Wierna rzeka (The Faithful River) (1987)




Director:     Tadeusz Chmielewski.

Starring:      Malgorzata Pieczynska (Salomea Brynicka),  Olgierd Lukaszewicz (Józef Odrowaz),  Franciszek Pieczka (Szczepan),  Maria Homerska (Princess Odrowazowa),   Henryk Bista (Dr. Kulewski),  Henryk Machalica (Major),  Jerzy Turek (Soltys),  Wojciech Wysocki (Capt. Wiesnicyn),  Tomasz Zaliwski (Hubert Olbromski),  Artur Barcis (Uprising soldier),  Jan Jurewicz (Kruk),  Izabella Kulawik (Ryfka).

only survivor of a unit in the 1863 insurgency in Poland is taken care of by a land steward's daughter




Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.  (Names of the characters in the text are taken from the sub-titles in English.)

Part I.

There are scenes of the dead on a battlefield. A fellow goes around collecting the skies of the men. One of the soldiers is still alive. One of the peasants take his boots and tells the soldier that he must die because they are going to bury the dead by nightfall. The soldier starts dragging himself away from the battlefield. He slowly stands upright and keeps moving. He has to walk without his boots.

The soldier reaches a farm house. A woman sees him and shouts: "They burned two cabins yesterday because of you!" She damns all the rebels. The woman warns the villagers of the presences of the rebel. A man grabs a pitchfork and goes out after the soldier. The villagers ask the wounded soldier where he came from. He came from the battle in the forest. The soldier admits he is a rebel, who served under Langiewicz. The headman of the village says they are under strict orders to turn in any rebels. The soldier says he fought for them, for their freedom.

The villagers debate what they should do with him. The soldier lets himself fall into the river and heads downstream. The villagers leave. Another villager, a servant named Stefan, sees the soldier’s bloody footprints. He follows the blood trail to the manor house. Stefan finds the soldier warming himself by the kitchen fire. He warns the soldier to leave or he will split his head open with his axe.

The soldier starts to leave, but falls down. The man takes pity on him and gives him some food. He puts some slippers on the soldier and walks him out into the snow. He tells him the direction in which he should go.

Miss Salomea (called Salcha) teaches a young Jewish girl named Rivka, the daughter of the tavern owner, some new words in Polish. They hear the groans of the soldier and Salcha goes to see who it is. The little girl is afraid and runs away. The woman drags the man into her house.

The soldier says his unit was cut to pieces at Malogoszcz. (a town in the Jęedrzejów County, ŚSwięetokrzyskie Voivodeship, Poland. During the 1863 January Uprising, one of the biggest battles took place here - the Battle of Małlogoszcz.). 

Salcha asks him if anyone saw him. Just a few people says the man. He says that a man in the kitchen saw him. Salcha tells him that’s Stefan, one of her servants. She takes off all the clothes of the soldier and cleans him up. It looks as though he may have been shot in the hip area. Salcha tears some cloth in ribbons to serve as bandages.

The Cossacks come into the village and start searching the homesteads. Stefan sees them and says: "Oh my God! Cossacks!" He goes back inside the house. One of the Cossacks refers to a leader as Your Highness, who goes over to look at a bunch of dead men piled on top of each other. His Highness recognizes one of the faces as that of a nobleman and he has his men put his body on a separate sled.

The officers go into the tavern for food and drink. His Highness says were 19 dead out there on the sled. They all had fought together against the Chechen in the Caucasus. These seasoned veterans were cut down by men with scythes. Vesnitsin says the rebels are so strong because they want to be free. His Highness says that the nobleman Vonogradov was fond of that word freedom and now he is dead, slit from his groin up to his throat -- a Russian rebel killed by the scythe of a Polish rebel. Another officer says the peasants have remained loyal in the uprising. Vesnitsin asks two peasants to smile for him. They do and all their front teeth are gone. Vesnitsin says they knock out their front teeth so they can't bite off cartridges and so are unfit for military service.

