Tony Halik was one of the 20th century’s great video journalists. An avid traveller and expert on South America, he was brave enough to fight for the French resistance in World War II and film an active volcano from up close. But while the world gasped at his footage, Halik turned out to be a person with hidden secrets who occasionally mixed fact with fiction.
The best possible shot
When filming in Hawaii, Tony Halik hired a helicopter to go above the active volcano Kilauea. The resulting footage is in an episode of his Pieprz i Wanilia TV show, which you can stream online. His voiceover says:
I could look inside, through the hole, into a cauldron full of molten lava, the gates of hell, the palace of the goddess Pele.
And indeed, the video shows a breath-taking shot of a smoking crater with a stream of lava flowing through it. Despite the danger, the helicopter must have been right above the crater. That was really the essence of Halik the video reporter and cameraman: there were no boundaries to what he would do to capture an interesting shot.
In his home country of Poland he is possibly best remembered for the aforementioned programme, a travel series which ran in the 1980s and 90s and which glued millions of people to their TV sets. In it, together with his life partner Elżbieta Dzikowska, Halik told stories about the countless places he visited and their cultures, illustrating them with his own footage. He was as passionate about travelling as he was about filming. The show showed places from all around the globe: Egypt, Sri Lanka, the Galapagos Islands. Under the communist regime, when obtaining a passport was no easy feat, the series was especially important, as it offered a much needed window on the world to many Poles who would otherwise have few occasions to see what life was like beyond the Iron Curtain.
The Croix de Guerre
Halik, who was born Mieczysław Antoni Sędzimir Halik in Toruń in 1921, was drawn to travelling at an early age. Aged 15, he ran away from school and joined a group of rafters on the Wisła river. He journeyed approximately 250 km, all the way from Płock to Gdynia on the Baltic coast, where he was eventually collected by the authorities, who returned him to his family. It seems that this restless nature of his was a major driving force in his life.
There was, however, a very important journey in his life which he never intended to going on. During World War II, Halik, who was running a photo parlour in Zalesie, a village in the north of Poland, was forced to join the German army. He was sent to France where eventually he managed to escape the Wehrmacht and join the French resistance. According to French military documents, he was a valiant soldier of the underground, taking part in battles in the Charente-Maritime region. For his bravery, the French decorated him with the Croix de Guerre medal. There are no accounts of him ever harming anybody during his forced stint with German forces, neither in Poland nor in France.
Exploring faraway places
Nevertheless, Halik decided to ‘change’ this part of his biography. He always maintained that during the war, he had left Poland and went to Britain where he served as a pilot for the RAF. But he never actually did. So why did he lie? He most likely couldn’t bare the odium of having any ties to the Wehrmacht whatsoever and decided to make up a story to cover it up. According to him he met his French wife Pierrette after being shot down over France. That, of course, couldn’t have happened and he probably met her through his brothers-in-arms in the French underground, among whom were members of her family. Toward the end of the war, Halik found himself in Britain, where he served in an infantry unit of the Polish Armed Forces in the West. After the end of the war, he and Pierrette left the UK and went to Argentina.
In 1948, they set foot in Buenos Aires and settled down there, although ‘settling down’ may not be the best way to put it. As soon as their financial situation stabilised, the pair set out to explore. Halik, who started using the name Antonio, found employment as a newsreel operator and photographer. One of Halik’s trips took him to Bettontire, a village in the Brazilian state Mato Grosso inhabited by the Hinan tribe, which lived in deep isolation. Halik managed to charm the locals, so distrustful of white people, by taking on their lifestyle. He and Pierrette would let their bodies be painted according to local customs, and they used traditional hunting methods. Halik was even pronounced a member of the tribe. Thanks to this, he was able to film the Hinan, obtaining unique footage of their aboriginal lifestyle – a way of life which is almost non-existent now. In a similar manner, he was to later document a number of South American cultures leaving us with unique ethnographic material. Halik spent half a year in Mato Grosso, which he later described in the book 200 Dias de Mato Grosso (editor’s translation: 200 Days in Mato Grosso). The films he made during that trip were shown on U.S. television soon after.
