The People’s Republic of Poster: Western Film Posters in Poland from 1952-1989


If a movie poster is meant to capture a film’s essence, then the American poster for Shoot Out is a pièce de résistance.  The film has been described as “routine and formulaic”—so too is the poster.  It features an image of the film’s star, Gregory Peck, wearing standard cowboy garb and standing opposite three men.  Everyone in the poster has a gun drawn, and the tagline reads, “Three fast guns against one determined man!”  The perspective rests above the scene, so a viewer feels no menace; he is just a bystander cheering for a well-prepared Peck.  The image has no artistic merit, but it doesn’t need any.   It is merely a vehicle to condense and to advertise the film.

And yet the “essence” captured in the Polish poster for the same movie seems to illustrate an entirely different film.  In this poster, an anonymous hand holds a revolver just above the viewer’s eye line, creating the illusion of a cannon.  Meanwhile, a psychedelic polka dot background parodies the dramatic tension.  It’s a scene gone awry, but one thing is clear: violence operates at its center.  Even the Polish version’s title is telling. The U.S. title Shoot Out implies equal opportunity: everyone has a gun and it is just a matter of who can shoot first.  But the Polish translation, Odstrzał is more directed; this word is usually used as a hunting term to refer to the roundup and slaughter of  “excess” animals.  What began in the United States as a free-for-all battle of bullets wound up in Poland as a tale of hunter and hunted.    What was lost in translation?   Why would Polish poster artists create such a menacing image for such a “formulaic” film?

Considering Poland’s violent history, it is not surprising that a movie about an occasion of weapon wielding would conjure images not of Gregory Peck, but of man’s smallness next to a loaded gun.  It is also not surprising that the film’s title would be changed to emphasize a hunt, and by default, victimhood.  As far back as the 1800s, the role of victim has been ingrained in the Polish psyche.  In the romantic period that followed the partitions of Poland, Adam Mickiewicz, Poland’s national poet, branded the nation a victim and martyr.  Two centuries later, with their country again stripped from their hands, the Polish people remained conscious of Mickiewicz’s appraisal.  In 1968, just three years before the poster for Odstrzał was printed, Polish university towns erupted in protest when performances of Mickiewicz’s Dziady were banned from Warsaw’s National Theater after audiences “cheered [its] liberal and anti-Russian statements.” [Ludowski]  That same year, Polish poster artist Maciej Hibner designed a poster for the American western In The High Country that depicts a cowboy in the moment just before a gunfight.  He stands behind the doors of a saloon, fists tense at his sides before the impending draw.   Though his eyes are obscured by a shadow, the threat is clear: he is staring at the poster’s viewer, and in just moments, the viewer will be his victim.    If the bards of Poland gave voice to the nation’s distress during the romantic period, poster designers did the same for Polish consciousness during post-World War II communism.

It is not by chance that images laden with social and political messages appeared in film posters during this period.  In a society that was otherwise heavily censored by the communist government, restrictions on film posters were surprisingly lenient.  Acquiring permission for publication was “a formality; the design simply had to be seen in order to get the stamp of approval.”  [Knorowski]  Traditionally, the film poster is a medium for advertising, not self-expression.  It is thus “less potentially threatening to the social order.”  [Boczar]  Polish poster artists took advantage of this slack supervision.  Instead of producing advertisements that communicate the film’s plot, they created works of art that reinterpret the plot.  Posters showcase both the artist’s individuality and the symbols that would speak to a repressed nationality.  Because film posters do not require words to serve their purpose, their designers had license to use visual cues that appear innocent, but attract the attention of those sensitive to their undertones.  Viewers were encouraged to “participate actively in the reception of the message.”  [Boczar]  Henryk Tomaszewski, one of the most influential artists of the Polish poster school, confirms this: “We simply altered the picture from one to be looked at to one to be read.”

