Cameraman filmed Hungarian revolt

Times Staff Writer

Joseph S. Miko, a former cameraman whose extensive footage of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution was smuggled out of Budapest and is considered a significant piece of the documentary record of the historic national uprising against Soviet oppression, has died. He was 87.

Miko died of blood cancer April 28 at UCLA Medical Center, said his son, Joe.

A retired owner of camera and electronics stores in Santa Monica and Manhattan Beach, Miko was forced to flee Hungary with his family after capturing the short-lived revolution on film.

Some of the footage that Miko shot of the massive crowds of demonstrators and fighting in the streets of Budapest was shown on "The 20th Century," a CBS documentary series narrated by Walter Cronkite. More than four decades later, Miko and his footage were featured in a segment of the four-part History Channel special "Caught on Film."

Miko's footage, which he stored in his garage for decades before donating 177 minutes' worth to the Hungarian National Film Archive in 1993, has also been used in the recent documentaries "Freedom's Fury" and "Torn From the Flag."

"Mr. Miko is one of the most credited and instrumental figures in recording the Hungarian Revolution," said Klaudia Kovacs, producer and co-director of "Torn from the Flag" (2007).

Like other Hungarians who captured the revolution on film, Kovacs said, Miko "risked his life," and in doing so, he "exposed something that was not supposed to be exposed."

A 1954 graduate of the state-operated Academy of Drama and Film in Budapest, Miko sometimes worked as a newsreel cameraman. He was returning from a film location Oct. 23, 1956, when he saw a crowd of marching university students.

"He always carried a hand-held 35-millimeter camera, and when he got into the city and saw the university students marching and demonstrating, he started shooting the marchers," his son told The Times.

From street and rooftop vantage points, Miko captured dramatic images as the number of marchers swelled and they filled a massive plaza.

He filmed demonstrators attacking a toppled statue of former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin with a sledgehammer and cutting a Communist Party emblem out of a Hungarian flag with a pocketknife -- and he later filmed a crowd of protesters running for their lives as members of the secret police shot at them.

As the demonstrations erupted into full-blown fighting and Miko traveled around the city on the back of a friend's motorcycle, he filmed freedom fighters arming themselves and throwing Molotov cocktails at the Soviet tanks that moved into the city to quell the revolution.

"I want the West to see what [is] happening in Hungary. . . . Maybe they can help us out somehow," Miko said on the History Channel program.

In one startling shot taken after freedom fighters captured Communist Party headquarters, Miko showed the body of a party official who had been killed and then hung in the street.

He continued to film after Soviet forces withdrew, documenting Hungarians setting fire to communist propaganda and tearing down Russian emblems on buildings. And he was there with his camera Nov. 4 when the Soviets returned in force and quickly crushed the revolution. An estimated 2,500 Hungarians died.

Miko's son said his father gave the footage he had shot to his father-in-law, "who smuggled it piecemeal into the American Embassy."

Miko also hid copies of the footage in his locker at the film studio. Outside the studio several days later, he recalled on the History Channel program, he encountered colleagues who warned him not to go inside because the Russians were waiting for him -- and not to go home because they knew his address.

But he did return home, telling his wife, Eva, that he had to get out of the country.

"He told my mother that he had to leave or he'll be captured, arrested, imprisoned and, most likely, executed," said Miko's son, who was 8 at the time. "My mother said, 'We're not splitting the family up; we're going to go together.'

"My parents woke me up and packed a few things in a backpack, and we walked out in the middle of the night."

At the train station, he recalled, "it was already filling up with people with the same intent. We were able to squeeze into the mail car, which turned out to be a blessing."

As the train headed toward the Austrian border, he said, it was repeatedly stopped by Russian patrols, and many of the passengers were pulled off.

But every time the train was stopped, he said, the people hidden in the mail car took up a collection and gave the money to the car's attendant as an "incentive" to convince the soldiers there was no reason to search the car.

After they reached a small town near Austria, the Miko family and about 30 other people paid a local man to guide them to the border.

After they crossed, part of the group was captured. But the Miko family walked for hours and finally reached Vienna. "With no place to go and no money," Miko's son said, they were taken in by a man who spoke a little Hungarian.

Calling friends in Budapest from Vienna, Miko was shocked to learn that the Soviets had found and confiscated the footage in his locker and were using it to identify people.

"I felt real bad about this because I never thought about that," he said on the History Channel program. "Lots of people went to jail because of my footage, so I think in a way I did a lot of damage."

Miko's son said the American Embassy in Budapest got his father's film out of Hungary in a U.S. diplomatic pouch.

"The U.S. government made a copy of it for intelligence purposes, which helped us get on the military airlift to the United States," he said.

Moving to Los Angeles and finding it difficult to get a job in the film industry, Miko worked first as a tool and die maker.

Before buying a camera store in Santa Monica in the early 1960s, he worked on a few low-budget independent films, including "The Sadist." He was the camera operator on the 1963 thriller, whose cinematographer was a friend from Hungary who had also shot footage of the revolution: Vilmos Zsigmond, who would go on to win an Oscar for his work on "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

Decades later, for his filming of the revolution, Miko received the Hungarian government's Award of Excellence in Achievement, the Hero of Freedom Award and the Cross of the Order of Merit.

In Hungary, where he was born in a suburb of Budapest on Aug. 6, 1920, his footage is known as "The Miko Collection: A Historical Document and a National Treasure."

In addition to his son, he is survived by his second wife, Victoria; and two grandchildren.

A memorial service is pending.


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