Vesnitsin finds out that the peasants only buried 18 bodies. One body is missing. Vesnitsin tells his men to arrest the headman and the peasants with him and then fetch Ostap. The headman insists that they buried all the bodies -- all 18 of them. One of the peasants say that the 19th soldier must have been the one who fell into the river. The headman says that the man died, drowned, and floated off dead in the river. Vesnitsin asks for a description of the man. A peasant says he lost an eye from a saber cut. Vesnitsin has the headman hanged for the loss of the 19th body. The soldiers want to find that 19th man. They will stay in the nearby manor and while there will look for the man.

At the manor house Stefan says that their bandaged guest won’t make it through the night. Salcha goes to look at him. She asks him about the eye and the man says that he was bayoneted there. He asks her where is he? Niezdoly.  Salcha says her father was the steward. Three months ago he joined the Rising, like everybody. Salcha sleeps in the room to keep an eye on the soldier.

The little girl bangs on the door crying out: "Miss Salcha!" She warns them that the Cossacks are coming and they hung the headman. She says they are looking for a wounded man. Lea hides the pistol. Stefan grabs the wounded soldier from the bed to hide him.

The Cossacks start busting in the door, but Salcha opens it before they break it. His Highness questions Salcha. She tells him that the owner Mr. Rudecki was taken away by dragoons. His Highness says that they were told that a rebel is hiding in the manor and that Salcha better give him up. The Cossacks continue searching the house. Stefan is brought in and ill-treated in an attempt to make him talk. He reveals nothing. Vinitsin seems to like Salcha and gets her shawl to help keep her warm.

In the morning the Cossacks pull out. Salcha tells Stefan to go get the wounded man because otherwise he will freeze outside. Stefan says he knows the tricks of the Cossacks. They will double back to check on them again. His Highness tells Capt. Vinitsin that he failed to produce the rebel. Vinitsin says he wants to take a few men and pay a return visit to the manor house. Permission granted.

Salcha and Stefan pull the soldier out of the hay loft by the use of a pulley and rope. Stefan goes outside and sees the Cossacks returning to the house. He runs back into the barn. Vinitsin arrives and says this time he has come of his own accord. He approaches Salcha, but she pulls out a gun and warns the captain that she will shoot if he so much as even touches her. Vinitsin says he would never have even thought of that. Feeling insulted, he gets on his horse and rides off. Stefan says again that the Cossacks will return.

They place the wounded man back in bed. Stefan says she should have left the rebel to die of exposure. He says that’s an easy death. Stefan goes outside for a minute. To warm the rebel up, Salcha gets in bed with him and holds him. The soldier starts to show some signs of life. When Stefan comes into the room, he is a bit shocked to see Salcha in bed with the rebel.

Salcha feeds the wounded man. He tells her to stop staring at him and she replies: "What about you?" After he finishes eating, he says his name is Jozef Odrowaz. She tells him her name is Salomea Brynicka, but most people call her Salcha.

In the kitchen Salcha picks at her food. Stefan says they can’t stay here. He has a brother-in-law in Piotrkow. Salcha asks what about her father? Someone has to be here when he returns. She almost begs Stefan not to abandon her.

The people of the village are called together. An official reads a message: By order of the Prefect, until such time as a new headman is appointed, a reward of 20 rubles for the capture of the rebel is offered. Salcha says hello to the tavern owner Aaron. She tells him that they have no food left to eat. She asks for some potatoes and flour. Salcha says her father will pay when he returns. The owner may not want to help her, but the wife of the owner does like Salcha’s shawl.

Jozef tells Stefan to give him his clothes. He wants to leave before any harm comes to Salcha from the Cossacks.  The soldier puts some clothes on his finds in a closet and walks in the snow but his right leg really hurts him. He sees his fellow rebels and starts to yell out to them, but he falls and rolls down the river embankment. Salcha is returning from the tavern with a big piece of bread she got for her shawl. She sees Vinitsin and the Cossacks pass by her. The captain says nothing to her. After they pass, Salcha sees Jozef and runs to him shouting for him to go back before they catch him.

In the kitchen a rebel with a pistol steals the food from Stefan as he warms it up. Stefan rushes him and takes the food from him. The fellow asks how many people live in the house and Stefan says it's just he and a lady. The leader goes outside and calls in the other rebels. They all rush inside the manor house kitchen. Many of them are wounded. The men demand that Stefan give them food and shove him down when he refuses.

