanted to tell the soldiers’ story too.
“Although Andrew wasn’t born until 1956, when he was young he heard a lot of the stories as some of the Polish soldiers who had been at the camp still lived locally.
“He heard of all their exploits with the bear and was able to pass on some anecdotes.
“The book was a platform and a starting point for the film but it was more about the bear and its Scottish story.
“For the film, we’ve done a lot of research to tell the soldiers’ story and get down into the nitty-gritty for the script.
“It has involved a lot of trips to Poland and countless hours of research but it’s been a very interesting journey, so far!”
Aileen and Brendan were also ably assisted by stories as told by Augustine Karolewski (aka Kay), who helped inspire the design for the Princes Street Gardens Wojtek memorial.
Sadly, Kay died two years ago so didn’t live to see it unveiled in October 2016 but he saw the maquette and was named on the memorial – so he will forever be associated with Wojtek.
Aileen added: “Kay explained that the soldiers walked the bear on the roads at night – to help keep his claws trim, harden his paws and build muscle.
“If someone wanted to see him, a soldier would put his hand on the bear’s back.
“That’s where the idea for the memorial came from, which Alan Beattie Herriot captured perfectly.”
It is hoped the film, inspired by Wojtek The Bear: Polish War Hero will be released in autumn 2018.