Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas (1943): Movie Review

A 1943 Twentieth Century Fox 27″ x 41″ one sheet poster featuring Philip Dorn as Draza Mihailovich and 11″ x 14″ lobby card for Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrilas starring Philip Dorn and Anna Sten.

On January 11, 1943, 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.

“Mihailovich: Yugoslavia’s Unconquered”: Draza Mihailovich on the cover of Time Magazine, 1942.

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.

As a result, in 1942, a Hollywood movie was made by a major studio, Twentieth-Century Fox, called Chetniks!—The Fighting Guerrillas which portrayed Draza Mihailovich and his forces as allies of the US. The studio reportedly obtained permission to make the biopic from Draza Mihailovich himself who was contacted by his half-sister who lived in the U.S. The film starred Dutch-born Philip Dorn as Draza Mihailovich. Dorn would play Papa Lars Hanson in the 1948 classic I Remember Mama, which was nominated for 5 Academy Awards. Russian-born actress Anna Sten, described as Samuel Goldwyn’s answer to Greta Garbo, played his wife, Lubitca Mihailovitch. The movie was produced by Bryan Foy, who also produced the classic Guadalcanal Diary (1943) and PT 109 (1963), and Sol M. Wurtzel, who had been one of the top executives at William Fox’s studio. Technical advisers on the movie were Serge Krizman (1914-2008), who later was the art director on the Batman television series in 1966-1967, and Major Milivoj Mishovich. The working titles of the movie were The Seventh Column and Chetnik!. In the November 28, 1942 issue, Boxoffice reported that Twentieth Century Fox had changed the title from Chetnik to Fighting Chetniks!.

The movie also featured character actor Gino Corrado as the Italian Lieutenant and John Banner as a Gestapo Agent in uncredited appearances. Banner would later play Sergeant Hans Schultz in the television comedy series Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971) whose memorable line as a guard at Stalag 13 was: “I know nothing! I see nothing! Nothing!”

There was also a British movie made in 1943 on the Chetnik guerrilla movement by Ealing entitled “Undercover” or “Underground Guerrillas” in the U.S., which was originally titled “Chetnik”, but whose title was changed to avoid confusion with the U.S. movie “Chetniks” and because the UK was planning to abandon Mihailovich and wanted a more generic title. The movie, filmed in Wales, was directed by Sergei Nolbandov and starred John Clements, Stanley Baker, and Michael Wilding and released by Columbia as “Underground Guerrillas” in the U.S.

A scene from the 1943 British movie “Chetnik”, known also as “Undercover” and “Underground Guerrillas” made by Ealing Studios, showing a Serbian Chetnik guerrilla with a bandolier and shubara with skull and crossbones.

In the May, 1942 issue, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that Francis Lederer had taken a screen test for the role of Draza Mihailovich. In the August, 1942 issue, The Hollywood Reporter noted that Jean Gabin was “the top prospect” for the Mihailovich role. In September, 1942, Philip Dorn was taken on loan from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to star in the leading role. It was also reported in August, 1942, that Lenore Aubert and Luise Rainer were being considered for the role of “Lubitca”, Draza Mihailovich’s wife in the movie. In the November 6, 1942 issue, The Hollywood Reporter noted that Twentieth Century Fox was “confident it has an important property” in the movie and was  “building up some of the sequences”. Additional scenes were filmed at the Iverson Ranch in Chatsworth, California.

The American movie Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas was directed by Louis King, a movie director best known for directing the My Friend Flicka sequels 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.

Philip Dorn, on right, as Draza Mihailovich. John Shepperd as Lt. Petrovic.

Philip Dorn, on right, as Draza Mihailovich. John Shepperd as Lt. Petrovic.

The screenplay was written by Jack Andrews and Edward E. Paramore, Jr., based on the original story by Andrews. The movie was well-written, based on the facts of Draza Mihailovich’s life. The movie is factual although some facts were changed or altered. 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.

A 1943 press photo for the movie by Twentieth Century Fox featuring Philip Dorn.

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

Lubitca Mihailovitch: Are you tired?

Draja Mihailovitch: A little, but I’m happy. Whenever things aren’t going so well in the mountains, I think of moments like this. It makes everything all right.

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 statement that the film is dedicated to Draza Mihailovich and the Serbian Chetnik guerrillas. 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. He announces: “Gentlemen, Yugoslavia is ours!”

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The movie takes place in the mountainous coastal city of Kotor in Montenegro. Draza Mihailovich and his Chetnik guerrillas are able to ambush and capture Italian occupation troops and officers. Mihailovich is portrayed as a real-life Zorro, who is able to outwit the Nazi war machine. A Gestapo officer, Col. Wilhelm Brockner, played by Martin Kosleck, advocates a brutal policy against the Chetnik guerrillas: “For every German murdered, I will hang 50 civilians, a 100.” Brockner is able to discover 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. Mihailovich is able to draw the German forces, led by Gen. von Bauer, played by 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.

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 and had composed the scores for The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938) and The Mark of Zorro (1940). The cinematography was by Glen MacWilliams. The film editing was by Alfred Day.

