Defiance is, in too many ways to count, a defiantly old-fashioned World War II Resistance movie.
See the brave partisans ambush the Germans. See them hide in the forest between attacks. See them ruthlessly execute collaborators and make noble speeches that declare, “We must not become them,” meaning the Nazis.
See them drink vodka. And make more vodka from their own potatoes. See them find time for love.
But the twist in this film, by Edward Zwick, a director known for his taste for old-fashioned action, is that these partisans are Jews fighting extermination in the Holocaust. History has long agreed with what one Russian Army soldier says to them, dismissively: “Jews don't fight.”
Defiance tells the “true” story of the Bielski brothers, Jewish country boys who lived on the edge of the law (they did a little smuggling) in their corner of Belarus. When the SS and its local henchmen began rounding up Jews and shooting them (including most of their family), brothers Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell) and Aron (George MacKay) lit out for the woods they knew well. Every massacre in every village and town near them had survivors, and those huddled masses wound up in those same woods. These were often city folk, “intellectuals,” but the tough-minded country brothers felt responsible for them. Soon, they had an entire community encamped with them.
The film sets up a war of wills as Zus declares “Blood for blood,” but Tuvia realizes how pointless revenge is in their current state.
“We cannot afford revenge. Our revenge is to live.”
It's easy to picture a screen hero from an earlier time riding a white horse (as Craig does), chewing up lines like that. This could have been a Kirk Douglas movie from the early '60s, a Spartacus with submachine guns or a Cast a Giant Shadow showing us this mini-socialist state set up in the Belarusian forest, a model for the kibbutzim and tough unisex army of modern Israel. Some of us loved those corny, noble movies.
The downtrodden include pretty women (Alexa Davalos among them) who become “forest wives” to men who lost their spouses in the massacres. That gives the picture the gloss of “family.”
But Zwick, of Glory, Courage Under Fire and The Last Samurai, stages a mean battle scene. Every ambush, every shootout (some filmed in slow motion) is a rousing firefight in his hands.
And as corny and downright flirtatious as this “Holocaust drama” gets, it's still a vivid and heroic look at a side of that tragedy that we haven't seen before. Zwick, Craig and especially Schreiber have seen to it that nobody, speaking of the Holocaust, will ever again say, “Jews don't fight.”