Hollywood vs. History: Fact or Fiction? Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas (1943)
by Carl Savich
Hollywood has always tackled the historical film, from biographies of Abraham Lincoln to Sergeant Alvin C. York to John F. Kennedy. Hollywood has featured historical war movies on World War II such as Guadalcanal Diary (1943), The Longest Day (1962), The Battle of the Bulge (1965), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Pearl Harbor (2001), and Flags of Our Fathers (2006).
Films on the Balkans, and on Yugoslavia, in particular, however, were rare. This was because Eastern Europe was regarded as peripheral and secondary. An exception was Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas released in 1943 by 20th Century Fox. This movie sought to portray the guerrilla resistance movement led by Draza Mihailovich in German-occupied Yugoslavia.
Did Hollywood get it right? Was the movie historically and factually accurate? Was it fact or fiction? How valuable is the movie as history as opposed to entertainment?
The movie gets the main facts right. The film starts off with the German bombing of Belgrade on April 6, 1941 and the subsequent Axis occupation and dismemberment of Yugoslavia. Draza Mihailovich is depicted as a former Yugoslav Army officer, a Colonel, who takes command of a guerrilla army that launches a resistance against the German military occupation.
In the film, Draza is married to Ljubitca and has a daughter and a son, Mirko and Nada. Their assumed names are George and Anna Radek. In real life, his wife was named Jelica Lazarevic whom he married in 1920. They had four children, Branko, born in 1921, Ljubivoje, who died as an infant, Vojislav, born in 1924, and Gordana, born in 1927. Vojislav was a member of the Chetnik guerrillas who was killed in action in 1945. Gordana was a pediatric radiologist. Both Gordana and Branko lived in Belgrade, Branko until 1995. His children were older during the war than depicted in the film. Mihailovich’s wife, son Branko, and daughter Gordana were imprisoned by the Germans during the war. Both Branko and Gordana were part of the Chetnik guerrillas until September 18, 1944 when they were captured by the Communists and forcefully mobilized into the Partisan ranks. Communist propaganda portrayed them as abandoning their father. In fact, they had no choice as prisoners of the Communists. In 2005, Gordana accepted the Legion of Merit Award that U.S. President Harry S. Truman had awarded to Mihailovich in 1948 on the recommendation of Supreme Allied Commander in Europe Dwight D. Eisenhower. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell had given permission for the presentation of the award. The award was personally presented by U.S. airmen Clare Musgrove, Robert Wilson, George Vujnovich, Charles Davis, and Arthur “Jibby” Jibilian.
Lt. Aleksa Petrovic, Maj. Danilov, and Capt. Sava as Mihailovich’s officers are an accurate reflection of his staff. The Chetnik guerrillas were made up of officers and troops from Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia.
The movie does not touch on the conflict between the Chetniks and the Partisans. The Partisans had been defeated in Serbia by the end of 1941 and had retreated to Bosnia where they regrouped. Nevertheless, they remained rivals and competitors to the Chetnik guerrilla movement and would, in fact, wage a civil war against them. Also not covered is the genocide committed against the Serbian populations in Croatia and Bosnia. The mass murders and ethnic cleansing committed against the Serbs by Croats and Bosnian Muslims were known in the American and Allied press but were not salient. The movie purposely sought to focus on only Draza Mihailovich and the Chetnik guerrilla movement he led.
Serge Krizman was a technical adviser on the film. Krizman was born in what would become Yugoslavia. Paul Le Pere was the dialogue director. Yugoslav Major Milivoj Mishovic was a military adviser on the film. Both Krizman and Mishovic were members of the embassy of the Yugoslav government-in-exile based in London. Mishovic was the Assistant Military Attaché of the embassy. Krizman was an art director. The dialogue and the military uniforms and costumes worn were accurate. The movie also featured “Das Horst Wessel-Lied”, the “Horst Wessel Song”, and actual Chetnik songs.
