Sunday, January 18, 2009

Defiance (Rhoades)

“Defiance’ Inspires While Defying Historical Details

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

The writer Ambrose Bierce once said “History is an account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools.”
In the case of “Defiance” – the new WWII film playing at the Tropic – that’s only partly true.
Or do I mean partly false?

Written and directed by Edward Zwick (“Blood Diamond,” “The Last Samurai”), “Defiance” tells the story of a group of Polish Jews opposing the German occupation of their homeland. Known as the Bielski partisans, they took up residence in a forest in eastern Poland (now West Beleras), banding together for mutual protection from Nazis.

The main organizers of this act of, well, defiance were the Bielski brothers – played in the movie by Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, and George MacKay. Having escaped from the Nazis, they set out to rescue fellow Jews. Sort of a “Schindler’s List” at the grassroots level.
Daniel Craig, as all you action fans know, is the current 007, although this role as a sweaty, determined Polish partisan is a far cry from the suave “shaken, not stirred” superspy.

Liev Schreiber isn’t a big household name, but you’ll recognize him from the “Scream” movie trilogy as well as numerous indie films. More recently he guest starred on TV’s “CSI” and will be appearing in this summer’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”

Jamie Bell is an actor best known for his starring turn in “Billy Elliot.”

And young actor George MacKay has worked mostly in British TV.

Based on an adaptation of Nechama Tec’s book, “Defiance: The Bielski Partisans,” the story is inspiring. This ragtag citizen’s army makes mincemeat of occupying German forces while at the same time rescuing more than 1,000 Jews.

However, the film has come under fire itself, with the Polish journal Gazeta Wyborcza claiming that the real-life partisans didn’t actively fight the German military. None of the explosions and shoot-outs you’ll find in the movie really happened.

And now historians have weighed into the fray, arguing that there is some evidence that Bielski partisans participated in the Naliboki Massacre, helping Soviet fighters kill a number of Polish peasants and suspected resistance members. Although there’s no mention of this in the film, it has been criticized – particularly in Poland – for glorying people who might have been responsible for the massacre.

Other historians defend the Bielski brothers, claiming the partisans were not even in the area at the time.

Thus, the above quote by Ambrose Bierce came to mind. Sifting the truth from the sands of history is tricky.

Movies about history have long had trouble reconciling themselves with actual facts. Did Alexander Graham Bell invent the telephone in the same manner as Don Ameche? Did the Alamo fall precisely as shown by John Wayne? Did Oliver Stone take any liberties with “W.” or “JFK”?

History’s watchdogs have pointed out other inaccuracies in “Defiance.” Such as mixing the birth order of the Bielski brothers. Or the fact that ampicillin was not developed until the 1960’s.
Telford Taylor, the Brigadier General who served as chief American prosecutor in the Nuremberg Trials, has complained that “historical misrepresentations could leave the uninformed viewer with an inaccurate historical record about what a movie is depicting.”

He’s right, of course. Hollywood seems to act on the old adage that one shouldn’t let facts get in the way of a good story.

As a film critic, as well as the former president of Key West Art and Historical Society, I face conflicts on this subject. Historical accuracy is an important goal. But movies as a form of entertainment can’t rely on history to deliver perfect storylines.

Is “Defiance” an accurate historical document? Probably not. But if you want to spend 137 minutes watching an action yarn set in World War II, one with an inspiring story about human survival, a little latitude is in order.
[from Solares Hill]

No comments: