Story of Wojtek to be told in new film by The Snowman creators

The creators of the much-loved Christmas classic The Snowman are to create a film depicting the true story of a bear that fought the Nazis during the Second World War.

Tuesday, 25th September 2018, 7:00 am
Updated Sunday, 30th September 2018, 4:11 pm
Wojtek the soldier bear. Picture: Contributed

A Bear Named Wojtek is being developed by Iain Harvey, the executive producer on the 1982 television adaption of Raymond Briggs’s children’s story.

Adopted as a cub in Iran by a group of Polish soldiers, Wojtek made a name for himself with officers by sniffing out an enemy spy who had entered their camp.

He was formally enlisted into the Polish army as a private – complete with his own pay book and serial number – to accompany his unit on a ship to Europe. “He took these soldiers as his parents, effectively, because his mother had been shot,” Mr Harvey told The Times.

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He was subsequently promoted to corporal. The six foot bear rapidly became a celebrity among the allied troops, helping move crates of ammunition during the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944.

He became the mascot of the Polish II Corps’ 22nd Artillery Supply Company who gave him the name Wojtek – meaning Happy Warrior.

The adorable cub was good for morale and was known for enjoying a beer and a wrestle with comrades. He weighed more than 30 stone, so was granted double rations.

Wojtek was demobbed with the rest of his unit in Scotland. He lived the rest of his life at Edinburgh Zoo, where he was often visited by former comrades. He died in 1963, aged 21, and was commemorated in the Capital with a statue in Princes Street Gardens which was erected in 2015.

The Snowman, which was nominated for an Oscar, has become a cultural institution and is still shown every Christmas on Channel 4. The true story of Wojtek had the potential to be just as tear-jerking, Mr Harvey said. “It’s fantastic to have a piece of magic that’s real,” Mr Harvey said, admitting that he had assumed the tale was “pure fantasy” when it was first told to him by the filmmaker Iain Gardner, who is collaborating on the project.

Producers have already secured Polish funding for the film and are currently seeking a British partner, with the BBC, Channel 4 and Netflix all viable options.

A team of around 30 animators are expected to be working on the project for up to a year, with each scene being hand-drawn on a computer tablet.

“For a half-hour, you want it at filmic level quality, so it has permanence... it has to look fantastic, the same sort of level as The Snowman,” said Mr Harvey, 67.

“If you had purely mechanical animation it wouldn’t have any feeling. Animators are actors, they give emotion to the character and this is obviously a very emotional story.”

A Bear Named Wojtek’s release is set to coincide with the 75th anniversary of VE Day on 8 May, 2020.