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Carl Savich | Columns | serbianna.com
Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas (1943): A Critical Reappraisal
By Carl Savich | Blog
February 11, 2008

On January 11, 1943, during the height of World War II, Twentieth Century Fox released the movie Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas on the guerrilla movement headed by Draza Mihailovich in German-occupied Yugoslavia. The movie starred Philip Dorn as Draza Mihailovich and Anna Sten as his wife. The movie was the Hollywood chronicle of the Chetnik resistance movement.

Draza Mihailovich launched a resistance movement against the Nazi occupation forces of Yugoslavia in 1941. This was unprecedented and created a sensation in Europe and in America. In America, Draza Mihailovich became one of the most popular figures in the news. In the May 25, 1942 issue of Time Magazine, Mihailovich was on the cover under the heading, “Mihailovich: Yugoslavia’s Unconquered.” He was one of the major contenders for the title of Time’s Man of the Year. Time was inundated by letters of support. Joseph Stalin, however, ended up the Man of the Year in 1942 because the Red Army was able to halt the German advance on Moscow. But Mihailovich received massive media coverage in the US, garnering very favorable popular support and acclaim.

An 11 x 14 lobby card for the 1943 Twentieth Century Fox movie Chetniks! used to promote the movie in theaters, showing Philip Dorn as Mihailovich and Anna Sten as his wife confronted by a Gestapo officer played by Martin Kosleck.

As a result of this wide acclaim, in 1942, a Hollywood movie was made by a major studio, Twentieth Century-Fox, called Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas, which showed Draza Mihailovich and his forces as allies of the US. The film starred Dutch-born actor Philip Dorn, who played Papa Lars Hanson in the 1948 classic, nominated for 5 Academy Awards, I Remember Mama, as Draza Mihailovich and Russian-born Anna Sten, Samuel Goldwyn’s answer to Greta Garbo, as his wife, Lubitca Mihailovitch. Dorn had appeared in Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941) with Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan, The Fighting Kentuckian (1949) with John Wayne, and the sequel or follow-up to Casablanca, Passage to Marseille (1944) directed by Michael Curtiz with Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet. Born in the Netherlands as Hein van der Niet, Dorn had been a screen actor in the Netherlands and in Germany during the 1930s. He continued to act until the 1950s when poor health forced him to retire. He died in 1975.

A Twentieth Century Fox poster for the movie.

Anna Sten had been born in Kiev as Anel Stenski Sudakevich. She appeared in Russian and German movies such as The Bothers Karamazov and Trapeze in 1931 in Germany. She was discovered by Konstantin Stanislavsky who encouraged her to try out for the Moscow Film Academy.  Samuel Goldwyn brought her to Hollywood and sought to make her into a Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich type of female lead. Sten was even satirized in Cole Porter’s musical Anything Goes (1934): "If Sam Goldwyn can with great conviction / Instruct Anna Sten in diction / Then Anna shows / Anything goes." She starred in the Goldwyn film Nana (1934), which failed at the box-office, as did subsequent releases We Live Again (1934) and The Wedding Night (1935). She was also in the 1943 movie They Came to Blow Up America about a planned attack on the American homeland by German saboteurs. She continued to make films and appeared on TV in the 1960s. She died in 1993.

Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas was produced by Bryan Foy and Sol M. Wurtzel, who had been one of the top executives at William Fox’s studio and remained a prominent producer when Fox merged with Twentieth Century Pictures in 1935.

Philip Dorn as Mihailovich and Anna Sten as his wife in a climactic scene from the movie.

The movie was directed by Louis King, best known for directing the My Friend Flicka sequels, based on the Mary O’Hara novels, in the 1940s, Thunderhead--Son of Flicka (1945) and Green Grass of Wyoming (1948), which received an Academy Award nomination, the Bulldog Drummond series of films, Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935) with Warner Oland and Rita Hayworth, and a series of low budget B westerns in the 1920s and early 1930s, the most notable of which were made at Joseph P. Kennedy’s Film Booking Offices of America movie studio (FBO) in the 1920s.

The screenplay was written by Jack Andrews and Edward E. Paramore, Jr., based on the original story by Andrews. The movie was well-written, derived from events of Draza Mihailovich’s life. The movie is factual although some facts were changed. Mihailovich was based in Ravna Gora in Serbia, while in the movie the action takes place in Kotor in Montenegro. Mihailovich had four children, while the movie only showed two. Mihailovich’s wife was named Jelica Lazarevich, while in the movie she is called Lubitca. The cast also occasionally has difficulty pronouncing the “z” sound in “Draza”, mispronouncing it as a “j” sound while the actual sound is more like the “z” in the word “azure”. Nevertheless, diligent effort was made to rely as closely as possible to the facts and to recreate the Yugoslavian landscape.