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”.  Pryor wrote about Draza Mihailovich: “The legends that have sprung up about the Yugoslav guerrilla leader, General Draja Mikhailovitch, have been so numerous and diverse that it would be sheer impertinence on the part of a motion-picture reviewer to question the authenticity of detail in a drama such as Twentieth Century-Fox’s “Chetniks!,” which is respectfully dedicated to the admirable fighting spirit of General Mikhailovitch in particular and the Yugoslav people in general. Fox claims it has an authentic document in “Chetniks!”…”

The movie was shown across the U.S. in 1943, doing well at the box office and garnering positive critical reviews. The movie was shown at the Williamsburg Theatre in Virginia on Sunday, February 21, 1943 as The Fighting Guerrillas ‘Chetniks’, at the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto California, and the Quilna Theatre in Lima, Ohio. 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”:

“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 theatrical projection slide for the movie.

A theatrical projection slide for the movie.

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.

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.

A series of 8 lobby cards for the movie by 20th Century-Fox.

A series of 8 11" x 14" lobby cards for the movie by 20th Century-Fox.

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 “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 fake resistance leader Laszlo wants to obtain tickets or “letters of transit” so that he can flee to America. 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.

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. There was conflict between different or parallel branches of the German occupation force and between civilian and military branches. Chetniks! is able to effectively show this conflict.

Martin Kosleck in a 20th Century-Fox publicity photograph for the movie.

Martin Kosleck in a 20th Century-Fox publicity photograph for the movie.

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 simplicty of the standard war movie.

The movie was reviewed favorably in the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) magazine National Parent-Teacher, page 39, Vol. 37, 1942, published by the National Congress of Parents and Teachers: “Chetniks — 20th Century-Fox. Direction, Louis King. A patriotic melodrama depicting the one-sided struggle between the mountaineer guerillas of Jugoslavia and the Germans. The story, based on factual experiences, centers about General Draja Mihailovitch, chieftain and hero of World War II, and his endangered family. The picture is well cast and acted, the dialogue is excellent, and the content is exciting and interesting. Cast: Philip Dorn, Anna Sten, John Shepperd. Adults: Interesting. 14-18: Exciting. 8-14: Too tense.”

The film was reviewed favorably in the Los Angeles entertainment industry trade paper The Hollywood Reporter when released in 1943: “Seldom has Hollywood given attention to a motion picture that offered more stirring material than this first feature about a living military hero of World War II.”

The movie, termed a “melodrama’, was reviewed positively in the January 16, 1943 issue of Boxoffice, in the “Feature Reviews” section: “‘Chetniks’ is a first-class action film—meaning that it has rocks, mountains, riding, hold-ups and explosions in a canyon, all that the younger generation craves for weekend bookings. This is the old David and Goliath idea dressed up in a Jugoslavian background with General Draja Mihailovich (Philip Dorn), the almost legendary hero of the present war, battling the Nazi army and the Gestapo. Anna Sten is the general’s wife. She is frequently in danger of arrest and her son is held as a hostage. Sol Wurtzel, who produced, and Louis King, who directed, have contrived some tense scenes in addition to those where the shooting and bombing takes place. It’s a smart picture of its type, with Martin Kosleck giving a good impersonation of a Nazi colonel and Felix Basch impressive as a general.” The release date for the movie was given as February 5, 1943.

The March 13, 1943 issue of Boxoffice showed that the movie did well at the box office in the story “‘Chetniks’ and ‘Harvest’ Take Biggest Money at Buffalo”: “‘Chetniks,’ combined with a stage show featuring The Ink Spots and ‘Lucky’ Millinder and his orchestra, was top grosser at Shea’s Buffalo with $24,500 for a comfortable 165 per cent of the house’s average.” In the March 20, 1943 issue of Boxoffice, it was reported that a special advertising and publicity campaign was launched for the movie in the story “Special Campaigns for Three 20th-Fox Films”: “‘Chetniks’ opened at the Globe, March 18, with a delegation present from the Yugoslav legation in Washington and from Yugoslav groups in New York.” Boxoffice noted that the movie received seven favorable reviews and only one review that was not-favorable in the film and entertainment magazines.

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: “Of the new pictures, ‘Chetniks’ took top honors both in gross and critical opinion. The picture created a lot talk, and as a result, moved to another downtown house for a second week.” Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas at the Allen even beat out Casablanca which was showing at the same time. In Pittsburgh, the movie was shown as a double-bill with We Are the Marines (1942), a documentary on the U.S. Marine Corps directed by Louis De Rochemont and distributed by 20th Century Fox, as reported in Boxoffice: “‘Chetniks’ and ‘We are the Maries’ made a showing at the J.P. Harris and the double-bill was moved over to the Senator.”

 Twentieth Century-Fox ran a two-page promotional ad for the movie on pages 16-17 in the March 6, 1943 issue of Boxoffice, “The Pulse of the Motion Picture Industry”, emphasizing the box office success of the film across the U.S. The ad was in blue and featured Philip Dorn as Draza Mihailovich raising a rifle. The ad read as follows: “Chetniks! The Fighting Guerillas. Hit hard with this 20th Century-Fox hit! Dynamiting them in Washington! Blasting them in Pittsburgh! Smashing them in Denver! Mowing ‘em down in Elmira!”

