Filmmaker Edward Zwick ("Glory," "The Last Samurai") did not want to make a movie about the Holocaust, at least not another one focusing on Jews as passive victims. In a published interview, he said that he felt ashamed of such stories.
Then, he heard about the Bielski brothers. Relatively unpublicized, their story of underground armed resistance to the Nazis during World War II is one that Zwick knew he must tell.
Based on the book, "Defiance: The Bielski Partisans," by Nechama Tec, "Defiance" is the movie that Zwick was born to make. It presents the true-life account of Tuvia and Zus Bielski (Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber) who, along with their younger brothers, Asael (Jamie Bell) and Aron (George MacKay) form a resistance encampment in the frozen Belarussian forest, beginning in late 1941. The mini-civilization struggles through attacks, sickness and starvation to grow to include a school and a hospital, saving the lives of 1,200 Jews.
Filming in authentic locations in authentically dire conditions, Zwick and his company pound in the point that to live is to fight. In one scene, a Russian soldier remarks, "Jews don't fight." Zus responds, "These Jews do."
In fact, there is considerable fighting between Tuvia and Zus, resulting in hot-headed Zus leaving the camp to join the Red Army for a while. Of course, he returns at the right melodramatic moment to save the day.
"Defiance" is not a documentary and Zwick is a Hollywood filmmaker. On a break from playing James Bond, Craig cuts a heroic figure on his white horse, spouting inspirational speeches, reminiscent of Kirk Douglas in "Spartacus." Craig's character also has a little time for Bondian romance as he curls up with his "forest wife" Lilka (Alexa Davalos), wrapped in furs and golden light within his "makeshift" commander's cabin.
Zwick also throws in some humor as no-nonsense working-class warrior Zus chides the bookworm, Isaac (Mark Feuerstein), who can hardly hold a hammer. "What is it you do?" asks Zus. Isaac answers, "You could say I was, am, an intellectual." To which, Zus responds, "This is a job?"
The main emphasis, however, is the struggle of the Jewish resistance to survive and fight back, without becoming brutal butchers, as the Nazis are. More even-tempered than Zus, Tuvia still must play executor as he coldly dispatches his parents' killers and later a camp colleague threatening mutiny. Yet, he says, "We are not animals. Each day we survive, we win."
Zwick has made an important movie. Despite its commercial accommodations, "Defiance" should be seen to set the record straight about the Holocaust.