"Jews do not fight," a Red Army soldier in German-occupied Belarussia says to a comrade midway through Defiance, a fact-based story about three Jewish brothers who founded a survivalist compound in the Belarus forest during WWII. "These Jews do," the soldier responds, admiringly.
After previously helming Glory and The Last Samurai, director Edward Zwick has become something of a specialist in woodsy period war movies. Defiance, which is similarly a respectable, well-staged, but uninspired work, fits right in. Here, Daniel Craig (as Tuvia, the eldest of the three Bielski brothers) inhabits the hunky battlefield messiah role given to Denzel Washington and Ken Watanabe in those earlier films.
Defiance is a counter-myth to Schindler's List. Instead of a gentile benefactor saving lives, the story here is one of Jewish resistance and self-reliance. Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell play the three brothers, who escape into the Belarus forest when the Nazis and their local collaborators raid the brothers' village. The rest of their family dead or dispersed, the brothers gradually acquire other refugees, molding their charges into a makeshift community.
Craig and Schreiber embody different Jewish attitudes about dealing with the threat. Craig is the reluctant leader, telling his brother, "We may be hunted like animals, but we will not become animals." Schreiber's Zus is the radical: "You should have killed the fucking milkman," he tells his brother later, after an act of mercy has backfired. "Your policy of diplomacy is shit. You don't have the guts to do what needs to be done." The arc of the movie is in reconciling these divergent attitudes.
Ultimately, Defiance doesn't have the moral weight of Steven Spielberg's similarly concerned Munich (which also co-starred Craig). It works more as a solid adventure yarn given a little extra gravitas by its historical setting — kind of like Glory and The Last Samurai.
Opens Friday, January 16th, at multiple locations