Underground Guerrillas: Review of Undercover (1943)

On January 25, 2010, Optimum Home Entertainment in the UK released the 1943 British World War II movie Undercover on DVD.

Starring: John Clements, Mary Morris, Godfrey Tearle, Tom Walls, Michael Wilding

Director: Sergei Nolbandov 

Run Time: 80 minutes

Format: PAL

Region: Region 2

Number of discs: 1

Optimum Home Entertainment 

Catalogue Number: OPTD1571

Plot Synopsis

The subject of Undercover was the Yugoslav guerrilla movement in German-occupied Yugoslavia. There were, in fact, two rival guerrilla movements in Yugoslavia. Which one does this movie depict? The movie was produced by Sir Michael Balcon and directed by Sergei Nolbandov. The movie starred John Clements as Milosh Petrovitch, Mary Morris as Anna Petrovitch, his wife, Stephen Murray as Stephan Petrovitch, his brother, Michael Wilding as Constantine, and Stanley Baker as Petar. Clements had appeared as the Airman in H.G. Wells’ Things to Come (1936) and the 1939 classic The Four Feathers. The movie was re-released in the United States in 1944 by Columbia Pictures under the title Underground Guerrillas. The Ealing movie was similar to the 20th Century Fox wartime film Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas (1943) made in the U.S. The plot revolves around a resistance movement that emerges in Yugoslavia after the German invasion in 1941.

Undercover was originally entitled Chetnik, based on the account of Milosh Sekulich, an émigré Serbian doctor who had fled to London from Belgrade after the German invasion. The subject of the film was the Yugoslav resistance movement under the command of General Draza Mihailovich. But politics overtook the situation because Mihailovich and the Royalists were about to be abandoned and betrayed by the British government in favor of the Communist and Stalinist leader Josip Broz Tito at the time of the movie’s release in 1943. The movie was subsequently changed and references to the Chetniks and Draza Mihailovich were deleted. The movie became an amorphous, fictionalized account of a generic guerrilla leader in Yugoslavia. Not every reference to the Chetniks was deleted, however. There are scenes where guerrillas are shown wearing the black Chetnik shubara hat. And the plot closely follows the Draza Mihailovich story line.

The screenplay, by John Dighton and Monja Danischewsky, was accordingly amended and the movie re-edited. Dighton would later co-write the Ealing comedy classic The Man in the White Suit (1951) which starred Alec Guinness and the Academy Award-nominated screenplay for Roman Holiday (1953) with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. It was a war movie filmed in black and white, 80 minutes in length, that focused on the Petrovitch family in Belgrade, Serbia.

One brother, Captain Milosh Branko Petrovitch, a Yugoslav military officer, played by John Clements, emerges as a Serbian guerrilla who forms an anti-Nazi resistance movement in the mountains of Serbia although they are referred to as Yugoslavs. The other brother, Dr. Stephan Petrovitch, played by Stephen Murray, is a physician in the Belgrade Municipal Hospital who acts as a quisling or collaborator to obtain information for the guerrillas. German General von Staengel, played by Godfrey Tearle, does not suspect that Stephan is an undercover agent for the Serbian guerrillas. Tearle had played Professor Jordan in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The 39 Steps (1935).

Using information obtained by Stephan, the guerrillas are able to ambush a German train and to free Yugoslav POWs, wound General Staengel, and to blow up a strategic railway tunnel in the mountains. In retaliation, German troops under Colonel von Brock, played by Robert Harris, execute six Serbian schoolchildren in reprisal and as a lesson. Stanley Baker, in his first movie role at the age of fourteen, plays one of the Serbian students, Petar. Anna Petrovitch, Milosh’s wife, is taken prisoner by German forces and interrogated. She is able to escape and to rejoin Milosh in the mountains.

Stephan manages to plant explosives on a train which he sets to go off in a mountain tunnel. His father Kossan, played by Tom Walls, is captured by German troops and placed on the train to deter an attack. Stephan and Kossan are both killed when the explosives go off and destroy the train and the tunnel. In retaliation, Staengel orders that “one hundred Yugoslavs for every German” will be killed and orders retaliatory strikes against the Serbian guerrillas.

The climax of the movie is a pitched battle between the Germans and the guerrillas. The Serbian guerrillas defeat the German troops and retreat into the mountains to continue the guerrilla war against Axis occupation forces.

The movie remains invaluable as a contemporary cinematic account of the guerrilla resistance movement in Yugoslavia during World War II, even though the references to Draza Mihailovich and the Chetniks were deleted. Undercover was part of the series of movies Ealing Studios produced during the war that featured wartime themes, such as Ships with Wings (1941), The Next of Kin (1942), and Went the Day Well? (1943).

The betrayal and abandonment of Draza Mihailovich by the British government was one of the most controversial and debated issues of World War II. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill later admitted that he made a major mistake in abandoning Draza Mihailovich in order to support a Communist and Stalinist movement bent on establishing a totalitarian dictatorship in Yugoslavia. Churchill admitted: “I thought I could trust Tito . . . but now I am well aware that I committed one of the biggest mistakes in the war.” British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden also later conceded that abandoning Draza Mihailovich was a grave mistake: “My biggest regret of the war was abandoning Mihailovic.”

Although the names and references have been changed, the movie remains essentially a film account of the guerrilla resistance movement headed by Draza Mihailovich. The film captures the drama and chronicles the exploits of one of the first and one of the most effective guerrilla movements in the world.

The film suffers from an attempt to be all-inclusive and too generic. Characters are referred to as “Slavs” or “Yugoslavs”. This was based on the British policy not to favor any single national, ethnic, or religious group in Yugoslavia. The sentimental, emotional, even patronizing tone takes away from the storytelling, the narrative flow. The central plot revolves around the theme of self-sacrifice and determination. Emotional appeal rather than critical judgment is emphasized. Like all American and British war movies of World War II, a knee-jerk, emotional reaction is encouraged, while a simplistic, archaic, and melodramatic view of nationalism and patriotism reflecting British mores of that time is presented. There are universal themes of uncompromising resistance to occupation and the brutality of military force. Take away the details and it is a story that could take place in any country and in any time, the human resistance to force.

The movie also shows how we manufacture the heroic figures in movies. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. One man’s hero or guerrilla is another man’s war criminal. The struggle goes on as we try to find some transcendent or enduring understanding or meaning for war and conflict. But we never do. In a sense, it is always a case where final judgment and meaning is deferred and displaced. What do we learn? Ultimately, nothing. Like in Plato’s allegory of the cave, we observe shadows, representations or reflections of reality. We are never allowed to comprehend or understand anything. We are offered a simple and superficial morality play of Good (always Us) versus Evil (always Them). No learning or comprehension is allowed to occur. We do not understand the real or underlying nature of conflict and war. As a result, new wars and conflicts can be manufactured at will and without end.

Transfer Quality

The transfer quality is excellent. The picture quality of the digital transfer to DVD is flawless. The sound is very good. The presentation is in Full Frame.

Extras

There are no extras.

Summary

This is a worthwhile movie. Its value lies in the opportunity it offers in showing us how we reconstruct and remold the past to suit our current needs. Meaning is constantly deferred and evolving. We see the past through a glass darkly. As in Plato’s allegory of the cave, we see shadows from which we construct meaning. But do we ever learn anything? Like in all things, it depends on the individual. A movie is a record, an artifact of the past, a part of the historical record. It is something that we can always use as a window to the past. A film freezes and preserves a moment in time that we can analyze and examine and dissect.