The dialogue from the screenplay by Jack Andrews and Edward E. Paramore, Jr., which was not used in the actual movie, shows that they had knowledge of the history of Serbia and Montenegro:
“Draja: And they can’t destroy us, either. Others have tried. We lived under a foreign yoke for five hundred years, but we fought, and in the end we won.”
The historical background for the conflict was known by the screenwriters. The 500 years of Ottoman Turkish occupation were noted. The tradition and history of resistance and defiance were incorporated in the script.
The opening combat scene where they capture an Italian supply column is based on fact. This scene is based on news accounts published in 1942 in U.S. magazines and newspapers. These news accounts created a sensation in the United States. For instance, the scene where Italian officers are traded for tins of gasoline is based on a news story. This account appeared in the Reader’s Digest. The account was in Erwin Christian Lessner’s “The Fight of the Chetniks”. Reader’s Digest, June, 1942, Vol. 40, No. 242, pp. 37-40, which had originally appeared in the Free World publication. He described Chetnik guerrilla attacks in Kotor in Dalmatia in 1941. The action in the film was, thus, based on the available news accounts in 1941 and 1942 which appeared in the American and Western press.
The screenplay was written by Jack Andrews and Edward E. Paramore, Jr., based on the original story by Andrews. The movie was well-written, in the style of an adventure film, such as a Western. The facts were derived from events in Draza Mihailovich’s military career based on newspaper accounts. The setting was the Adriatic coastal town of Kotor in Montenegro. Mihailovich was based in the mountainous region of Ravna Gora in central Serbia. The movie was shot in southern California. Montenegro is a much better match for the terrain and landscape of California than central Serbia. The producers sought to simulate and replicate the Balkan terrain as realistically as possible. The setting and terrain were convincing in the film.
Gestapo Colonel Wilhelm Brockner, played by Martin Kosleck, 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. This is based on historical fact. This was the order in 1941 against insurgents in Serbia issued by the German command. For every German soldier wounded, 50 Serbs would be killed. For every German soldier killed, one hundred Serbs would be killed.
The film is inaccurate in depicting this reprisal order as emanating from the Gestapo. In fact, the order was a military one, carried out by the Wehrmacht, the German Army. The executions at Kraljevo and Kragujevac were carried out by German Army troops, not by the Gestapo, the SS, or German police units. The Chetnik and Partisan guerrillas were killing and wounding German occupation troops. The German army responded by executing civilian hostages in retaliation and to terrorize the population. Former Austrian General Franz Boehme was sent to Serbia as an emergency or crisis manager to quell the insurgency by whatever means necessary.
Draza Mihailovich was 49 in 1942. Philip Dorn was 41 that year. In physical appearance, his resemblance to Draza Mihailovich was good. Mihailovich was photographed as clean-shaven in 1941 and only had a full beard later in the war. The physical match was thus good. Mihailovich did, however, wear glasses. He captures Mihailovich’s personality and temperament very effectively. Mihailovich was by temperament mild and stoic, compassionate and with forbearance. Dorn reflects these traits well and accurately in the film. Mihailovich had a sense of humor which is also reflected in the film and also a military man’s sense of honor and decorum. These qualities were presented accurately in the movie. Moreover, Mihailovich was religious and a traditionalist with moderate views. Josip Broz Tito, on the other hand, was a Communist, Stalinist, an atheist, and a nihilist. He was brutal and uncompromising, a dedicated Communist and Stalinist ideologue. He was married in the Soviet Union. He had a series of mistresses. His temperament was domineering and dictatorial.
The confusion over the rival resistance movements was illustrated in an ad for the movie which appeared in the Kingsport Times, October 24, 1943, in Kingsport, Tennessee. This is a glaring example of cognitive dissonance. In an ad for the film on Draza Mihailovich and the Chetnik guerrillas, the Communist Partisan guerrillas are erroneously described. Erwin Rommel was assigned to German-occupied Yugoslavia during World War II. Rommel was well-known in the U.S. and the West because of the spectacular military victories of the Afrika Korps. Factually, Rommel was put in command of Army Group B in 1943. After the surrender of Italy on September 8, 1943, Rommel launched an offensive against the Yugoslav Partisan forces and was able to retake Susak and advance 40 miles east to Ogulin. This was a major defeat for the Communist Partisans in Yugoslavia and gave Rommel his first important military victory in that theater. The Partisans were able, however, to turn this disastrous military defeat into a propaganda victory and to inflate their own self-importance and standing.
Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas showed that Nazism and Germany were 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 regarded as a Nazi who espouses the views of National Socialism.
In Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas, conflicts between the different branches of the German occupation administration are exposed. Most viewers of the film are not going to know that the German occupation regime did not speak with the same voice or always act in unanimity. This reflects the actual state of affairs in German-occupied Yugoslavia. Indeed, in all German-occupied countries, Adolf Hitler encouraged a rivalry and a competition of the different branches of the administration, the military, civil, police, intelligence, and economic.
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 opposed many of Turner’s occupation policies in Serbia and sought to have him replaced. The SS was much more ideologically driven and its members were more committed to 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. The movie accurately shows this conflict.
The character of Gestapo officer Wilhelm Brockner in a black military outfit is stereotypical and not accurate historically. This is because American audiences had come to expect the presence of the Gestapo everywhere although in Yugoslavia the police units went under different names, such as the Higher SS and Police Leader. In Serbia, Hermann Behrends was the HSSPF for Serbia and Montenegro, Höhere SS- und Polizeiführer, HSSPF, HSS-PF, HSSuPF from April, 1942 when he replaced August Meyszner. Paul Bader was the Military Commander in Serbia. Harald Turner was the head of the military administration. The Gestapo was the German Secret State Police. But there were other branches of the police, such as Regular uniform police (Orpo), Criminal police (Kripo), State Security police (SiPo), and SS Security Service (SD). In Serbia, there were the Gestapo, Kripo, and the SD, all under the command of Wilhelm Fuchs, who later appointed Meyszner as the HSSPF in 1942.
Serbia was under the control of the head of the military administration, Harald Turner, until November, 1942, the HSSPF August Meyszner, and the economic chief, the plenipotentiary for economic affairs, who was Hans Neuhausen. In addition, the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs had control of Serbian affairs. Four distinct German occupation authorities, overlapping, competing, and exclusive, held sway in Serbia. These branches often came into conflict. Meyszner did come into conflict with the military commander in Serbia and with special envoy Hermann Neubacher. This conflict resulted in his replacement in 1944 by Behrends.
The ultimate question with regard to this movie has to do with events subsequent to the making and release of the film. Draza Mihailovich was accused of “collaboration” with the Axis occupation forces, with the Germans and Italians. He was equated with Ante Pavelic and was branded a “fascist” and “nationalist” and a “war criminal”. Who made these charges and allegations? It was his rivals and enemies, the Communist Partisan guerrilla movement which sought to discredit and destroy the Chetnik guerrilla movement which stood in the way of the Communist seizure of power in Yugoslavia, which was their ultimate objective.
The issue is ultimately one of credibility. Do you believe the negative accounts the Communist dictatorship presented or do you believe the positive evidence? Which account or “narrative” is accurate and true?
On March 29, 1948, U.S. President Harry S. Truman awarded General Dragoljub Draza Mihailovich, commander of the Yugoslav Royal Army, the Legion of Merit award on the recommendation of Allied Supreme Commander in Europe Dwight D. Eisenhower. In the citation, Mihailovich is commended as a key American ally: “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.” The award was kept secret until 1966. In 2005, the U.S. State Department allowed rescued U.S. airmen to present the award to Mihailovich’s daughter Gordana.
The question is a simple one: Do you give more credibility to Give ‘Em Hell Harry Truman and Ike or to self-serving claims and allegations by a Communist and Stalinist dictatorship regime? Moreover, how much credibility do these Stalinist and Communist accusers have when they have themselves cynically admitted that they collaborated with the Nazis in order to destroy the Yugoslav government-in-exile and to seize power?