Felix Basch as Gen. Bauer in a 1943 Twentieth Century Fox publicity photo for the movie Chetniks!.

Andrews and Paramore are able to capture what motivates Mihailovich in the following dialogue from the movie:

Lubitca Mihailovitch: The Germans say, “It is only a matter of time until we catch you!”

Draja Mihailovitch: You don’t believe that, do you?

Lubitca: They’re strong. They have so much.

Draja: Yes, but we are stronger because we have something they never had: The will to be free. You see, our people don’t like to be conquered. So they never will be.

Lubitca: That is the truth, isn’t it?

Draja: Yes, my dear.

The film opens with a written statement after the opening credits by Twentieth Century Fox that the film is dedicated to Draza Mihailovich and the Serbian Chetnik guerrillas:

“This picture is respectfully dedicated to Draja Mihailovitch and his fighting Chetniks—those fearless guerrillas who have dedicated their lives with a grim determination that no rest shall prevail until the final allied victory, and the liberation and resurrection of their beloved fatherland--Yugoslavia has been achieved.”

The opening film credits to the movie.

 In the opening scene, German bombers attack Yugoslavia and bomb Belgrade in 1941. German tanks and armored vehicles are shown invading and occupying Yugoslavia. Then Chetnik guerrillas are shown attacking German occupation troops and resisting the occupation by sabotage. A German officer who predicts an easy occupation and imminent conquest of Yugoslavia is shown being shot by Chetnik guerrillas.

After Yugoslavia is invaded and occupied by Germany, Italy, Hungary, and Bulgaria in 1941, Draza Mihailovich, a Serbian army colonel, forms a resistance movement to the Axis occupation. His guerrilla forces are known as Chetniks, a Serbian term for guerrillas, insurgents, or resistance fighters who first emerged during the Ottoman Turkish Muslim occupation of the Balkans. Mihailovich’s forces attack German and Italian occupation troops and engage in sabotage, forcing the Axis to commit seven divisions against them. In the first action scene in the movie, the Chetniks capture an Italian supply convoy in Montenegro. Mihailovich calls the German headquarters in Kotor proposing to free the captured Italian troops if he is given tins of gasoline in exchange. When German General von Bauer refuses, Mihailovich reveals that he will contact the Italian High Command to reveal the details of the offer. In order to prevent conflict between the Axis powers, Bauer is forced to agree after pressure from Wilhelm Brockner, the Gestapo Colonel.

Natalia, played by Virginia Gilmore, is the secretary to Gestapo chief Brockner. Natalia, however, works for the Chetniks and reveals confidential information to them. She reveals that 2,000 Yugoslavs imprisoned in a concentration camp will be transported by train to Germany. The Chetniks are able to intercept and attack the train and to release the prisoners. They send one of the German POWs to Bauer to thank him for providing them with more guerrillas. They place a Nazi swastika on his back.

A Twentieth Century Fox poster for the movie.

Brockner responds by threatening to starve the people of Kotor. He orders that no food will be distributed unless Mihailovich’s wife Lubitca surrenders along with their two children, Mirko, played by Merrill Rodin, and Nada, played by Patricia Prest. Natalia prevents Lubitca from surrendering. Brockner initially suggested that the way to defeat the Serbian insurgency was by hanging 50 to 100 Serbian civilians for every German soldier who was killed.

Mihailovich agrees to come to German military headquarters under a truce. Once in German custody, General Bauer announces that under international law and the customs of war, he can have Mihailovich summarily executed as a bandit and guerrilla. Yugoslavia officially and legally surrendered to Germany and thus the insurgency was illegal. Mihailovich was an outlaw. This forces Mihailovich to reveal his hand. He discloses that Chetnik guerrilla forces have captured Bauer’s wife and daughter as well as Brockner’s concubine. They will be freed only if food is restored to the people of Kotor. General Bauer is forced to release Mihailovich.

After the identity of Mirko is disclosed, Lubitca and Mirko are seized by German forces and taken to Mihailovich’s mountain hideout to force him to surrender. Every man, woman, and child in Kotor will be executed by German troops unless Mihailovich surrender within eighteen hours. Mihailovich announces that he will not surrender.

Mihailovich then prepares an ambush for the German forces. He orders his forces to pretend that they are retreating and surrendering. The German troops attack and are ambushed in the mountains. An aide to Mihailovich, Lt. Aleksa Petrovitch, played by Shepperd Strudwick, who appears as John Shepperd, also seeks to infiltrate the German command, but is captured. Other Chetnik guerrillas, under Maj. Danilov, played by Frank Lackteen, attack the town of Kotor where they defeat the German forces..