Salcha drags her rebel back to the house. She warns a rebel guard that the Cossacks are nearby. There are 50 or so of them. Salcha goes into the house and the men grab the bread and quickly devour it. By threatening to kill her rebel, Salcha has to offer the men the potatoes she has.

Jozef asks the rebel leader to take him with them. The leader believes Jozef is too weak. But the has their doctor examine him. The doctor says the bullet is lodged against the bone. Worse than that, gangrene is about to set in and they must operate now.

Stefan distributes the potatoes. He finds that one of the rebels has just died. The man is buried. The rebels leave. Salcha goes back to the tavern. She steals a horse and sled.

Jozef screams in pain. Stefan tells him to shut up or they’ll all be killed. He rushes into the room and covers Jozef’s mouth with his two hands. Jozef tells Stefan to kill him. Salcha drives the horse to the doctor’s house. The doctor says he won’t risk Siberia for a rebel. Salcha keeps begging him until he agrees to go with her. The doctor wants to trade his services for sex with Salcha.

Stefan loads a pistol and gives it to Jozef in case he wants to kill himself. Jozef starts to shoot himself through the throat, but can’t bring himself to do it. The doctor and Salcha arrive. Salcha will help keep him down as the doctor operates on him. Jozef struggles against Salcha, but eventually goes unconscious. Salcha awakens him and he starts to scream again. She gives him her arm to bite on.

The doctor gets the bullet out and bandages Jozef. Now he wants something from Salcha. She pulls off her top clothes to expose her chest to the doctor. She stands there crying as she lets the doctor look. The doctor feels guilty, packs up and has Stefan drive him home.


Part II.

Jozef gets out of bed and asks Salcha when did the rebels leave? She tells him they left about a month ago. Jozef wants to put on his clothes and leave. He can’t find his clothes, so he asks Stefan about their whereabouts. Stefan says he doesn’t know. Salcha hid them. Jozef didn’t even recognize it was Salcha in the kitchen.

The soldier asks Stefan to shave him. Stefan does and all Jozef does is complain and bark orders at him. Stefan does a really lousy job of shaving and Jozef asks the servant if he is trying to cut his throat? Stefan gets very angry and says: "I would have long ago, if she hadn’t kept watched over you day and night like a dog. I didn’t promise her father I’d watch her washing and cleaning up after you. Treating people like dirt comes naturally to you." Salcha arrives and tells Stefan: "Get out!"

Jozef apologizes for not recognizing her when he was in the kitchen with her. She just tells him to get back in bed. He tells her no. He wants to leave. And, so, of course, he wants a horse. Salcha tells them there are no available horses. Jozef tells her to go to the tavern and ask. Salcha tells him: "Aaron is a Cossack informer. You wouldn’t get far." Jozef says he is a soldier and he has to get back to his unit. Salcha counters by telling him that Langiewicz’s regime is crushed and the man has fled abroad. She tells him: "I will tell you when you can leave."

Salcha tells Stefan that only she is to go near Jozef. Stefan goes out to where he buried the clothes and other belongings of Jozef. Jozef told him there was a valuable letter in his belt, so now Stefan retrieves the belt and letter. Also in the belt, Stefan finds some coins. He wraps those up and sticks them in his hat.

Salcha takes Jozef’s head bandage off and looks at his eye. Jozef starts kissing her hand again and again. She then takes off the bandage around his chest. She redresses the head wound and then the chestwound. But as she redresses his chest, she finds herself caressing Jozef with her hands and then hugging him from behind.

Rivka arrives bringing Salcha some bread. She wants to come in and talk with Salcha but Salcha says no. This really upsets the girl and she starts crying, saying that Salcha doesn’t love her anymore. Salcha tells her that's not true, but the girl just puts down the bread and runs home.

Salcha cuts the bread and starts to take part of it to Jozef, but she is so hungry that she starts grabbing at the rest of the bed, shoveling it into her mouth. Salcha goes to Jozef’s room, but finds him gone. She looks out the window and sees him in a coat walking away from the house.  Jozef stops and looks back at the house.

Stefan meets Rivka on the dirt road and asks why she’s crying. She tells him and he says that Salcha is under a spell. He takes the letter from his hat and asks Rivka to read it to him. It is a letter to the person who finds his body. He says they can have the rubles, but he insists on being buried as a Christian.

