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Film / How I Unleashed World War II

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The Great Escape made it look so easy...

How I Unleashed World War II (Polish Jak rozpętałem drugą wojnę światową) is a Polish comedy made in 1969, based on Kazimierz Sławiński's book "Przygody kanoniera Dolasa" (The Adventures of Dolas the Cannoneer).

The movie tells the story of a Polish soldier Franciszek Dolas, who - as a result of comical coincidences - is convinced that he started the Second World War. Trying to redeem himself at all costs, he constantly gets into new trouble. In doing so, he finds himself on most of the fronts of the war and eventually returns to Poland, all by luck and random accidents.

It's by far one of the most iconic Polish comedies ever made and an absolute Cult Classic. While originally shot in black and white, it was since colorised and cleaned in 2000, extending the life of the movie further.


There are significant differences between the original book and the film, starting with two completely different main characters, who only share the same surname. Thus while they experience almost the same misadventures, they have different outcomes for each of them.

Tropes occurring in both the book and the film:

  • Action Survivor: Neither Adolf nor Franek ever do any fighting, or hurt anyone. They just have an amazing luck surviving through the entire war as soldiers of several different armies without ending up in direct combat.
  • Chekhov's Gunman:
    • In the book, Dolas becomes a friend with Lanckoroński. Later, when he ends up back in Poland, Lanckoroński is a leader of a local partisant group, so he stops his men from shooting Adolf, who's in a German uniform.
    • In the film, Franek goes through a similar scenario, eventually meeting with a fellow POW Józef, who fills the role of Lanckoroński, but also warns the entire group how incompetent Dolas is as a soldier.
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  • Dressing as the Enemy: Happens a lot, leading to dozens of gags created by the confusion. Eventually, it's one step away from causing harm to both incarnations of Dolas, when he ends up in a German uniform in war-torn Poland.
  • Inverse Law of Utility and Lethality: Neither Adolf nor Franek are soldiers by trade and they're both amazingly incompetent fighters. On the other hand, they survive the entire war, visiting most of its fronts, despite being respectively an art historian and a small-time crook.
  • Legion of Lost Souls: While in the book Adolf only stays for a very brief stint in the Legion (as a cook), Franek ends up forcefully conscripted in the movie and it gets its own subplot, responsible for half of the most famous gags from the film.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • In the book, Adolf aims his anti-aircraft gun, on his own performs all the complex procedures perfectly, in no time, makes an almost improbable shot and takes down the plane... only to realise it was a Polish recon plane dropping down new orders for his unit. Fortunately the pilot gets out fine, but Dolas almost ends up court-martialed for this.
    • The film opens with one, where half-asleep Franek fires a shot at a fleeing German and suddenly all hell unleashes around him, convincing Franek that it was his shot that started the entire war.
    • Later, Franek has another one, realising he was saved by French troops only to get shanghaied into French Foreign Legion, fully aware of its reputation.
  • A Storm Is Coming: More prominent in the book (which opens with Adolf's military training as an officer cadet and misadventures he had during it), but both versions of the story start right before the outbreak of the World War II, with only a handful of characters aware how bad things are going to get pretty soon.

Book-only tropes:

  • Badass on Paper: First of all, Adolf starts as officer cadet. He gets demoted right before the outbreak of the war, but it never managed to reach the files, so from them it appears to everyone he must be a trained, career NCO. It only goes worse when he spends just few days in French Foreign Legion as a cook, but everyone then assumes he must be a veteran desert fighter, and since he also has NCO training... By the end of the war, he's officially a reservist lieutenant.
  • Character Tics: Adolf wears round, gold-rimmed glasses he subconsciously keeps pushing up his nose with index finger.
  • Direct Line to the Author: The book opens and closes with first person narration from Sławiński, as he meets an old friend of his, Adolf Dolas, currently a custodian of a museum and a reservist lieutenant, to reminisce on all the misadventures Dolas had between '38 till the end of the war. Sławiński himself always claimed that most of the book is based on actual, real events.
  • Embarrassing First Name: Invoked, since the book is set in times when being named Adolf starts having rather unpleasant associations.
  • Named After Somebody Famous: While still in military academy, Dolas befriends a guy named Lanckoroński, just like a famous noble house. The guy instantly points out that he's from the other Lanckoroński family, a Jewish impoverished bourgeoisie one, and the name was given to his ancestors as an insult towards the noble house.
  • Omniglot: More than expected, since Adolf has a pre-war PhD in History of Art. He speaks fluent French, German, Italian and also has basic understanding of English and Russian. And that goes without mentioning classical education, which means Latin and ancient Greek, indispensable in his field. This is sharply contrasted in the movie - Franek only knows a handful of foreign words and is always trying to explain things in Polish and with hefty helping of hand gestures.