The entire action in the movie takes place in the mountainous coastal city of Kotor in Montenegro. In the major scenes, Draza Mihailovich and his Chetnik guerrillas are able to ambush and capture Italian and German occupation troops and officers. Mihailovich is portrayed as a real-life Zorro, who is able to outwit the Nazi war machine. A German occupation teacher, Frau Spitz, played by Lisa Golm, is shown instructing and indoctrinating Serbian children to sing the Horst Wessel Song, which was the anthem of the Nazi Party and was part of the German national anthem during the Nazi regime, composed by an SA officer, a Brown shirt storm trooper in 1929, who was later assassinated by Communists. Mihailovich’s son Mirko is in this class. The teacher is able to discover his identity and to reveal it to the Gestapo.

Philip Dorn as Mihailovich on right, in a scene from the movie.

A Gestapo officer, Col. Wilhelm Brockner, played by Martin Kosleck, is able to then uncover the identity of Mihailovich’s two children, Mirko and Nada, and his wife, Lubitca. German forces then take them into custody to extort Mihailovich to surrender. The Chetniks are able to capture a high ranking German officer, Field Marshall von Klausewitz, or so they tell Bauer, as well as the relatives of German occupation leaders. In the climax, Mihailovich is able to draw the German forces, led by Gen. von Bauer, played by Austrian-born actor Felix Basch, into an ambush in the surrounding mountains where they are defeated. Mihailovich emerges victorious. In the final scene, he is shown triumphant in front of a Serbian Orthodox Church flanked by two Orthodox priests, vowing to fight on until total victory is achieved.

The original musical score was by Hugo W. Friedhofer, who won the Academy Award for Best Musical Score for the classic World War II movie The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Friedhofer had also been the musical arranger on Casablanca and Now, Voyager in 1942 when he worked with Max Steiner. The cinematography was by Glen MacWilliams. The film editing was by Alfred Day.

The film was shot from September 17 to October 19, 1942, while additional scenes were filmed in the middle of November. The movie was 73 minutes long on 8 reels on 6,577 feet of black and white film with mono sound. An alternate title was The Seventh Column.

The movie was well-received by the American public and was shown in movie theaters all across America, in the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, California on May 7, 1943, the Tower Theatre in Bastrop, Texas in June, 1943, and at the Globe in New York City. In the February 23, 1943 Fitchburg Sentinel newspaper in Massachusetts, it was announced that “‘Chetniks’ Unconquerable Guerrilla Heroes” was playing in local movie theaters. In the April 15, 1943 Lima News newspaper in Ohio, it was reported that the movie played at the Quilna Theater: “Guerrilla heroes come into their own in the new picture, ‘Chetniks’, which commences at the Quilna theatre Friday night.”  In the June 3, 1943 Mansfield Sentinel Journal newspaper in Ohio, an advertisement for the movie appeared: “Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas, the story of the fighting guerrillas, continues today at the Ritz. Philip Dorn is seen as the leader of the Chetniks. It is upon his orders that the fighting guerrillas move down from the hills to blast enemy ammunition dumps, blow up bridges.”

The New York Times reviewed the movie favorably on March 19, 1943 after it was shown in New York at the Globe in a review by “T.M.P.”, Thomas M. Pryor. The New York Times called the movie “splendidly acted” and that it had “the right spirit”. Hal Erickson of All Movie Guide (AMG) reviewed the movie favorably as well, noting how Mihailovich was vindicated. Erickson wrote that the movie portrayed Mihailovich as “a selfless idealist, leading his resistance troops, known as the Chetniks, on one raid after another against the Germans during WWII”.

Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas avoids simplistic, black-and-white, Manichean depictions of armed conflict. The complexities of war and resistance are presented very well. General Bauer informs Mihailovich that under the rules of war and international conventions, Mihailovich and his guerrillas are regarded as outlaws who have no recognized rights. He emphasizes that “the rules of war are clear” on this point. Yugoslavia surrendered to Germany in 1941. The Yugoslav government signed the surrender papers. Mihailovich and his guerrilla forces are thus waging an “illegal” uprising or insurgency.

Draza Mihailovich on left, and Philip Dorn, who portrayed him in the movie, on right.

This dilemma is highlighted when Mihailovich replies that while the Yugoslav government may have surrendered, the Yugoslavian people never did and that “we are the people of Yugoslavia”. Maj. Danilov asks Bauer: “How can it be wrong when men fight for their country?” The Germans thought the occupation of Yugoslavia would be a “holiday”. Instead, they encountered an organized and determined insurgency. Bauer reiterates that the guerrilla movement is “illegal” and that the German Army is legally in the right, highlighting an absurd and paradoxical aspect of the rules of war and international conventions. As Bauer correctly noted, the law favors the strong: Might, indeed, makes right. Bauer then announces that as insurgents, Mihailovich and his guerrillas are not recognized as legal military combatants and therefore have no recognized rights. Bauer does not recognize Mihailovich as a legal or recognized military “enemy” or enemy combatant. Bauer can legally summarily execute Mihailovich and his guerrillas.