Jozef is seen by someone in the village. The still weak soldier goes into a barn. A fellow there tells Jozef that he shouldn’t be walking around so openly. The other man is a spy for the Cossacks and has been following him. The fellow tells Jozef that Salcha’s father died in his cabin three days ago. He has some money from her father. Jozef asks about his comrades and the peasant tells him that night the rebels left Salcha’s house, the Cossacks caught up with them. The fellow is now leaving. He gives the money to Jozef and tells him to give it to the poor orphaned woman.

A very sad Salcha takes down from the clothes lines all the drying bandages she used to take care of Jozef. The wind blows through parts of the manor house making a loud noise and this frightens Salcha who believes that the house is haunted. She shouts for Stefan. All of a sudden a door opens, but it’s not Stefan. It’s Jozef.  Salcha’s entire face lights up when she sees him. They both rush to each other. He tells her she will not be alone anymore. He kisses her hand again. They hug and Salcha kisses his neck.

Stefan arrives home with a dog. He explains to Salcha that the dog is Rivka. The dog will replace Rivka to warn Salcha of the approach of the Cossacks. Stefan has brought a small sled full of food. He even brings a duck. Salcha wants to know how he got these things from Aaron’s tavern and Stefan gives her the rest of the money he has. He then tells Salcha that this Jozef of hers is an aristocrat. He also gives her the letter. Stefan tells Salcha that Jozef is actually a prince. It appears that Stefan knows of the man. He was a beater for him on one of the royal hunts. He says: ". . . you never saw such wealth."

Now Salcha is worried because he is so far above her in social status. She prepares a fancy dinner for Jozef, but now she is cold to him. He is bewildered by this behavior and goes to speak with her, but Stefan blocks his way. He asks the prince to leave Salcha alone. In the absence of her father from the house, Stefan says he is acting like Salcha’s father. The prince tells Stefan that her father is dead. He asks that Stefan now let him pass. Stefan warns the prince that he better not see Salcha ever shed a tear because of him or else he will kill the prince. He leaves the room, but locks the prince in. Jozef bangs on the door to be let out.

Salcha is very sad and cries on her bed. (Stefan must have told her about her father.) Hearing her cry, Stefan feels very bad for her. Suddenly, Salcha gets up and runs to the locked door. She demands that Stefan open it. He begs her not to go to the prince. She asks him for the key, but he refuses to give it to her. She slaps him, but then cries and hugs him. She also asks that he forgive her.

Some members of the National Government arrive expecting to lodge in the manor house. They bang on the door. Stefan tells the closest man to get away from the window or he will shoot. The fellows asks about the lodging and Stefan opens the door. He tells them to come in one at a time. The first man says it’s better that they don’t know their lodgers’ names. He tells Salcha that they will only stay for a couple of hours. "They" are coming to get them early in the morning.

They hear gunfire. Salcha says those are rebel guns. Then she hears the fire of the Cossacks. The man wants to know what’s behind the locked door. Stefan says nothing, but the man wants to see and orders Stefan to open up in the name of the government. Stefan objects, but the man goes in. The official finds Jozef and holds a pistol on him.  He explains that his name is Bednarski and he is the government commissioner. Jozef explains who he is and the commissioner tells him if he’s a spy, they will hang him.

The commissioner leads Jozef out at the point of a gun. He takes him to his superior. The two actually know each other and they almost hug, but Jozef stops him because of his wounds. The man once was the young Jozef’s tutor.  The commissioner’s superior says that Jozef’s leader and his leader do not see eye to eye. Jozef insists that they both fight for freedom. The former tutor agrees that they only differ in their paths to independence.

The Cossacks arrive and surround the house. The commissioner’s superior says they can only liberate Poland by joining forces. The prince says the tutor’s revolution is doomed to fail because it stands alone. They must have support from the West. The dog starts barking. Salcha sits and listens to the two men argue.

Stefan goes in to see Salcha. They hug carefully. All of a sudden, the Cossacks start breaking into the manor house. Everyone in the house goes to the cellar, except the former tutor and one of his associates.  They jump out of a back window. The tutor’s associate is killed by the Cossacks, while he tries to run away.  He throws his satchel into the river. He rebel shoots a number of Cossacks before they surround him.

