PBS spotlights how Chuck Norris beat communism

Action star Chuck Norris

Action star Chuck Norris

A documentary film telling the story of how action film star and Internet legend Chuck Norris invaded Romania and helped defeat communism was featured at the Sundance Film Festival.

Later, it was honored at the Hamptons International Film Festival.

Directed by Ilinca Calugareanu and translated by Irinia Nistor, its biggest audience may come Monday with a showing on PBS.

The film shows how Norris and other Western stars influenced communist Romania under harsh dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu.

The vision of a life of prosperity and freedom portrayed in American action movies smuggled into the closed country is credited with helping spark the eventual revolution.

Under Ceausescu, the state tightly controlled what Romanians read, heard, watched and said. Any trace of independent thought or Western influence was stamped out by Ceausescu’s secret police with terrifying ferocity.

But then something amazing happened: Chuck Norris invaded Romania.

In the mid-1980s, according to the documentary “Chuck Norris vs. Communism,” the invention of the VCR and some courageous smugglers brought in thousands of Hollywood films, including Norris classics like “Lone Wolf McQuade,” “Missing in Action” and “The Delta Force.”

Dubbed by a death-defying female translator whose voice became a symbol of freedom for the isolated Romanians, the movies gave courage and hope to a people long beaten down by an oppressive state.

“The fearless stories of action heroes like Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme captured every child’s imagination,” say the makers of “Chuck Norris vs. Communism,” “but it was the lavish settings and backdrops that mesmerized this unique audience. For the first time, people saw what had been denied to them: supermarkets stacked full of food, the trappings of wealth, the latest fashions, super cars and most of all, freedom.”

They said Western films “lit up a gray country that had been stripped of its soul.”

“Having been denied a free press, and with television and radio broadcasts restricted to a few hours of state propaganda each day, the people saw – some for the first time – a brighter future and the possibility of a new way of life. The action heroes of Western movies – be it Bruce Lee, Sylvester Stallone or Chuck Norris – put a human face on the fight that was to come.”

In the late 1970s, Ceausescu’s regime was rocked by the defection of his intelligence chief, the highest-ranking Soviet bloc intelligence official ever to defect to the West, Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa.

Not only did Pacepa take with him information devastating to Ceausescu’s Stalinist government, but Pacepa’s subsequent book, “Red Horizons,” also exposed the dictator’s massive crimes and corruption against his own people.

Ceauşescu’s iron grip on Romania began to crumble under Pacepa’s revelations, and the dictator himself suffered a nervous breakdown under the strain. Across Romania, the people rose up against their oppressor. On Christmas Day 1989, Ceauşescu was executed at the end of a trial wherein accusations came almost word for word out of “Red Horizons.”

Nistor, who was part of the underground movie smuggling movement, said she dubbed more than 3,000 American films. It gave her a feeling of utter freedom because it allowed her to insert words that were banned under the communist and atheist government. Among the banned words: Easter, priest and God, as well as the phrase “stinking communist.”

Calugareanu shared her own story of growing up in Romania and seeing Norris on the screen for the first time.

“I was 6 years old and my parents found a way to borrow a VCR. They invited all their friends over and all night they watched grainy VHS tapes of American films. I remember all the movies I watched and especially how I felt when I stepped into the living room. It was like walking into a different dimension – a secret, magical and free world. There were millions of other Romanians who secretly watched films like we did. We all grew up with the feeling that Chuck Norris was more real than the reality presented to us in the propaganda news. Those tapes and their heroes changed a whole generation.”

Calugareanu grew up to be a filmmaker herself, and while at a film festival in London in 2011, she was shocked to hear an all-too familiar voice just in front of her: Irina Nistor, the woman who lent her voice to dubbing the smuggled films.

“She asked a question and the sound of her voice brought back my whole childhood,” Calugareanu relates. “I felt a little bit starstruck because I already knew about her dubbing and how famous her voice became across the country. … I thought this would make such an incredible documentary. I emailed her and explained I wanted to make a film about her and the tapes. A whole week passed and she hadn’t responded. So I emailed again and asked, ‘How can I convince you to be part of this?’ to which she replied with one line: ‘I am already convinced!’”

Norris himself doesn’t appear in “Chuck Norris vs. Communism,” other than in clips excerpted from his movies for storytelling purposes, but he told WND he was grateful his films inspired others toward freedom.

“I’m gratified to learn that some of my action movies of the 1980s played a role in the undermining of the vicious and brutal Ceausescu regime in Romania,” said Norris, who writes a weekly column exclusively for WND. “It illustrates, once again, the importance of cracking closed societies and giving people in horribly oppressed nations something positive and uplifting to think about, especially with regard to man’s eternal quest for liberty.”

In an interview with Fox News, Calugareanu explained Norris’ name was used in the title because the actor serves as a metaphor for strength and heroism.

“He was one of the most popular action stars in the VHS films smuggled into Romania,” Calugareanu said. “He was a good icon for the American films, his films gave a clear concept between good and bad and that fascinated people.”

Learn more about “Chuck Norris vs. Communism” at the movie’s website.

Watch the trailer: