American Wartime Film: Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas (1943)
by Carl Savich
The 1943 American movie Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas is a time capsule that shows how Draza Mihailovich and the Chetnik guerrillas were integral parts of the American and Allied war effort. At the height of World War II in 1943, the movie demonstrated their influence and impact on the “greatest generation”. The movie had a widespread impact not only on the American home front, but globally as well. The American public needed a symbol of resistance and defiance, a sparkplug to get Americans going after years of slumber, to galvanize public opinion and morale in the United States. Draza Mihailovich represented determination, defiance, and indefatigable will. The movie contributed to American and Allied morale and resolve on the home front by extolling resistance and defiance. Draza Mihailovich was an example and a model which Americans could identify and sympathize with. Thus, the movie was a perfect fit for what Americans wanted to see on the screen in 1943, an ally who was indefatigable and unconquerable, who would inspire and galvanize and motivate a public that was committed to total war, to unconditional victory. The movie also reassured and reaffirmed the American public in their belief that the war was just and defensive, a response and reaction to German and Japanese aggression and brutality. The dichotomy was between aggressors and victims, resistance to overwhelming force by those defending their land. As a reaction to force and aggression, the conflict was portrayed as victims who were only protecting or defending themselves in a just cause. Their struggle was an example of “the good war”, a defensive war to prevent their annihilation and extermination. This was the paradigm established for the movie.
When the movie was released on January 11, 1943 in movie theatres across the United States, the critical and popular reaction was highly positive and unanimously favorable. This was due in no small measure to the fact that the movie fit perfectly the film paradigm which was firmly established by that time for war films. The film glorified and extolled resistance to the Axis, Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. The subject of the movie was a real-life resistance leader who was defying and opposing the overwhelming superiority and military strength of the Axis. It was the story of an underdog, a Balkan David to the Axis Goliath. Here was a man who personified the attributes and qualities which all Americans espoused in 1943: Defiance, courage, determination, an undefeatable will and spirit. How could anyone not like the movie in 1943, at the height of World War II, when these traits were most in need? The movie followed the Western and American wartime film paradigm to a tee. Ironically, this was typically what the critics of the time tended to dislike about the movie. It was too formulaic. It was too paradigmatic, in short. It followed the pattern and the trend of all Hollywood movies made at that time. This was a strength, but also a weakness. It limited the scope of movement, it delineated the boundaries too narrowly. It meant that the movie would be tied down by its place in time as a wartime film. But did the movie have transcendent values? Could the film remain viable and meaningful and relevant for generations after the war?
The movie tells us more about the United States than it does about Yugoslavia or Serbia or the Balkans. A movie is a mirror that reflects back to us our attitudes, perceptions, assumptions, and beliefs. We see ourselves in movies because they are ultimately projections of our own subconscious desires, wishes, anxieties, and fears. They also tell us what a society and a people value, they reveal the underlying beliefs of the society. Chetniks! is part of this mold or paradigm. It is a projection of American views of the underdog fighting against insurmountable odds. The image of the Minuteman of the American Revolutionary War period was invoked. It is an image of the citizen-soldier, reluctant to enter a conflict, but once attacked, demonstrates indomitable will and fortitude. It is the image of the inherently good individual forced to fight against his or her will.
The screenwriters, Jack Andrews and Edward E. Paramore, worked in Westerns as did director Louis King. Chetniks!, thus, has the Western model as its core. The plot structure of the movie follows an American Western movie very closely. The screenwriters have researched the Balkans and thus bring their knowledge of that history to bear. But overall, the complexities have been simplified and the movie is presented in largely Manichean terms. The movie does, however, note the ambiguities and uncertainties of the Yugoslav guerrilla resistance movement in particular and all guerrilla movements in general. Legally, the German occupation authorities are correct. Yugoslavia has been militarily defeated and a surrender agreement has been signed. The guerrilla resistance is, thus, illegal under international norms and laws. The way they get around this paradox is by relying on natural law principles and assumptions, that, regardless of what the law is, human beings have the inherent, natural right to resist what they regard as hostile and detrimental to their well-being and interests. With this ambiguity is the Manichean vision of good versus evil, Us versus Them. The character of Gestapo officer Brockner exemplifies this aspect of the film. It is always about good versus evil, about freedom versus oppression, of the weak and defenseless fighting the powerful and strong. This is the paradigm that the film is constructed on because this is essentially the American outlook or mindset on enmity and on war. The movie is a projection of how Americans conceptualize enmity and conflict and how it should be resolved and concluded. In this respect, it was almost assured the movie a priori would be favorably received and accepted by the American public because it is merely a reflection of their own values and beliefs. Draza Mihailovich and the Chetnik guerrillas become reflections or mirror images for Americans, as surrogates or proxies.
When Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas opened in 1943, the critical reaction was positive. Moreover, the film was a box-office hit. It ranked among the top grossing movies of the year and was shown in all the major markets in the United States. Movie theaters all across America ran the movie in 1943, from Altoona, Pennsylvania to Muscatine, Iowa to Sheboygan, Wisconsin. The February 27, 1943 issue of Boxoffice noted that Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas was the top grossing and most critically acclaimed of the new film releases in Cleveland, Ohio: “Of the new pictures, ‘Chetniks’ took top honors both in gross and critical opinion. The picture created a lot of talk, and as a result, moved to another downtown house for a second week.” Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas at the Allen theater even beat out Casablanca at the box-office, which was showing at the same time.