Posters for American western films inevitably feature icons of the American west: cowboys, pistols, and Native Americans.  But it is the way that these symbols are used that reveals the Poles’ conflicted views about their relationship to western values.  Often, a commonly understood image is twisted and obscured to mean its opposite: the heroic cowboy becomes a fool, the empowering pistol becomes a menace, the savage Indian becomes an ally.  As Kevin Mulroy notes, “the western became fair game for reinterpretation . . . America could send out heroes, but villains might land in Poland.”  This is the story that the posters seem to tell.  The pistol, for example, is depicted in American images as heroic at best and a tool at worst. It is rarely the main focus of a poster; it is simply a cowboy’s accessory.  In Polish posters, however, the pistol is often the main focus, as seen, for example, in Maurycy’s Samotny Jeździeć (Lone Rider, 1966) and Maciej Źbikowski’s Hombre (1969). These posters feature nothing more than the lone pistol, highlighting the unadorned finality of violence.  There is nothing to be said about the actions that lead up to the demise illustrated by an abandoned smoking gun—the weapon speaks for itself.

Polish posters commonly feature the pistol in direct confrontation with the viewer, as in Źbikowski’s Był Tu Willie Boy (Tell Them Willie Boy is Here, 1971), and Królikowski’s Rzeka bez Powrotu (River of No Return, 1967).  American posters for River of No Return opt for illustrations and photo stills of Robert Mitchum forcefully holding Marilyn Monroe by the wrists and pinning her to the ground as the tagline declares, “Monroe meets Mitchum in the most savage wilderness of all the Americas!”  Aside from a printed name, the Polish poster makes no reference to these stars, nor to this scene.  The only message here is the barrel of a gun, aimed directly at the viewer.  There is no wilderness, there is no seduction.   There is not even a face behind the threat, just a white silhouette.   It is as if the source of violence is anonymous, even irrelevant.  It is not a traceable human, but a presence that is out for the kill, and the viewer is his target.

When violent images are featured on American film posters, they are intended to promote action within the film.  As in the poster for River of No Return, masculinity, heroism, and savagery are endorsed.   Violent images in Polish film posters, on the other hand, are used to stir an emotional reaction through jarring, direct engagement with the viewer.

It is natural for an artist to use symbols in a way that is relevant to his culture.  Thus, the recurring theme of victimhood in Polish posters is telling of the poster artists’ history.  Frank Fox observes, “Posters assume the viewpoint of those subjected to violence, a concept familiar to viewers in Poland.”

Arguably, the victim in United States history is the Native American.  While American westerns often depict Native Americans as savages and a threat to goals of Manifest Destiny, Polish representations offer a touch of empathy.  Even if the films themselves do not encourage compassion towards the “savages,” poster artists in Poland took the liberty to do so in their advertisements for the films.  One of the most pointed examples is Jerzy Flisak’s W Kraju Komanczów (The Comancheros, 1965).  An eagle, a national symbol of Poland, morphs with a Native American face to illustrate a film about the tragic displacement of a tribe that cannot defend its land.

That same year, Jerzy Treutler designed a poster for How The West Was Won that features a pistol impaled in the skull of a Native American, as if to imply that the west was won by the ruthless use of weapons against the natives.

One of the most graphically loaded posters in this genre is Marian Stachurski’s Rekord Annie (Annie Get Your Gun, 1958).  A singing Annie Oakley stands at the center of the poster, her arms flung out, not noticing that her rifle is pointing directly at a Native American’s head.  Meanwhile, the Native American holds the gun to his mouth with closed eyes and a smile on his face.  He blindly accepts the instrument of violence as if it were a peace pipe.  But despite his naïveté, he is literally on a higher plane than the cowboys, businessman, and sharpshooting star of image.  He floats above the scene, serene and detached from the absurdity.