The movie presents the issues of war in complex terms. It doesn’t offer simple answers but poses problems and dilemmas. The “truth” is not so simple, but emerges only after a Hegelian dialectical evolution. The movie forces us to think. In war, there are victims on all sides. There are gray areas. There are moral dilemmas and complexities. The movie is remarkable in offering a complex picture of war, which was rare in any war movie.

Casablanca (1942), for example, which is regarded as one of the greatest war movies ever made and the universally accepted template for the proper way to make a war film, presents a very simplistic, black-and-white, propagandistic, and Manichean picture of World War II. All Germans are evil. All Germans speak with a single voice. Germany is a monolithic state. Chetniks! avoids the blatant racism and ethnic and religious bigotry found in Casablanca. In Casablanca, a character refers to a German soldier in a racist slur, “sale Boche”, meaning “dirty Kraut” in French, which was a holdover from the racist propaganda of World War I. In Casablanca, every German is the “enemy”, whether they are couriers, bankers, or soldiers.

The presentation in Casablanca is also totally one-sided and unrealistic. France is presented as a “victim”, a country that had a colonial empire that stretched around the globe, that exploited and oppressed millions of people. Moreover, the attitude of victimization is disingenuous. It was French militarism under Napoleon that humiliated and defeated Prussia that resulted in a quest by Germany to gain military parity or superiority over France. Moreover, the phony armchair “resistance leader” in Casablanca, Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid, wears a spotlessly clean white suit and spends his days and nights in cafes, instead of fighting the “enemy”. His goal is to get away or to escape from where any real fighting that is going on. The ersatz resistance leader Laszlo wants to obtain tickets or “letters of transit” so that he can flee to America by way of Lisbon, Portugal. Draza Mihailovich, by contrast, exposed himself to death every day of his life by resisting German occupation forces. Mihailovich did not hang out in cafes looking for a way to flee to the safety of the U.S.

A Twentieth Century Fox poster for the movie.

Chetniks! presents a complex picture of war and of enmity. While an adventure or action movie, it emphasizes the fact that we manufacture the “enemy” and that the “enemy” is only a projection of ourselves. How we regard or picture the “enemy” tells us about how we imagine ourselves and how we treat ourselves. Chetniks! is careful to avoid racial stereotypes and regressing into racism and racial and ethnic hatred and enmity that Casablanca and many other war movies engage in.

Finally, Chetniks! demonstrates intellectual sophistication and complexity by showing that Nazism and Germany are not monolithic. The movie points out the conflict among the civil and military branches of the German government and occupation administration. The movie exposes the conflict between the Gestapo and the Wehrmacht, two different branches of the German military occupation. Casablanca, for instance, does not do this, where every German is a Nazi and evil.

In Chetniks!, we see how different branches of the German occupation administration did not speak with the same voice or act in unanimity. This reflects the actual state of affairs in German-occupied Yugoslavia. There was a conflict between the SS and the Wehrmacht in the military occupation of Serbia. SS Gruppenfuehrer Harald Turner, who was the chief of the German Military Administration of Serbia, came into conflict with German Army commanders over the military occupation of Serbia. The Wehrmacht sought to sabotage Turner’s occupation policies in Serbia and to force him out. The SS was more ideologically driven and rooted in National Socialism. Moreover, there was conflict and friction between the Wehrmacht and the SS over the role of the Higher SS and Police Leaders who were part of the occupation regime in Serbia. There was thus conflict between different branches of the German occupation force and between civilian and military branches. Chetniks! is able to effectively show this conflict.

Chetniks! is a remarkable movie in that it shows the complexities, dilemmas, and ambiguities of war and resistance. It avoids the mindless certainty and smug Manichean simplicity of the standard war movie.

The film has been unavailable and has not been reissued in the US in large part because the role of Mihailovich in World War II was rewritten and revised and falsified after the war. The movie is no longer politically correct.

Draza Mihailovich continued to make history after the movie was released. In 1944, his Chetnik guerrillas rescued over 500 US airmen shot down behind enemy lines over Serbia by German forces. This was one of the largest rescue operations in US military history. In recognition, after the war, Mihailovich received a posthumous Legion of Merit award given to him by US President Harry S. Truman upon the recommendation of Allied Supreme Commander in Europe General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas documents and dramatizes a remarkable and unique moment in the history of World War II. It captures a special moment in time. This is a movie that deserves to be recognized as an important film of World War II.

Carl Savich
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