If you thought Daniel Craig was being too ruthless as James Bond, you’d better stay away from this movie. He’s still got the machine gun, still got the pretty girl, but he’s kind of even colder here. Of course, this is wartime.
Let me back up a little. Defiance is based on the true story of the Bielski brothers during World War II. I read a book about them, so I was fully prepared to judge this movie pretty harshly for lack of accuracy… but as it turns out, they did okay, surprisingly. Historically, the four brothers — Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Leiv Shrieber), Asael (Jamie Bell), and Aron (George MacKay) — were Jews living in Belorus when the Germans invaded in 1941. They weren’t quite the most law-abiding of citizens, especially Zus, the wildest brother, who half-terrorized everyone in their village. At first, like most, they tried to adjust to life under their new government, but when the crackdown against Jews grew worse and their parents and wives were killed, they turned slowly into unlikely heroes.
The movie skips over most of that setup, of course, making Zus a little less wild, and throws us right into the action as the brothers flee into the forest. They grew up in the woods, practically, and plan to hide there, perhaps raiding the Germans now and then, until things die down. But of course things don’t die down, and soon they find other refugees in the woods — first four or five at a time, then ten or twenty. All are fleeing, starving Jews, most women, the elderly, or children, who have nowhere else to go; and the brothers, especially Tuvia, don’t have the heart to leave them behind. They’re still starving, but at least they’re starving together.
Slowly, a village grows deep among the trees. But they’re torn between staying mobile, being a more traditional resistance force; or welcoming anyone regardless of their ability to fight — Zus and Tuvia, respectively, are the champions of each idea. Everyone works as and how they can, and gradually, they form into a community, able once more to be proud of their heritage, free from the race laws and constant fear of summary execution found everywhere else in Belorus.
The fundamental problem remains, though — the actual partisans, mainly Russian, laugh at them, calling them bandits, and refuse to work with them except in the most reluctant way. With so many noncombatants, sometimes over a thousand, they don’t really count as a fighting force, and have to fight extra hard to get the food and medicine they need to survive. After yet another quarrel between the two eldest escalates into a nearly deadly fistfight, Zus decides he’s had enough, and turns to the Russian partisans to help him scratch his itch to kill the invaders.
|When they’re not beating each others’ brains out, they’re really very fond of each other.|
The village in the forest is kind of the star of the picture, though. They literally create a town, twice, after having to flee one camp. At war’s end, there were over 1200 people living there, thriving, with a barbershop, school, nursery, and blacksmith shop. Tuvia’s determination not to leave anyone behind, regardless of their health or strength, reaches its height when he helps to empty a nearby city’s Jewish ghetto, leading hundreds to safety. He quickly becomes a legend, another Moses there to save everyone from their oppressors.
But Tuvia hates all that. He’s just a regular guy as far as he’s concerned, whose plan to save his family suddenly became a plan to save every Jew in the country when he wasn’t paying attention. More than once, he seems confused, faintly annoyed, or some combination thereof when he realizes that everyone is looking at him for all the answers. I can’t blame him. That would give me some sort of complex.
A solid three and a quarter idols here. It isn’t a documentary by a long shot, and sometimes, like a lot of historical pictures do, it tries to jam way too many events into too short a time — even though it’s over two hours long. But it catches the spirit of the times in many ways, and gives a good sense of some small part of the fears and trials these people faced. For the details, I recommend either The Bielski Brothers by Peter Duffy, or Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, but the movie does give a good overall feel for the events. That’s probably because the woman who wrote the second book, which the film is based on, is the mother of one of the movie’s producers; so probably no one dared to wander too far from the text.