The Cossack officer, none other than Captain Vinitsin, tells his men to take the man alive. But the man refuses to surrender because he does not want to placed in captivity. He saber fights with the officer and knocks him down. He could have killed the captain, but won’t strike him with his saber. A Cossack comes up from behind the former tutor and stabs him in the back with his lance. The dying man now falls onto the snow-covered landscape. The officer slaps the man who killed the rebel.

Stefan hides with Salcha in the barn. The soldiers remove their clothes to go into the river to retrieve the satchel. Vinitsin and his men put hay around the house preparing to burn the house down. The captain finds Jozef hiding. Jozef tells him to shoot him here. Vinitsin realizes that this is the man that Salcha hid from them. Now he points his pistol at his prisoner’s head.

Salcha sees the Cossacks preparing to fire the house. Stefan tries to hold her back, but she won’t be stopped. She runs to the manor house.

Vinitsin won’t shoot Jozef, despite Jozef’s insistence that he do so. The prisoner says that he would shoot if he had the pistol. So Vinitsin gives him the pistol. Jozef can’t shoot the captain. The captain gets the pistol back and says in battle someone must die and points the pistol at his head again. At this point Salcha comes flying in shouting: "No!" She puts her body between the two men and hugs Jozef passionately. A saddened and even dejected Vinitsin leaves the pistol behind and leaves the house. A Cossack soldier tells the captain he should have shot the man. The Cossacks leave without burning the house.

Stefan and Jozef go out to bury one of the dead representatives of the National Government. Salcha starts digging. Stefan is disgusted with all this fighting and killing and he doesn’t want to bother burying the man. Just then some villagers coming towards them shout that it is forbidden to bury the man. Do they want a return visit from the Cossacks? This only makes Stefan mad and he starts digging.

The winds howl in the manor house and in fear Salcha calls out for Stefan. Jozef looks and sees Stefan walking away with a suitcase in his hand. The prince now goes to check on Salcha. She tells him that she’s frightened. She called for Stefan, but he has gone from the house. Jozef tells her they will manage by themselves.

Salcha is still fearful and says the house is haunted by Dominic who killed himself. While Jozef starts hugging and kissing her, he explains that the howling she hears is not Dominic, but the wind blowing through the broken windows upstairs. He starts taking off her nightgown, while telling her to stop with all this nonsense about her Dominics. She trusts Jozef and soon she is taking off his shirt.

It’s springtime. A very happy Salcha gathers wild flowers and twirls and twirls around in the fields. She runs over to Jozef laying in the grass and plops down by him. They talk and laugh together. Then they hear gunfire and get up.

Jozef knows Italy and he pretends with Salcha that they are greeting this count and that baroness. The sound of approaching horses is heard. They fear it might be the Cossacks. But it is a coach that goes by them and then stops. A woman in the coach asks if they have reached Niezdoly, Jozef recognizes the voice and shouts out "Mama!" Mother and son run to each other. She has been searching and searching for him. With her is Stefan. Now Jozef introduces Salcha to his mother as the woman who saved his life. Mother is very grateful to her.

Mother scolds her son for sneaking back from Italy to Poland and joining the Uprising without her permission. Jozef gives the patriotic reasons for his decision.

Mother asks Salcha if she loves her son. Yes. Does her son love her? Yes. Did he say he would marry her? Yes. Have they been intimate? Salcha lowers her head and won’t say. Mother asks if this is her way of trying to get her son to marry her? Salcha only says that she loves him. Mother now tries to enlist Salcha to help her save her son from danger. She says he must return to Italy. There he can recover fully and finish his studies. Salcha shakes her head no and asks: "What about me?" Salcha wants to go to Italy with them even if she has to be a maid. Mother says that she can come to Italy as his wife, but she must realize marriage is an impossibility. Salcha starts crying as she says she is aware of that.

Mother wants to take her son away from the Uprising. But Salcha says he will never leave the Uprising. Salcha cries and now mother begs her for her help in this matter. Mother gives her some money and Salcha recoils from it. Jozef enters the room as a crying Salcha leaves it.

