Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Buck Barrow, the Polish Cowboy

There are few people alive today who can remember when silence was the international cinematic language. A movie could be filmed anywhere in the world, an actor could work in any nation, and without recorded dialogue, and with the swapping out of an inter-title in one language for that of another, movies were the true international art form. The coming of sound changed all that. A German film could no longer be understood by a Chinese audience, and a Polish actor, with his thick accent, could no longer be a star of American made westerns.
-
Buck Barrow was born Pawel Borkowski, in 1878, in a small village outside Warsaw, Poland, then a province of Tsarist, Russia. The son of a Polish nationalist and minor anarchist, young Pawel was raised with a strong belief that Poland would one day be free from Russian oppression. As he approached the age were he would be required to serve in the Russian army, Pawel fled his home for the United States. After arriving at Ellis Island, Pawel looked for work. After a string of short lived jobs in the Hell's Kitchen area of New York City, Pawel drifted south to Philadelphia were he found work at Lubin Studios, then one of the largest film production companies in the world.
-
Siegmund Lubin, like Pawel, was a Polish immigrant. In 1904, Lubin was about to remake The Great Train Robbery, which less than six months earlier had been a big hit for the Edison Studios. Pawel Borkowski, raised in a small village in Poland, was a master horseman, and Lubin hired him to be one of the train robbers. Over the next nine years, Siegmund Lubin featured Pawel Borkowski in over 100 westerns. Never credited, sometimes little more than a background wrangler, and sometimes a star, Pawel made his way in the movies. With more actors receiving credit for their work and larger salaries, Pawel approached Lubin about screen credit and more money for his work. Turned down by Lubin, Pawel left Philadelphia for Hollywood and California. Less than a day off the train, he was hired to appear in Cecil B. DeMille's The Squaw Man, as one of the cowboys. While Pawel was happy to be out from under Siegmund Lubin's thumb, he was also aware that his status in Hollywood was little better than it had been in Philadelphia. So, with money borrowed from a number of small investors, Pawel Borkowski moved to Victorville, in the high desert of California, changed his name to Buck Barrow, and went into business for himself.
-
With thousands of small movie theaters all over the world, Pawel's Buck Barrow Studios quickly established itself as a reliable supplier of westerns. Buck Barrow not only produced movies, he wrote them, directed them and starred in them. With his tall, lean body, blond hair and handsome profile, Buck Barrow became an international star of "B" westerns. His most successful film, "Custer's Scout, made in 1919, was even well reviewed. From the New York Times, "Buck Barrow in Custer's Scout gives a thrilling performance as the only survivor of the battle of the Little Big Horn. Fighting his way out of the valley, leaving the doomed command on a desperate mission to bring help, Barrow returns to find his friend and commander, George Armstrong Custer, dead. Vowing revenge, Barrow spends the next ten years of his life searching for Sioux war chief, Sitting Bull. The final confrontation in a Deadwood saloon, as the two men fight to the death with Knives will leave even the most jaded movie goer happy he parted with his nickel."
-
Despite his success, Barrow's life in California would come to an end with the coming of sound. While Pawel had learned to speak English quite fluently, he was never able to get rid of his Polish accent, and that ended his American career. But, as things had changed in the movies, things had also changed in Poland. With the end of World war 1, Poland had regained it's independence. Pawel Borkowski decided to leave the United States for his home country. He reopened Buck Barrow Studios on an old farm outside Warsaw. From 1932 to 1939, Pawel Borkowsi, as Buck Barrow produced, wrote, directed and starred in hundreds of westerns made for the eastern European film market. While his income was not as large as it had been when he worked in California, Pawel became one of the wealthiest men in Poland.
-
In 1939, Poland was invaded by the Soviets from the east, and the Germans from the west. Ever the patriot, Pawel Borkowski, AKA Buck Barrow walked away from the movie business to organize a resistance group. Dressed in the fringed jacket that he wore in Custer's Scout and armed with his trusty Colt six shooter, Pawel led his men on a series of raids on German positions. In January of 1940, Pawel Borkowski was shot while leading a charge on a German machine gun emplacement. His men buried his body in an unmarked grave. It has never been found. Today, only his masterpiece, Custer's Scout, survives.

3 comments:

  1. Greetings,

    I am working on a historical book concerning American Poles in media and would like to discuss your post. I can be reached at gopideas(at)gmail.com

    ReplyDelete
  2. I am very interested in learning more about Pawel Borkowski. Please contact me at jwz1415@aol.com

    Thanks

    ReplyDelete