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Defiance (2008 film)

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Theatrical release poster
Directed byEdward Zwick
Written by
  • Clayton Frohman
  • Edward Zwick
Based onDefiance: The Bielski Partisans
by Nechama Tec
Produced by
CinematographyEduardo Serra
Edited bySteven Rosenblum
Music byJames Newton Howard
Distributed by
Release date
  • December 31, 2008 (2008-12-31)
Running time
137 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$32 million
Box office$51.2 million

Defiance is a 2008 American war film directed by Edward Zwick, and starring Daniel Craig as Tuvia Bielski, Liev Schreiber as Zus Bielski, Jamie Bell as Asael Bielski, and George MacKay as Aron Bielski. Set during the occupation of Belarus by Nazi Germany, the film's screenplay by Clayton Frohman and Zwick was based on Nechama Tec's 1993 book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, an account of the eponymous group led by Polish Jewish brothers who saved and recruited Jews in Belarus during World War II.

The film was released in select cinemas in the United States on December 31, 2008, followed by general release worldwide in January 2009.[2]


In August 1941, several weeks after Nazi Germany launched its invasion into USSR, Einsatzgruppen sweep behind the relentlessly advancing German forces across the occupied parts of western Soviet Union, systematically exterminating the Jewish population. Among the Jewish survivors not staying in German-enforced ghettoes are the Bielski brothers: Tuvia, Zus, Asael and Aron. Their parents are killed by local Schutzmannschaft under orders from the German occupiers. The brothers flee to the Naliboki forest, where they encounter other Jewish escapees hiding in the woods and take them under their protection. Tuvia kills the Schutzmannschaft chief responsible for his parents' deaths.

Over the next year, a growing number of Jewish refugees join the Bielskis. Their group raids local farms for food and supplies, stage raids on the Germans and their collaborators, and move their camp whenever they are discovered. Mounting casualties cause Tuvia, the oldest brother, to reconsider their approach in order to minimise the loss of Jewish lives, whilst his younger brother Zus is in favour of more militant and daring operations. As winter approaches, disagreement between the two eldest brothers comes to a head and Zus leaves the camp with several of his followers to join a local company of Soviet partisans, while Tuvia remains in charge of the Jewish camp. An arrangement is made between the two groups in which the Soviet partisans agree to protect the Jewish camp in exchange for supplies.

After a winter of sickness, starvation, growing discontent and attempted mutiny, the camp learns that the Germans are about to attack them in force at Easter. The Soviet partisans decide to retreat eastward, but Zus is unwilling to comply with the order of the partisan leader to follow their retreat. Tuvia's group prepares to evacuate the camp on Easter eve when Luftwaffe Stukas bomb them. A delaying force stays behind, led by Asael, to slow down the German infantry, but their defense does not last long, with only Asael and one other member surviving to rejoin the rest of the group, who are confronted at the edge of the forest with a seemingly impassable marsh. They cross the marsh with only one casualty but are immediately attacked by a German platoon supported by a Panzer III tank. Just as all seems lost, the Germans are assaulted from the rear by Zus and his force, who have deserted the Soviet partisans to rejoin the Jewish group.

The film's closing intertitles inform the viewer that the Bielski partisans lived in the forest for another two years and grew to a total of 1,200 Jews, building a hospital, a nursery and a school. Asael joined the Red Army and was killed in action six months later; Zus, Tuvia and Aron survived the war and emigrated to the United States to form a small trucking business in New York City. The epilogue also states that the Bielski brothers never sought recognition for what they did and that the descendants of the people they saved now number tens of thousands.



Zwick began writing a script for Defiance in 1999 after acquiring film rights to Tec's book. He developed the project under the banner of his production company Bedford Falls Productions, and the project was financed by the London-based company Grosvenor Park Productions with a budget of $32 million.

Paramount Vantage acquired the rights to distribute Defiance in the United States and Canada.[3]

In May 2007, Daniel Craig was cast in the lead role. The following August, Schreiber, Bell, Davalos, and Arana were cast.[4] Production began in early September 2007 so that Craig could complete filming Defiance in time for reprising his role as James Bond in Quantum of Solace.[3]

Defiance was filmed in three months in Lithuania, just across the border from Belarus.[5][6] Co-producer Pieter Jan Brugge felt the shooting locations, between 150 and 200 kilometres from the actual sites, lent authenticity to the film; some local extras were descendants of the Jewish families rescued by the Bielski partisans.[7]


Box office[edit]

Defiance made $128,000 during its two weeks of limited release in New York City and Los Angeles. It made $10 million during its first weekend of wide release in the United States.