The April 3, 1943 Boxoffice, in the story “Chicago Mayor in PA For ‘Chetniks’ Debut”, revealed that Chicago Mayor Edward J. Kelly had gone to the debut showing of the movie at the B & K Apollo theater in Chicago: “Chicago—Mayor Kelly was to make a personal appearance at the B & K Apollo Thursday night in connection with the local opening of “Chetniks.” The mayor proclaimed April 1 as ‘Chetniks’ Day.’” Reporters, Yugoslav diplomats, and folk ensembles were present at the premiere: “The combined Jugo-Slavian choirs of Chicago and nearby Indiana, totaling 150 voices and dressed in native costume, was another highlight at the premiere. The colorful ceremonies were also slated to be broadcast over WAIT.” The movie was also screened for newspaper reporters: “A special screening of ‘Chetniks’ was held at the 20th-Fox screening room here Tuseday, followed by a buffet luncheon. Guests of honor included Col. D. P. Sovitch, chief of staff of the Chetnik air force stationed in Ottawa; V. Vucmirich, consul-general of Chicago, and Consul V. Mirkovich. Newspaper people and radio commentators headed by Paul Deac, foreign editor of the Detroit Free Press, also attended the Tuesday morning screening.”

The movie was also shown internationally. In Melbourne, Australia, The Argus newspaper of Tuesday, December 7, 1943  advertised a showing of the movie at the Lyeceum:  “NOW! SECOND OF LYCEUM’S EXTENDED SEASON HIT SHOWS! NOW! LYCEUM — “Chetniks — The Fighting Guerrillas” Guns Can’t Kill Them! … Invaders Cannot Conquer Them!  … Living Drama … Flaming Out of Today’s Thrilling Headlines! … Starring PHILIP DORN, ANNA STEN, JOHN SHEPPERD, VIRGINIA GILMORE. Plus Laughs! Romance! Fun!”

The film remains unavailable or unissued 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. This was one of the largest rescue operations in US military history. After the war, Mihailovich received a posthumous Legion of Merit award given to him by US President Harry S. Truman in 1948 upon the recommendation of Allied Supreme Commander in Europe General Dwight D. Eisenhower. The award was kept secret by the US government since 1948. On May 9, 2005, the award was officially presented to Mihailovich’s daughter Gordana in Belgrade by US veterans of World War II. Vuk Draskovic had made the request to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. The U.S. government finally allowed the award to be made public. President Bill Clinton had earlier denied the request made in 1992 by Draskovic. The U.S. Ambassador to Serbia, Michael C. Polt, officially acknowledged and confirmed on behlaf of the U.S. Government that the award was made. Polt explained the reason for the award presentation: “The Legion of Merit is a sign of gratitude. All those American lives were saved.”

U.S. Ambassador to Serbia and Montenegro Michael Christian Polt acknowledged that the U.S. Government had allowed rescued U.S. airmen to present the Legion of Merit award, issued by U.S. President Harry S. Truman on behalf of the United States in 1948, to Gordana Mihailovich, the daughter of Draza Mihailovich.

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.

Draza Mihailovich, in 1937, on left. Philip Dorn portrayed him in Chetniks!

 

Top: 1943 20th Century Fox 14″ x 18″ window card. Bottom: The Legion of Merit award given to Draza Mihailovich posthumously by U.S. President Harry S. Truman on March 29, 1948.

Draza Mihailovich’s daughter, Gordana Mihailovich, is presented the Legion of Merit Medal by rescued U.S. airmen and OSS veterans, members of “The Fogotten 500″, on May 9, 2005 in Belgrade. U.S. President Harry S. Truman awarded the medal to Mihailovich in 1948 on the recommendation of Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower for Draza Mihailovich’s contributions in achieving an Allied victory in World War II. Left to right, Clare Musgrove, Robert Wilson, George Vujnovich, Charles Davis, and Arthur Jibilian.

The Legion of Merit awarded to General Draza Mihailovich by U.S. President Harry S. Truman contained the following dedication:

Chief Commander

General Dragoljub Mihailovich distinguished himself in an outstanding manner as Commander-in-Chief of the Yugoslavian Army Forces and later as Minister of War by organizing and leading important resistance forces against the enemy which occupied Yugoslavia, from December 1941 to December 1944. Through the undaunted efforts of his troops, many United States airmen were rescued and returned safely to friendly control. General Mihailovich and his forces, although lacking adequate supplies, and fighting under extreme hardships, contributed materially to the allied cause, and were instrumental in obtaining a final Allied Victory.

March 29, 1948 klklklkllklkllkllllllllllkllllkll

HARRY S. TRUMAN

The award was kept a secret for several decades and was not officially presented for over 50 years. Draza Mihailovich and the Chetnik guerrillas would, however, be finally vindicated.