Three Jewish brothers (Craig, Schreiber and Bell) escape
from Nazi-occupied Poland into the Belarussian forest, where they join
Russian resistance fighters and endeavor to build a village in order to
protect themselves and others in danger.

A spirited story of heroics that sidesteps inconvenient history.

When cast in an Edward Zwick movie, the leading man – and it is always a man – knows he is in for a gruelling shoot.

Saving his softer side for his television projects (he produced the navel-gazing classics Family, thirtysomething and My So-called Life), Zwick makes sure that his big-screen lead characters endure physical and emotional journeys set against sweeping backdrops in the midst of major historical conflicts. Matthew Broderick in the rousing American Civil War epic Glory (arguably Zwick’s best work, nabbing Denzel Washington his first Oscar); Brad Pitt in the World War I melodrama Legends Of The Fall; the Denzel double - Courage Under Fire, dealing with a shell-shocked battalion post-Desert Storm, and The Siege, examining a terrorist attack on New York; Tom Cruise in feudal Japan in The Last Samurai; Leonardo DiCaprio pitted against slavery and international corruption in Blood Diamond.

Big stars in big movies, having to make grand gestures and selfless sacrifices to become the best that they can be, with all the weighty significance that the historical setting affords their journey.

In Defiance, Zwick applies his favoured modus-operandi to one of the most significant moments in humanity’s history – the Holocaust.

Daniel Craig and Liev Schrieber play the brothers Bielski, fleeing the German army’s march into Poland and now existing in the icy forests of Belarussia with a small band of frightened countrymen and women. Craig, as the older, more level-headed Tuvia, is determined just to survive, bringing him into conflict with Schrieber’s Alexander (aka 'Zus’), who demands vengeance for the deaths of his friends and family. As the nomadic group takes on more wandering, frightened Jewish refugees, Tuvia establishes a village and trains his followers in the art of survival; Zus takes many young men and joins a band of Russian fighters, who strike at the German army and its collaborators in brutal night-time raids.

History indicates that the film’s championing of the Bielski’s heroic actions ignores a far more shaded, complicated reality. Both Tuvia – a trained military officer – and Zus killed many Polish natives – themselves trying to survive under the scourge of Nazism – if they were deemed to be aiding the German cause. Also, their alliance with Russian troops and partisan-sympathisers meant they would often clash with Polish villagers for food and shelter. Within the refugee village itself, it is documented that there was conflict amongst different social classes, and that murder and rape took place as a result of the struggle for the attainment of the will of the masses.

Though the film touches briefly on some of these concerns, these intricacies of truth would not gel well with Zwick – his heroes are men complicated by their own motivations, his films not particularly encumbered with the greater socio-political ramifications. The casting of Craig as the blonde, blue-eyed leader is telling – as hard as the actor tries, and he does create some memorable moments, Tuvia is one of Zwick’s least complex lead characters. Once he splits from his brother and commits to life as the refugees’ leader, there is little dramatic tension in his journey, despite sickness and the forces of nature being added to the mix.

As has always been the case with Zwick’s work, it is a handsomely-produced film, though the battle scenes with German forces seem to suggest that budgetary constraints may have been a factor. In reality, the Bielski Partisans were targeted by the Germans, a reward of 100,000 Reichmarks offered for their capture or death. In comparison, the climactic battle in Defiance looks like the German B-team was sent to round them up when they had nothing else to do. The small-scale, tightly-shot sequence is at tremendous odds with the majestic scope of the battle scenes in Glory or The Last Samurai, or the white-knuckle 'backstreet shootout’ scene in Blood Diamond (a box-office disappointment in the U.S., which may have stymied Zwick’s funds on this project).

To his credit, Zwick does capture the scarred humanity of the refugee plight with insight and empathy. The scenes that show solidarity and the sense of the group bond are the film’s best and may have slipped into cliché or sentimentality if not handled so expertly. His support cast is very good – Jamie Bell, as the youngest Bielski brother, Mark Fauerstein and Alexa Davalos provide some much-needed warmth in their characterisations.

The plight of the Bielski Partisans is an undeniably fascinating one and Defiance tells the tale with a commitment to the spirit of the story, if not to the facts. It’s not the most offensive Hollywood-retelling of a slice of history you’ll see, but it plays a little too conventionally to be considered a major work. Edward Zwick is a fine filmmaker, but he seems unsure of the focus of his film. In exploring this aspect of the genocidal reign of the Nazis, he may have finally found a moment in history so brutally real it undermines his tendency to big-screen hero-worshipping.

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2 hours 16 min
In Cinemas 30 April 2009,