Film-only tropes:

  • Adaptation Distillation: While numerous subplots were greatly expanded, due to Dolas no longer being an academician, his adventures as Italian POW were almost entirely scrapped and reduced to bare minimum, since these depended in full on his being an educated historian of art.
  • Adaptation Expansion: The book is roughly 300 pages long, with numerous elements only briefly mentioned. The film is divided into three parts, as it lasts 236 minutes. The major expansion occurs in the African front part, where a brief chapter is turned into one of the most iconic subplots of the movie.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Dolas' first name changes from Adolf to Franek, for pretty obvious reasons.
  • The Alcoholic: Captain Letoux doesn't really care about the quality of food in his fort, as long as his quartermaster still manages to deliver whiskey for him.
  • Been There, Shaped History: Inverted. Franek thinks he is the case, being responsible for starting the war and remains completely oblivious till the very end of it.
  • Double Take: When Franek gives "his" name to the Gestapo officer, he picks a pen, put it on the blank form and then rises his head, realising what he just heard. This gag is actually lifted from the book version of C.K. dezerterzy.
    Dolas: (with straight face) Brzęczyszczykiewicz. (Beat) Grzegorz.
  • Epic Movie: Massive cast, countless locations and sets, multi-language dialogues, plot following a character for years... Oh, and it's also a comedy full of gags.
  • Great Escape: The Polish POWs in German stalag are performing multiple plots and countless effective escapes at the same time, each independent from another.
  • Guile Hero: Zig-Zagged. On one hand, Franek is extremely resourceful and street-wise. On the other, he still relies mostly on his luck, so whenever his schemes backfire (and they usually do), he still succeeds due to a random chance.
  • Hustling the Mark: Franek doesn't even have a mark in the crowd to help him, so he starts out literally giving money away. In no time he manages not only to win the cash back, but keep the game up long enough to fill an entire truck full with fresh food and animals, while occasionally still letting the Arab merchants win some of his money. If he had a bit more time to finish the game properly, the traders would never even realise it was a con.
    Dolas: (in Polish, in the middle of bazaar full of Arabs) People! People, I went insane! Insane! I give away my money!
  • Language Barrier: Franek knows maybe 10 words that aren't in Polish. It doesn't stop him in the slightest in pulling different scams and ploys, like getting supplies from an Arab village for a nearby French Foreign Legion fort and hauling himself out of Libya and then out of Italy back to Poland.
    • Meanwhile, the Brits can't communicate with Dolas at all, finally taking him as a prisoner just to keep the guy in one place and not stirring any more trouble.
  • Lethal Chef: Due to lack of fresh food and having to rely on old cans, the previous cook in the Legion's fort gained such notoriety as one, he eventually ended in the pot himself, killed by mutinous soldiers.
  • Lovable Rogue: Before the war Franek was a small-time crook, but this is exactly what makes him so versatile during the war and why he's so enjoyable as a character, always finding some way to succeed without using brute force.
  • National Stereotypes: While present in both versions, the film greatly expands on this for comedic purposes:
    • The Polish stereotype of themselves as misguided patriots, street-wise rascals who tend to act larger than life.
    • Not suprisingly, the Germans love bureaucracy and always want to have proper papers and forms for everything. At the same time, the film almost entirely avoids the antics related with Those Wacky Nazis.
    • All the different people from Balkans are portrayed as heavy drinkers (capable of out-drinking Dolas), enjoying good party and adhering to Sacred Hospitality to the T.
    • The British troops are all portrayed as Stiff Upper Lips that drop work in the middle of it to have their five o'clock tea, whith their captain being the stiffest of them all and an Officer and a Gentleman.
    • The Italians are portrayed as a bunch of incompetent fools that want to surrender at the first chance given, with a frontline bordello being the only thing they are willing to fight for. The bordello was taken from the book.
    • The French are relatively free of stereotyping since most of them are the Foreign Legion and thus likely not even French anyway, but their commanding officer is a sybarite fond of female beauty and quality alcohol.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The main character was an intellectual with a Jewish best friend. The movie was made directly in the aftermath of a serious political crisis, in which communist regime attacked intellectuals and forced Jewish citizens to leave the country. Thus Dolas became a rascal from a working class, while his friend was replaced with a random schmuck. Tropes Are Not Bad, since this made the movie highly popular and relatable, strenghtening the image of a resourceful, cunning Pole that can always adapt and reach his goals due to his wits, one way or another.
  • Press-Ganged: The only time when his lack of language skills bites Franek in the ass is when he ends up in Balkans, signing himself as a sailor for a German merchant marine. Since everyone but him knows what's going on, it enrages locals and leads to an elaborate Bar Brawl in his defense. In the end he's still press-ganged, though - but by the Greek captain standing for him in the tavern.
  • Reality Has no Subtitles: Averted. While the film has nine different languages in it (a Polish record), most of it is subtitled and what's not is easy to pick from the context anyway.
  • Refuge in Audacity: At one point Franek ends up pretending to lead an entire charge of British soldiers against the panicked Italian troops. He's a single guy in a captain uniform, without a single other soldier present.
  • Surprisingly Good Foreign Language: There is not a single non-Polish actor in the movie. Yet there are dialogues in nine foreign languages and they are all perfectly performed. The only exception might be the Austrian farmer, who speaks fluent German, but doesn't have a highly distinctive Tyrolian accent, but that's just nit-picking.
  • Translation Convention: Completely averted. The film holds a Polish record of having dialogues in nine foreign languages, with all characters speaking their respective national languages (aside the multinational legionaries, but they still use French for obvious reasons).
  • What You Are in the Dark: Dolas survives a car crash after being accidentally kidnapped. He decides to leave the badly wounded (and responsible for the entire mess) Italian driver for his own troops to find and starts quickly walking back to the nearby British camp. The cold-hearted resolve lasts less than five seconds.
    (callously) For sure they are going to find you. They saw the fire. See ya! (takes few steps, then stops, mellowing down) ...and if they won't find you?
  • Working-Class Hero: Eponymous for Polish pop-culture. On his own admission, Franek was doing menial, odd jobs most of his life, just trying to get by till the next month. He gained a lot of street-wise skills this way and it's only due to them that he makes it through the war alive.