The water war
A new film about an Olympic water polo match between Hungary and the Soviet Union at the time of the 1956 Hungarian uprising has proved to be smash hit. Director Krisztina Goda tells Donald Clarke about the burden of dramatising a major event in Hungarian
THE UNSUCCESSFUL 1956 uprising against the Communist regime in Hungary is remembered for many things. In western Europe, news footage of Soviet tanks rampaging through Budapest finally convinced all but the most blinkered of Stalinists that the Soviet Union was no workers’ paradise. In Hungary itself, the insurrection and its violent suppression have become holy events. October 23rd, the day it all began, is a national holiday; Imre Nagy, the liberal politician around whom the unrest gathered, is a revered as a great Hungarian martyr.
All this is well known beyond the Carpathian basin. But, as a fine new film called Children of Glory reveals, one significant part of the legend has, to this point, barely registered with non-Hungarians.
In late 1956 the country’s water polo team went to the Olympics in Melbourne with two scores to settle. One year previously the Hungarians, the most respected nation in this obscure sport, had lost to the Soviets in Moscow. As the Red Army stormed Budapest, the Hungarians faced their great rivals in the battle for the gold medal. Thoughts of the earlier sporting defeat and the greater catastrophe engulfing the rebels combined to fire the team toward a famous victory.
Krisztina Goda, the director of Children of Glory, admits that she knew little about water polo when she took on the project.
“It is still very big in Hungary and I really don’t understand the explanation,” she says in strong, disciplined English. “I talked to two members of the Olympic team and they helped me reconstruct the games. It is a very hard sport to work out. What is regarded as legal and illegal in the game seems a bit subjective.”
Yes indeed. I have heard that water polo is at least as violent as ice hockey (without all that protection) and that the Melbourne match was particularly savage. “That is true. It’s very physical and some of the wrestling is allowed and some is not.”
Children of Glory, which follows an apoliti- calmember of the team as he is forced to take a stand, has a somewhat peculiar history. Punters expecting a highbrow foreign-language experience may be surprised to encounter Joe Eszterhas’s name among the writing credits. The famously rambunctious screenwriter of Fatal Attraction, Jagged Edge and, erm, Showgirls was, in fact, born in Hungary and had long pondered the idea of setting a story in his homeland. Producer Andrew Vajna, another Hungarian emigre, eventually talked his old chum into knocking together a script based around the rising.
“Andy felt very strongly about making a film on the revolution,” Goda says, “and asked Joe to write a screenplay. It was originally a long, long story that took us all the way up to 1989. Then another three writers worked on it for 14 hours a day for three weeks and turned it into something a little shorter and more Hungarian.”
Krisztina Goda does not seem an obvious contender to direct such an epic project. Now 37, she left Budapest for the UK in the early 1990s to study at the National Film School in Beaconsfield. Then she spent time in California at UCLA before returning home to direct Just Sex and Nothing Else, a successful romantic comedy.
Many directors say it’s more important to look as if you know what you are doing than to actually have the knowledge. Authority and self-confidence count for everything on a movie set. “Yes, in some ways,” she says cautiously. “But it is also important to know what you are doing. Of course, I had a lot of help from the technical people.”
Goda relied heavily on her second-unit team – the people who shoot sequences that don’t involve the actors – to deliver convincing action sequences. Aware that many of the insurrectionists are still with us, the filmmakers constantly referred to newspapers and television footage to ensure historical accuracy.
“But, you know, you can never really be sure the history is right. We were shooting a demonstration and this man came along and said he wanted to talk to the director. He said he had been there and he pointed to the banners the students were holding and said they would never have anything like that. Well, we had copied everything about them from photographs: lettering, slogans, size. Everything. So, you can’t please everyone.
“Mind you, those who protested loudest about supposed inaccuracy were those who weren’t actually there.”
With all that in mind, it must have been faintly terrifying to screen the film to a domestic audience. Children of Glory was finished in time (just) for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the rising. It seems to have gone down pretty well, and whingers appear to be in the minority.
“Yes. I think so. There were some objections. But audiences mostly loved it. About 500,000 people went to see it out of just 10 million Hungarians. To give an example, the average Hungarian film usually has about 10,000 visitors and a big American movie will get about 100,000. What surprised me most was the number of young people interested. When I started working on the film, I thought they wouldn’t care.”
Let’s hope audiences here are as receptive as the Hungarians were. Most of all, we must hope the water polo community remains on Goda’s side. If Children of Glory is to be believed, the men in bathing caps can get nasty if riled.