Jozef demands to know why Salcha was crying. Mother lies to him saying that he has to join Langiewicz. Jozef calls him a coward and a traitor. Mother tells him it’s an order. Josef says he will stay here. He says he loves Salcha and is happy here. He says his mother must take care of Salcha, if he goes. Mother says yes and then adds that a guide is ready to take them to Cracow.

Jozef asks Stefan where is Salcha? He says she went out and told him that Jozef is not to come looking for her. Salcha is down by the river, the faithful river. A saddened Jozef gets in the coach with his mother and away they go. Salcha throws the money from mother’s purse into the river. Stefan finds her laying listlessly by the river and carries her back to the manor house.


Good movie and a long one.  A little village is constantly harassed by the Cossacks because one of  the supposed nineteen dead Polish rebels is still alive.  The Cossacks are bound and determined to catch the 19th man, named Jozef, who turns out to be a Polish nobleman.  Poor Salcha, the temporary mistress of the manor house, is very lonely as her only company is her old servant Stefan.  When the surviving soldier shows up, she takes him into the manor house and nurses the man back from a very likely death.  The nurse falls in love with her patient.  She performs her caretaking of the soldier above and beyond her duty.  She saved the patient's life in many different ways and on different occasions.  She is pretty, loyal, faithful, hard-working  -- in fact, she was a virtual saint.  Salcha put her own life in danger by harboring the rebel in her home, but Salcha would certainly have given her life for Jozef.   After all this, Salcha finds out that Jozef is a prince.  But this is no Cinderella story.  The class differences keeps the two lovers miles apart, as Jozef's mother so aptly said. 

The movie deals with the 1863 Polish Uprising.  Two groups of freedom fighters take on the Russian Empire.  That sounds like an impossible situation for the Poles and it proved so.  Josef is one of the nobles who joined the revolt of the young Poles against their forced conscription into the Russian army.   Josef was representatives of the Whites, the nobility and intelligencia, while Salcha was representative of the Reds, mainly peasants and workers. 

The film reminds me somewhat of Gone with the Wind.  It's heroine is a combination of the good qualities of Melanie and the tough qualities of Scarlet.  But young Jozef would certainly be no match for Rhett Butler.  Nevertheless, this is a love story set against a major conflict.  Like Scarlet, Salcha's journey to love was long and beset with problems caused by the current conflict.  The ending of the two movies are somewhat similar too, but Scarlet's problem was one of her own blindness and illusions, while class differences kept Salcha from happiness. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


1815 – the Kingdom of Poland (or Congress Poland) is created at the Congress of Vienna. Poland was divided and ruled between Russia, Austria and Prussia.

1855-1881  --   reign of Alexander II as the king of Congress Poland. 

1863 (January)- 1865 – the January Uprising. The former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (present-day Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Latvia, parts of Ukraine, western Russia) rose up against the Russian Empire.

The Uprising was a spontaneous protest of young Poles against being drafted to serve in the Russian Army. High-ranking Polish-Lithuanian officers and some politicians joined in the revolt.  There were about 10,000 men involved in the Uprising.  Their forces were so weak that they had to resort to guerrilla tactics.  In every major military engagement the insurgents were outnumbered at least 10 to 1.

There were two major factions in the Uprising: 1) the Reds united peasants, workers and some clergy; and 2) the Whites united landlords and intelligencia.

The Russian forces had around 90,000 men.  In Lithuania were 6,000 Cossacks. 

1863 (February)  Marian Langiewicz (1827-1887) was a Polish military leader of the January Uprising. He won the Battle of Małlogoszcz against the Russians.

1863-1864 – Polish National Government was the underground Polish supreme authority during the Uprising. It resided in Warsaw and Karol Majewski was its leader.  

1863 (March 10) – Langiewicz proclaims himself dictator and tries to establish a government.

1863 (March) --  Langiewicz’s army almost annihilated at Zagośsćc. Langiewicz went to Austrian territory and is interned at Tarnów. Later he is transferred to the fortress of Josephstadt.

1864  --  the rebellion is crushed.  Russia inflicts very harsh reprisals.  About 70,000 persons were imprisoned.  1,660 estates in Poland and 1,794 in Lithuania are confiscated

1865 – Langiewicz is released from prison.



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