By the end of its box office run, the film made approximately $52 million worldwide.

Critical response[edit]

On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, 59% of 189 critics' reviews are positive, with an average rating of 5.9/10. The website's consensus reads: "Professionally made but artistically uninspired, Ed Zwick's story of Jews surviving WWII in the Belarus forest lacks the emotional punch of the actual history."[8] Metacritic, which uses a weighted average, assigned the film a score of 58 out of 100, based on 34 critics, indicating "mixed or average" reviews.[9]

Critic A. O. Scott of The New York Times called the film "stiff, musclebound". He said Zwick "wields his camera with a heavy hand, punctuating nearly every scene with emphatic nods, smiles or grimaces as the occasion requires. His pen is, if anything, blunter still, with dialogue that crashes down on the big themes like a blacksmith's hammer". Scott also said the film unfairly implied that "if only more of the Jews living in Nazi-occupied Europe had been as tough as the Bielskis, more would have survived".[10] The review adds that "in setting out to overturn historical stereotypes of Jewish passivity ...(the film) ends up affirming them."[10] Zwick responded: "It is a tribute to honor and luck, and to help other people escape it is an honor. But the fact that you don't escape it is not a negative verdict on your honor."[11]

The New Yorker critic David Denby praised the film, saying: "it makes instant emotional demands, and those who respond to it, as I did, are likely to go all the way and even come out of it feeling slightly stunned." Denby also praised the cast's performances, which he described as "a kind of realistic fairy tale set in a forest newly enchanted by the sanctified work of staying alive."[12]


On January 22, 2009, the film received a nomination for an Academy Award in the category of Best Original Score for its soundtrack by James Newton Howard.

Defiance was also nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score for 2008.[13]

Controversies about historical inaccuracies[edit]

In one of the film's scenes, it is stated that there may be an epidemic of typhus amongst the Bielski partisans and that ampicillin is needed for treating the infection - which is historically inaccurate, because ampicillin was not discovered until 1958.[14]

A review by Armchair General magazine cited the book Women in the Holocaust by Dalia Ofer and Lenore Weitzman, to argue that in reality the Bielskis were less egalitarian than suggested by the film, and that "the fighters had the first pick among women for sexual partners."[15] Zwick responded to the criticism by saying that Defiance is not a simple fight between good and evil. He told The Times: "The Bielskis weren't saints. They were flawed heroes, which is what makes them so real and so fascinating. They faced any number of difficult moral dilemmas that the movie seeks to dramatise: Does one have to become a monster to fight monsters? Does one have to sacrifice his humanity to save humanity?"[16]

Nechama Tec, on whose book the film is based, stated in an interview with Rzeczpospolita that she was initially shocked by the film, especially by the intense battle scenes including combat with a German tank. These never occurred in reality as the partisans tried to avoid open combat and were focused on survival. She explained the treatment of historical events in the film as a concession made by its director and producers in order to make the film more thrilling and to obtain the necessary funding from Hollywood. Nevertheless, after seeing the film a number of times, Tec said that she was liking it "more and more".[17] Zwick said Adolf Hitler had sent two German divisions into the forest to search for the partisans, but they were unable to locate them.[18]


The Times and The Guardian reported that Poles feel that "Hollywood has airbrushed out some unpleasant episodes from the story", such as the Bielski partisans' alleged affiliation with Soviet partisans directed by the NKVD, who committed atrocities against Poles in eastern Poland, including the region where the Bielski group operated.[16][19][20] Gazeta Wyborcza reported six months before the film's release that "News about a movie glorifying [the Bielskis] have caused an uproar among Polish historians", who referred to the Bielskis as "Jewish-Communist bandits".[21] The newspaper commented that it "departed from the truth on several occasions", including depicting pre-war Nowogrodek as a Belarusian town where "no one speaks Polish", "there are only good Soviet partisans and bad Germans", and "Polish partisans are missing from the film altogether".[22][23]

According to The Guardian, the movie was booed at some cinemas and banned from others due to a "local perception that it is a rewriting of history and anti-Polish".[24] On March 11, 2009, the Polish Embassy in London disputed the report, stating: "This embassy has been in touch with Defiance's only distributor in Poland, Monolith Plus, and we have been told that this film has not experienced any form of booing, let alone been banned by any cinemas."[25] The wave of criticism against the film led to charges that the anger was fueled by antisemitism.[26][24]


Most reviewers from Belarus criticized the film for a complete absence of the Belarusian language and for the Soviet partisans singing a Belarusian folk song while in actuality they would have more likely been singing Russian songs.[27]