Writers and critics drew parallels between the Native Americans and Poles long before poster artists adopted the subject.  Following the collapse of the January Uprising in 1863, historical realist Ludwik Powidaj published a positivist manifesto in Lwow entitled “Poles and Indians,” predicting that Poles would befall the same fate as Native Americans had in the west if they did not embrace industrialism.   Even Henryk Sienkiewicz, in his letters from America, grapples with his sympathy towards Native Americans.  He mourns their failure to stop American colonists from industrializing their lands: “Wherever such a cross (telegraph pole) appears, there people, forests, buffaloes, will perish.”  When he encounters an Indian tribe during his travels, he observes, “The unruly conduct of the white men was in striking contrast to the stolidity of the red warriors.”  The image of the Native American seems to resonate in the Polish spirit not with fear, but with recognition and admiration.

While America’s “savages” were reinterpreted as passive victims, its heroic icon, the cowboy, was reinterpreted as a grim fool whose rebellion would be his demise.  Portraits of cowboys feature obscured faces, discrediting their individuality, as seen in Wasilewski’s Prorok, złoto I Siedmiogrodzianie (The Prophet, The Gold, and the Transylvanians), Neuhebauer’s Major Dundee; Świerzy’s Vera Cruz; Freudenreich’s Rancho w Dolinie (Jubal) and Mściciel (High Plains Drifter), and Terechowicz’s Tom Horn.

In his poster for Twarz Zbiega (Face of a Fugitive, 1966), Kazimierz Królikowski takes this method one step further.  Not only does his cowboy lack any features, his face is a platform for the film credits.  His individuality has been dismantled; his body only serves to carry the names of others.

In addition to being deprived of visual character, the cowboy’s heroic actions are consistently reduced to futility and foolishness.   Three different posters for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, for example, show the duo riddled with bullets (Pągowski, 1953 v. 1 and v. 2, and Świerzy, 1983). Pągowski’s first version is in the form of a colorful comic strip.  The men are drawn as caricatures, and the word “BANG!” adds jocular flare.  But a small inset reveals a rough sketch of the characters sprawled on the ground.  They have no color, no cowboy hats, no distinguishing features.  They have been reduced to a heap of bloody, nameless forms. Pągowski’s second poster, in contrast to the comic strip version, features a detailed sketch of the two characters, but still there is no color in the image aside from the blood that flanks their portraits. Three decades later, Świerzy would use a similar approach, but the image is obscured and riddled with bullet holes.   The men smile through the bloody portrait, at once underscoring the pride of defying authority, and the uselessness of it.  All three interpretations emphasize the characters’ ruin in gory detail—a move that not even the film itself makes: it ends with a still-frame just before shots are fired.  These posters go beyond the film, and beyond American posters for the film, to illustrate violence and death.  It is this insistence on the demise, and not on the individualistic actions leading up to the demise, that characterize Polish posters.

Poster artists also enjoyed more whimsical renditions of the cowboy’s frivolity.  Jan Młodożenic’s Sędzia z Teksasu (The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, 1975) portrays a two-dimensional figure with bullet holes scoring its chest.  It is nameless, faceless, and useless–a cowboy’s shape, and nothing more.  The only three-dimensional object in the image is a gun belt around his waist.  The oversized belt looks ridiculous, and is made even more unreasonable by the figure’s vain reach towards the weapons, as if he intended to act, but was too late.  The potential hero’s hesitation has reduced him to a porous cardboard cutout.

Another Młodożenic creation, Oddział (Posse, 1976), shows a sheriff face-en-face with a smoking gun.  As in the poster for Sędzia z Teksasu, the figures in this poster are two-dimensional, with one exception.  The stack of dollar bills that serve as the mayor’s face (again, the character’s own face is obscured) is on a higher plane than the other elements.  Even in the midst of violence, the power of capital cannot be touched.  Meanwhile, smoke rises from the gun to create the poster’s backdrop.  The sky is composed of violence, the authority is composed of money, and neither is winning.