The U.S. Office of War Information (OWI), the government department that controlled what Americans watched or read or listened to during the war, saw the film favorably because it emphasized the concept of a United Nations that was central to the Western allies’ conception of the war:
“The bureau also liked Chetniks, a 1943 release featuring Philip Dorn. One of the few Hollywood movies to use Eastern Europe as a setting, the film boosted the concept of a United Nations, OWI felt, by portraying the Yugoslavian people heroically resisting the Nazis. Chetniks showed the resistance movement as unified under the firm leadership of Draja Mikhailovitch. Flanked by dignitaries of the church, he addressed the people: ‘I give you my solemn promise that I shall not lay down my sword until every inch of Yugoslavia is reclaimed from the invader…. Neither German might nor German frightfulness can deter us from the goal we have set — complete freedom for our people.’ Despite the historical inaccuracies, the bureau still termed the film ‘promotional.’”
Post-War Critical Assessment
While the film got a resurgence and wider exposure in the form of television reruns on television stations throughout the U.S. and Canada in the 1960s and the 1970s, the movie remained highly controversial and politically incorrect. The U.S. was allied with the Yugoslav communist dictatorship regime headed by Josip Broz Tito during the Cold War. The Communist Partisan guerrillas that seized power in post-war Yugoslavia had judicially murdered Draza Mihailovich in 1946. He was a rival and a competitor to their authority and legitimacy. Indeed, he was the embodiment and representation of the ancien regime, the former regime, the royalist Karageorgevich government that was diametrically opposed to the Communist regime in Yugoslavia that seized power after the war. The Yugoslav government after the war had a paramount self-interest in denigrating and destroying the legacy of Draza Mihailovich and his guerilla movement. The movie was, therefore, no longer relevant or meaningful. Draza Mihailovich was dead. His guerrilla resistance movement was discredited and forgotten. History had moved on. In this regard, the movie was passé and yesterday’s news. It was relegated to the status of a curiosity and anachronism. The movie was dismissed and discarded. It was thrown in the garbage heap.
The critical reaction and assessment of the movie followed this popular and official evaluation. Critics are sycophantic and parrot and mimic or ape the accepted wisdom of the time. Critics sought to be politically correct and relevant. Therefore, their evaluations and appraisals of the movie were predictable and obvious. To be sure, many of the post-war critics noted the well-written and effective dialogue and the action pace of the film. But it was difficult, if not impossible, to separate an analysis of the film based on technical criteria without being overshadowed and overwhelmed by the political and historical developments that occurred after the war. The subject became highly controversial and taboo. The end result was that no one wanted to touch the film. The movie was relegated to obscurity and to the trash bin of history.
Hal Erickson of All Movie Guide (AMG) reviewed the movie favorably noting how Mihailovich was vindicated by history. 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”:
“Subtitled The Fighting Guerillas, Chetniks tells the story of Yugoslavian guerilla fighter General Draja Mihailovitch. Based on the General’s own memoirs, the film depicts Mihailovitch (played here by Philip Dorn) as a selfless idealist, leading his resistance troops, known as the Chetniks, on one raid after another against the Germans during WW II. The best scenes involve the deadly clashes between Chetniks and Germans in the treacherous mountain regions of Yugoslavia. Anna Sten, Sam Goldwyn’s 1930s ‘answer’ to Greta Garbo, co-stars as Mihailovitch’s self-sacrificing spouse. Initially, some dismissed this movie because of the mistaken belief that the Chetniks collaborated with the Nazis during WWII, but as Michael Lees unequivocally proves in his book The Rape of Serbia, this was actually a myth fed to Churchill by the Communist partisans of Josip Broz Tito, to convince the British prime minister to shift Allied aid away from the Chetniks. The events in this film are thus factual.”
A movie is a time capsule. It allows one the opportunity to go back in time and to see how events were recorded at that time. The human mind has a tendency to constantly re-imagine and to re-invent the past as it suits our current interests. The mind plays tricks on us. We consciously and subconsciously distort and manipulate and reinterpret the past. From an epistemological perspective, the history always depends on who is seeing or experiencing it and from what vantage point or perspective it is viewed from. Our perception and interpretation and understanding of that history is never static. It is constantly changing and evolving and coalescing. We see the past through a distorted lens, through a glass darkly. A movie freezes an event in time. A movie is a moving and talking snap shop in celluloid. A movie is an epistemological experience, an exercise in how we see and interpret the past.
Movies are, thus, always more than mere entertainment. They are a reflection or projection of who we ourselves are and what we believe. Films reveal our values and our beliefs. If you want to learn about American society in the 1930s and 1940s, for instance, watch any Hollywood movie. The films reveal more succinctly and more accurately the American society of that time than so-called scholarly analyses or research ever could. The movie is a mirror in which we can see our society in a definite period in time. We can also see ourselves, our values and our beliefs. Moreover, films allow us to experience the events emotionally and viscerally.
This movie is a time capsule that shows how Draza Mihailovich and the Chetnik guerrillas were integral parts of the Allied war effort, of the American effort on the home front. At the height of World War II in 1943, the movie demonstrated their influence and impact on the “greatest generation”. The movie had a widespread impact not only on the American home front, but globally as well. The movie was shown in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, and Jamaica. The movie, thus, had a global impact.
Draza Mihailovich and the Chetnik guerrillas contributed not only to American and Allied morale, but also economically and financially to the war effort. The resistance movement of Draza Mihailovich and the Chetnik guerrillas was used to sponsor and to promote the sale of war and stamp bonds, through movies, radio programs, comic books, novels, and magazine features. Regardless of how Mihailovich was perceived and assessed after the war, the contributions he made to the U.S. and Allied war effort were tangible and real, especially on the American home front. Draza Mihailovich and the Chetnik guerrillas became part of the fabric of the American war effort. In this regard, the impact of Draza Mihailovich cannot be dismissed and discounted. That impact was real. And the movie Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas exemplified and documented that impact.
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