(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: This is an unusual true story of two Jewish brothers from Belorussia who fought back against the Nazis and offered protection to a community of over a thousand fugitive Jews. Occasionally using thuggish tactics and more often being heroic, they survived in the forest while in constant danger from both the Nazis and the Soviets. The story is made a little idealized, but this is a chapter of history that has rarely been explored before. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

"In August 1943, Hitler sent his most ferocious and lawless troop into this puscha, with the intent to kill every member of the Bielski group... Three men, brothers, saved as many Jews during World War II as Oskar Schindler and organized a military force that killed hundreds of enemy soldiers... Twelve hundred Jews ... walked out of the Belorussian forests in July 1944." [--THE BIELSKI BROTHERS by Peter Duffy]

Two decades ago Edward Zwick made a name for himself with GLORY, the story of a black unit in the Civil War. Against a background of historical fact he told the story of their well-meaning commander who finds how he can be effective in leading his men. Also there is an angry black soldier who finds he can forgive the white man long enough to serve his country. The foreground story was a touch melodramatic, but it made for a good film. DEFIANCE also is a slightly melodramatic story told on a background of historical fact. It is no worse than GLORY. Sadly it is no better either and for much the same reason.

DEFIANCE is the story of the three Bielski Brothers. They were Jewish and were in Belorussia in 1941 at the time the Nazis invaded. In the occupation 50,000 Jews were murdered directly and twenty times that number were deported to be murdered elsewhere.

The two Bielski brothers are Tuvia (Daniel Craig with hair dyed black so that he looks a little more Jewish) and Zus (Liev Schreiber, who does not have to do anything to look more Jewish). When they find that a policeman who was collaborating with the Nazis had murdered their parents the brothers decide to strike back. They can borrow a pistol and four bullets. And with it they kill the policeman. They hide in the local forest that they know well. Soon they offer protection to a few other Jews and before they realize what is happening they have a whole community. As Tuvia says, "This is the one place in all Belorussia where a Jew can be free." But even as brothers the Bielskis are very different. The real Tuvia Bielski said he "would rather rescue one old Jewish woman than kill ten Nazis." Tuvia is for rescuing Jews, but is willing to fight Germans. Zus is for vengeance on the Germans, but is willing to do what he can to rescue Jews. Allied goals, but they will cause schism in the forest fugitive group.

We also meet two younger Bielski brothers, one played by Jamie Bell, the young boy in KING KONG. Mark Margolis plays a ghetto elder with some very heavy decisions.

The problem with the writing (the screenplay was co-authored by Clayton Frohman and Zwick) is that it is heartfelt but not deep. We have some humor, some romance, some cute old Jewish scholars, and a little melodrama. This is the style that worked with Zwick's GLORY. But with a more realistic approach, one like there was in Stephen Spielberg's SCHINDLER'S LIST, the story would have felt like it had more authenticity and it served the story better. There is one possibly disturbing scene, but it is filmed in a way that makes it hard to make out detail. Zwick was going for "engrossing", and not "horrific". And he manages to make Liev Schreiber, usually an intellectual actor, into an action hero. Daniel Craig, who might well be right now the world's most popular action hero actor, is nearly as fierce but much more likely to try to avoid trouble.

Not all the parts of the machine work with this film, but it still makes a good film overall. I rate DEFIANCE a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. Not sure how to pronounce "Bielski"? Don't worry. You have a choice of about five different ways in the film.

The film tones down the viciousness of the Bielskis quite a bit from history. Some of their punishments for captured Germans were on the sadistic side and were intended to spread fear in the enemy, which they undoubtedly did. We see a little of that in the film, but not to the degree that it happened in real life. The brothers probably felt that Jews should give to Germans a taste of their own brutality. There is some moral ambiguity in the way the brothers are presented but perhaps not enough to accurately portray the events.

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					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2009 Mark R. Leeper