The Hungarian film “A Viszkis” (The One with the Whisky) is about to hit the movie theatres at the end of November this year, and is about to portray the life of renowned Hungarian criminal and former ice hockey player Ambrus Attila, out of jail after 12 years and back to civil life in his native Romania. Ambrus Attila and some of Hungary’s notorious outlaw legends might be likened to those known from the front pages of America’s and Australia’s early papers, songs and legends, e.g. Jesse James and Ned Kelly.
Were these men heroes and the Robin Hoods of their era? Can we blame a difficult childhood for everything that went wrong in their life? Was it unloving mothers, absent fathers or sibling rivalry that pushed them into crime or were they simply brave men, who were not deterred by law from crossing the line and stepping on the stage where all of us have stayed humble bill-payers month after month?
If you just look up the ordinary website offering pots and ceramics for online order run by Ambrus Attila, little would you think that the decent, hard-working man behind the items for sale is the former criminal and national sensation called ‘The Whisky Robber’. He was incarcerated just before he was about to make a cross-border run to the Caribbean with 50 million HUF from a series of bank robberies, where he wanted to start a new life in the sun, enjoying the peace and tranquillity he now seems to possess as the owner of a simple family business.
The 12+ cinema feature looks for no acquittance for the former juvenile inmate, who made an illegal border crossing to Hungary as a youth and aimed at carving out a decent living on the new scene. He made it to a first division ice hockey team as its goal-keeper and team assistant, yet, finding life in Hungary a struggle, with no perks and very little to show for all the hard work he had invested. He then realised he can put his skills, thoroughness, below-blink reaction time and initiative to good use by going on a long series of post office and bank robberies, drinking a glass of whisky each time before the act, and appealing to frightened staff and a whole nation by leaving a bottle behind as well as offering flowers to female employees.
Caught and put in prison after evading police for a baffling number of years, Ambrus even managed to run away from prison to be caught again. Serving his whole time, he still appeared on tabloid covers and was the subject of nationwide gossip. He obtained a degree, learned professional pottery and now he calls himself a happy man.
Ambrus, however, was not the first outlaw to grab the fantasy of contemporary Hungarians. The highwaymen of 19th century Hungary were similarly loved and feared by most law-abiding citizens and were often seen as champions of social justice and heroes to those in need.
Rózsa Sándor, born 199 years ago on the Great Plain, ran away from imprisonment and chose the life of a highwayman. A number of bloody and infamous acts made his name well-known. He joined the Hungarian revolution of 1848 with his company of 150 men, who achieved success to start with due to their unconventional tactics but were later disbanded as they lacked army discipline. In the same year Rózsa went back to his old pursuits of train and coach robbery but was later captured and sentenced for life.
Sobri Jóska lived around the same time as Rózsa Sándor but was active in Western Hungary. Fifty years after his death there were still rumours about him being alive and he was the most talked about outlaw after Rózsa Sándor. His good looks and height made women size him up even after his arrest and he continued to have near celebrity appearances when ordered to carry out communal labour.
Sobri mixed with the wrong crowd as a child and carried out local thefts for which he was caught and imprisoned quite early on. Legend has it that in prison Sobri went through a total transformation: he became literate and more accomplished in his taste and attire. He was also said to have carried on with the wife of one of the guards.
After his release or doubted escape, Sobri robbed a local shepherd for which his accomplice was caught and hanged. Sobri then went into hiding and became the head of a band of vagabonds. His pursuits made his name all too familiar, but a few hits on notables, army captains and public figures pushed him into more notoriety and into the attention of police chiefs. Entire army and police units were out for the gang soon, and they were finally cornered and hugely outnumbered. After a fate-defying shootout, Sobri saw capture or death imminent and quickly ended his own life with a pistol.
Savanyú Jóska was born in the mid-19th century to a law-abiding Catholic family. His life on the run started with a petty theft. He and his gang picked lower profile noblemen, merchants and rich peasants as their targets for robbery. Their crimes were often accompanied by particular cruelty, and the gang often beat or tortured their victims. Savanyú was arrested a number of times and held in prison for months at a time.
Back on the road, the violence escalated after his involvement in the murder of a victim’s brother. His acts became ever more daring and he even committed robberies of a town-treasury at broad daylight.
Savanyú became the most sought-after criminal at the end of the 19th century. His craft and alertness made him hard to capture. His short stature (159cm) made small crevices available for him as a hiding place, and his skill of speaking Slovak and his ability to read and write German besides Hungarian opened up regions to him and his gang where Hungarian police had very little familiarity or disposition.
After years of unsuccessful arrest attempts the 1000 forint reward on his head prompted one of his band members to give him up, mainly because Savanyú had killed the man’s uncle.
The arrest took place at an inn, where some sleeping potion was mixed into Savanyú’s drink, which made his capture no trouble. His was imprisoned for life but was given pardon by the bishop of Vác after 20 years.
Upon his release he opened a small tailor business but soon committed suicide, which he explained in his farewell letter as his only escape from rheumatic pains in his body. His doctors later explained that his leg needed subsequent amputation, which Savanyú sternly rejected.
In the historical perspective of the famous Hungarian outlaws and the different outcomes that concluded their lives, we can definitely say that Ambrus Attila, being the proud owner of a ceramics business and the subject of a major Hungarian feature film is clearly better off than his 19th century counterparts, who typically finished their lives in unsanitised prisons or were killed with old-fashioned pistols in their own hands or the hands of local gendarmes.
Whether these men were victims of some unfortunate circumstances or the brave heroes of their times who dared go beyond the limits drawn up for them by an unsupportive society, remains a mystery. In retrospect, however, most of us seem to do much better with our 9 to 5’s and our yearly tax return guides to avoid a penalty.