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In late 1941 the Bielski brothersx—Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell), and Aron (George MacKay)—escape into the forests around Nazi occupied Poland following the capture and murder of their parents. Once situated the brothers come across dozens of other escaped Jews, and eventually decide to develop a camp to protect them. Over the next few years of war the camp saved the lives of over 1,200 Jewish partisans.

Edward Zwick is to historical film as Brett Ratner is to summer blockbusters. Both parties are entirely capable of delivering an entirely average product, and can be counted on to do so time after time. Zwick is notorious in many circles for his rather uncouth habit of producing films about ethnic cultures as told from a white character’s point of view, as if popular audiences can’t identify with a minority character’s minority plight (which may be true, I suppose). Defiance finally marks a break in this cycle (though Jews could be considered a cultural minority, they make up the majority of characters), but is still a historical drama based on real war events, and apparently still plays fast and loose with the facts.

The problem with this particular Zwick feature has less to do with its familiar story (honestly, at this point all European placed WWII movies are becoming a blur regardless of specific subject matter), or even its director’s penchant for smaltz, and more to do a lack of narrative focus. The true story is big, and hard to tie down, but Zwick’s script does little more than glaze over a few moments in a very long time period. There’s no epic realization of the events as a whole, nor is there a centred, three act take on a single event during the period. Glory and The Last Samurai had specific events to base their huge back stories around, while Defiance listlessly proceeds along its projected path, lacking a big moment to buoy the plot. It seems that Zwick was trying to find a ‘classic’ means to tell a story that could fill an entire mini-series, and it doesn’t really work.

The characters and dialogue are way too broadly drawn for the plotting issues to be overlooked. Our heroes speak mostly in one-liners and rousing battle speeches, while the villains practically twirl their moustaches with their words, and all the supporting players look on with either fear or iron jawed reverence. Zwick confuses drama with fisticuffs on a few occasions, which just broadens the character traits further, to the point that even Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber can’t hold much interest beyond ciphers for more one-liners and rousing speeches. The characters have plenty of hardship, but they all mostly end the story in the same place the entered it, perhaps slightly less angry.

Zwick wins points across his career for not shying away from violence, and Defiance is probably his bloodiest film, even if it doesn’t even nip at the ultra-violent heals of Saving Private Ryan. This only goes so far in covering up his continued love affair with training montages, ineffective and unnecessary side stories, and heavy handed war and peace juxtapositions. The final forty or so minutes, when the proverbial shit really starts to hit the fan, are actually pretty good and suspenseful as Zwick and Craig both thrive on conflict. Unfortunately after about an hour and a half of tropes and broad strokes I personally wasn’t compelled to care too much beyond a handful of scenes that stand alone well, and even the good stuff continues themes already vivaciously covered.



Zwick and cinematographer Eduardo Serra take the Steven Spielberg WWII universe route with the majority of Defiance’s visuals, including harsh black contrast, reasonably thick grain, and greatly desaturated colours. The skin tones are sizably warmer than those of the Spielberg-verse (and it is a universal look at this point), but the steel blues and rich greens are hard to mistake. This transfer is really only limited by its style. The focus isn’t deep enough to allow for super crisp backgrounds, and the blacks are heavy enough to lose detail in medium shots. Still, close-ups are as real as life itself, and the colour clarity is remarkable. The grain is reasonably dramatic, but compression noise, artefacts, and edge enhancement are almost nonexistent. There are several night scenes which most viewers will find it nearly impossible to tell what’s going on, but I believe this was Zwick’s intent. The whitened snow scenes are a gorgeous break from the darkness, and probably the transfer’s finest asset.



War always makes for surround sound excitement, and even a lower-keyed war film like this one fills the quota. When there’s fighting involved the channels are lively with shrapnel, explosions, gun-fire, and the screams of the dying. It’s all perfectly well represented. Non-battle scenes are less impressive, creating a large centre channel for the dialog and majority of the sound effects, then delegated a few select, and frankly unnatural effects to the stereo and surround channels. There’s no issue with clarity, but the whole mix is ever so slightly phony. The track really kicks into gear concerning the LFE channel, more so than most Dolby TrueHD tracks in my collection, including throbbing thunder effects and punchy hits (hammer to nail, fist to face, bullet to body). James Newton Howard’s Oscar nominated score seems like a walk in the park for the vastly capable composer, and is relatively low on the track for the most part.


Oh my God Edward Zwick thinks he’s a cable TV documentary narrator. I suppose the director’s solo commentary is informative enough, at least in terms of filling in historical facts that aren’t covered by the roughly rendered plot, but his tone is painfully humourless. From an entertainment standpoint the track is brutally dry and frankly a little whiney as Zwick bitches about the difficulties of filming on a less than stellar budget. It’s interesting to note that Zwick speaks in the same clichés he writes in.

‘Defiance: Return to the Forest’ (26:00 HD) starts the featurettes on a slightly fluffy note. The history of the project is quickly covered in the form of sobered and self-important interviews which make the film out to be the best and most important thing ever in the history of the world. The behind the scenes footage is minimal, and used to show the ‘power’ of the actors and director rather than the process of the filming. Costumes, make-up, production design and dialect are also covered.

‘Children of Otriad’ (13:40 HD) is a history of the real Bielski Brothers, as told by their offspring. Howard’s score kind of undercuts the genuinely touching nature of the stories, but the family photos and film is an incredible addition. ‘Scoring Defiance’ (07:00 HD) is a formulaic look at James Newton Howard’s process, including footage of the orchestra playing, and Howard and Zwick sitting in the studio fiddling with knobs, set to basically meaningless interviews.

‘Bielski Partisan Survivors’ sounds like a featurette, but is really a gallery of survivor photos taken by Zwick. Things are completed with two trailers.



Overall Defiance is pretty much a throw-away. It looks good, and gives a general overview of the event, but doesn’t feature the visceral punch of Saving Private Ryan, the dippy fun of The Patriot (which is a much stupider film, but at least a sort of fun one), the originality of Black Book, or the genuine pomp and circumstance of Schindler’s List. The story deserves better. Fans of the cast should be nominally satisfied, but the script and direction lacks a final polish. Perhaps it’s time for director Edward Zwick to take a shot at a three actors in a room script, or even a superhero movie, because war is definitely growing a bit mouldy for him.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page.