"The word Belarusian is spoken out only three times in the movie", the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belorussii wrote. Veterans of the Soviet partisan resistance in Belarus criticised the film for inaccuracies.[28][29]

Some Belorussian reviews, as in Poland, criticised the film for ignoring the Bielski partisans' crimes against the local population.[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Defiance (15)". British Board of Film Classification. November 11, 2008. Retrieved October 26, 2016.
  2. ^ a b "Defiance (2008)". IMDb. Retrieved November 3, 2008.
  3. ^ a b c Pamela McClintock; Michael Fleming (May 16, 2007). "Daniel Craig to star in 'Defiance'". Variety. Archived from the original on May 19, 2007. Retrieved January 21, 2008.
  4. ^ a b c d e Tatiana Siegel; Borys Kit (August 9, 2007). "Foursome can't resist Defiance". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved January 21, 2008.
  5. ^ Lisa Chamoff (June 19, 2007). "Westport author's Holocaust book – to be made into Hollywood movie". Greenwich Time.
  6. ^ Talis Saule Archdeacon (January 9, 2008). "Baltic film returns to world stage". The Baltic Times. Retrieved January 21, 2008.
  7. ^ "Commentary: Lithuania's star turn helped 'Defiance' get the details right". The Hollywood Reporter. January 7, 2009. Retrieved January 15, 2009.
  8. ^ "Defiance". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved March 1, 2024. Edit this at Wikidata
  9. ^ "Defiance". Metacritic. Fandom, Inc. Retrieved March 1, 2024.
  10. ^ a b Review in The New York Times from December 31, 2008
  11. ^ "Ed Zwick on Passivity, Jewish Power, and Hamas" by Jeffrey GoldbergThe Atlantic – January 16, 2009
  12. ^ David Denby (film critic) (January 12, 2009). "Survivors". The New Yorker. Retrieved January 19, 2009.
  13. ^ "The 66th Annual Golden Globe Awards (2009)". Hollywood Foreign Press Association. 2009. Archived from the original on December 29, 2010. Retrieved June 23, 2009.
  14. ^ "ampicillin (CHEBI:28971)". www.ebi.ac.uk. Retrieved February 17, 2023.
  15. ^ "Defiance – Movie Review" Armchair General. January 17, 2009. Retrieved January 2, 2010.
  16. ^ a b Kamil Tchorek (December 31, 2008). "Country split over whether Daniel Craig is film hero or villain". The Times. London. Retrieved December 31, 2008.
  17. ^ Rzeczpospolita interview with Nehama Tec Link to article
  18. ^ "Defiance – Edward Zwick Interview" HistoryNet. January 13, 2009. Retrieved January 2, 2010.
  19. ^ Kate Connolly (March 5, 2009). "Jewish resistance film sparks Polish anger". The Guardian. Retrieved March 5, 2009.
  20. ^ Bielski pomagał Żydom, ale też ich wykorzystywał. rp.pl (2009-01-23). Retrieved on 2012-07-03.
  21. ^ A Hollywood Movie About Heroes or Murderers?, Gazeta Wyborcza, June 16, 2008
  22. ^ (in English) The True Story of the Bielski Brothers (in Polish) Prawdziwa historia Bielskich, Gazeta Wyborcza, January 6, 2009
  23. ^ (in Polish) Nazywam się Bielski, Tewje Bielski [My name is Bielski, Tewje Bielski], Gazeta Wyborcza, January 22, 2009
  24. ^ a b "Jewish resistance film sparks Polish anger" The Guardian. March 5, 2009. Retrieved January 2, 2010.
  25. ^ "Anger over Bielski detachment film" The Guardian. March 11, 2009. Retrieved January 2, 2010.
  26. ^ Film, History and Memory, Palgrave Macmillan, chapter by Mercedes Camino, page 96
  27. ^ Belarus is a Klondike for Blockbuster Movies Archived February 25, 2009, at the Wayback Machine. Belarus.blogsome.com. Retrieved on 2012-07-03.
  28. ^ (in Belarusian) Сведкі пра герояў галівудскага фільма "Выклік": "Ваякі былі ерундовыя" [Witnesses about heroes of Defiance: "They were bad fighters"] Archived March 9, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  29. ^ (in Russian) Что в фильме про Джеймса Бонда в роли белорусского партизана правда, а что – вымысел? [What is true and what is invented in the film of James Bond as a Belarusian partisan?#93;[dead link]
  30. ^ (in Belarusian) Галівудзкае беларускае кіно [A Hollywood movie about Belarus]

External links[edit]