From Argentina to Alaska
In 1957, Halik, by then a photojournalist for the prestigious Life magazine and collaborator of NBC television, and Pierrette went on what was possibly their greatest journey. They packed up an off-road car full of camping and film equipment and drove from Buenos Aires to Alaska and back. The trip took four and a half years, during which they covered over 180,000 kilometres. They went through numerous countries including Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico. Along the way they experienced countless adventures described by Halik in his book 180,000 Kilometros de Aventuras (editor’s translation: 180,000 Kilometres of Adventure). Among them were a risky stay with the Ecuadorian Jivara tribe (known for shrinking human heads into war trophies), keeping deadly predators (like jaguars) at bay when camping in the wilderness, and hunting for emeralds in Colombia. The exceptional footage Halik obtained during this trip landed him a regular spot on Jack Paar’s show on NBC, once a very popular programme in the U.S.
In 1961, after having been declared dead by the media more than once, Tony and Pierrette finally returned home. But it wasn’t just the two of them. They came with their son, Ozana, who had been born while they were in the U.S. He journeyed with his parents on their way back to Argentina and, as a child raised in the wilderness and among Indian tribes, he was a real sensation: the story of the travelling boy and his folks appeared in Life as well as periodicals in France, Mexico, and other countries.
Soon after their great road trip ended, they moved to Mexico. Halik worked as an NBC reporter filming important events around the globe: Lebanon, Nigeria, Bolivia. In 1966, he travelled to Cuba, where, despite acting as a journalist of a U.S. network, he managed to conduct a film interview with Fidel Castro (Halik spoke many languages, including Spanish, French, and English). The Pole later claimed that he received a Pulitzer prize for this NBC interview – an obvious mystification considering that you can only get one for something written, not filmed. In 1969, he took his camera to Salvador during the so-called Football War. In 1971, he sustained a serious head wound while documenting the dramatic events of Mexico’s El Halconazo, a brutally pacified student protest that ended with 120 deaths. A year later, he was in Poland to cover Nixon’s visit. In 1974, while in Mexico, he met Elżbieta Dzikowska, a Polish journalist, and the two became involved. By then Tony and Pierrette were estranged.
It wasn’t all that long before the Dzikowska and Halik started living together in Warsaw, creating a new travelling duo – one that was soon to become very famous. In 1976, they went on an expedition to Vilcabamba, the lost capital of the Incas, hidden in the Peruvian tropical rainforest. On that trip, Halik made a film for NBC, while Dzikowska made one for Polish Television. In the 1980s, Halik started to make appearances on a travel show on Polish Television, soon after he was joined by Dzikowska. They’d show voiceover footage from their travels to faraway places and talk about them facing the camera in a studio filled with exotic artefacts. The format, which changed names several times, until in 1986, it became Pieprz i Wanilia (editor’s translation: Pepper and Vanilla), proved a great success and made Halik and Dzikowska stars. At the height of its popularity, Poles would spontaneously write ‘Been here. Tony Halik’, on walls, tables – all over!
A fish hunting bow
The last episodes of Pieprz i Wanilia were made shortly before Halik passed away in 1998. Many of the precious artefacts he obtained during his voyages were donated to the National Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw – a replica of a shrunken head among them.
Despite his tendency to mix fact and fiction (his World War II story, his Pulitzer for NBC, claiming that he drove through the Darien jungle by car, which he didn’t, and a few others…) his ethnographic input is considered extremely valuable as it gives testimony to a number of cultures and customs that have largely disappeared in modern times, e.g. using bows to hunt fish, once a common practice in certain areas of Mato Grosso. In recognition of his achievements the Explorers’ Museum in his place of birth, Toruń, was named after him. Its collection includes items obtained by Halik and Dzikowska during their voyages.
Author: Marek Kępa, Mar 2017. Based on the book Tu byłem. Tony Halik by Mirosław Wlekły.