If posters such as these reflect Poland’s post-WWII political climate, it is clear that something had to change.  Despite the disparaging representations, it was ultimately an image from an American western film that would help usher in sweeping political changes.  Tomasz Sarnecki’s Solidarność (Solidarity) features a publicity still of Gary Cooper in the film High Noon.  The image has been adapted for the movement: Cooper wears a solidarność pin above his sheriff’s badge, and he holds an election ballot in his hand.  Following Poland’s entry to NATO, Bronisław Geremek, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1997-2000, said of Gary Cooper’s image, “It helped us to win.  For the people of Poland, high noon comes today.”

The High Noon film poster itself evolved as Poland’s political climate did.  Marian Starchuski’s version when the film arrived in Poland in 1959 highlights the movie’s climax, when Gary Cooper’s character, Will Kane, manages to gun down his opponent.  Yet the design is vague.  Kane is not holding a gun.  Instead, the gun lays abandoned on the ground beside the fallen man as if the man has shot himself.  Kane’s wife is rushing forward as if to help her husband’s enemy, while Kane looks away, stern but aloof.   The image does not fall in line with the movie’s plot.  The dedicated sheriff is cold and detached.  The faithful wife runs from him and towards his enemy.  The enemy has fallen victim, not to Kane’s valor, but to suicide or some unseen murderer.  Furthermore, the scene is placed in front of an austere red background.  High Noon is widely recognized as an allegory for anti-McCarthyism.  Considering its place in communist Poland during the Second Red Scare, this choice of background color is politically loaded.

High Noon was released in Poland again in 1987.  Grzegorz Marszalek’s poster to mark the occasion is noticeably divergent from the 1957 edition. Though the image appears to be derived from the publicity shot that would later be used in the solidarity campaign, this rendering remains in line with Polish film poster themes.  The character has gained individuality (he is the only one picture), but his face is obscured by a long shadow from his hat.  He is pictured from the waist up, and appears to be immobile.  Still, he wears a slight smile and clutches his timepiece in one hand while touching his gun holster with the other.  Action is imminent.

The now-indispensable Solidarność poster of 1989 signals a complete departure from the themes of the Polish poster school.   Instead of a sketch or painting, Sarnecki uses a photograph of the character.  His face is no longer obscured by a hat or shadow—this is clearly Gary Cooper.  His pistol has been blanked-out and replaced with a voting ballot.  A solidarity pin is symbolically placed above the badge that denotes authority.  Additionally, Cooper is not pictured from the waist up, but in his entirety.   It is now clear that he is taking a step forward: progress is finally being made.

Decades worth of “pictures to be read” laid the foundation for the impact of High Noon during solidarity.  Lech Wałęsa, the movement’s co-founder, would later write, “[communists] tried to ridicule the freedom movement in Poland as an invention of the ‘Wild’ West, especially the U.S.  But the poster had the opposite impact: Cowboys in Western clothes had become a powerful symbol for Poles.”   Whereas communists read the posters as a threat of westernization, Poles had learned to read images as metaphors for their own experience.  The progress of Kane’s image signaled the political progress of the Polish people: from bystanders to ballot-holders, from obscured faces to individuals.

In his essay The Mass Ornament, Siegried Kracauer notes that visual expressions, “by virtue of their unconscious nature, provide unmediated access to the fundamental substance of the state of things.”  It is unclear if Polish poster artists consciously knew that they were painting, not the portraits of American western stars, but self-portraits that mirrored the social and political landscape of Poland.  Whether deliberate or not, the posters served as a channel of expression for both their artists and the viewers that share in the artists’ frustration.  Ironically, it was censorship and oppression that allowed these works of art to come into being.  The posters communicate the unspoken in post-WWII Poland, the symbols within allowing their distress to be seen, if not heard.  The feeling of victimhood, the scourge of violence, the empathy for the oppressed, and the grave demise of individuals that resist authority—it is all recorded within these posters.  But it was not until the High Noon poster of solidarity that the Polish people could adopt a western symbol for what it was—not a fool or a menace, but an individual taking his first step towards liberation.