Production began in early September 2007. After a limited release, e.g. Los Angeles, New York City, in the United States on December 31, 2008, it went into general release worldwide in January and February 2009.
The film is based on a true story, beginning in August 1941. Nazi Einsatz-Gruppen (task forces) are sweeping through Eastern Europe, systematically killing Jews. Among the survivors not killed or restricted to ghettoes are the Belarusian Jewish Bielski brothers: Tuvia, Zus, Asael and Aron. Their parents are dead, killed by local police under orders from the occupying Germans. The brothers flee to the Naliboki Forest, vowing to avenge the deaths of their parents.
They encounter other Jewish escapers hiding in the forest, and the brothers take them under their protection and leadership. Over the next year, they shelter a growing number of refugees, raiding local farms for food and supplies and moving their camp whenever they are discovered by the collaborating police. Tuvia kills the local Auxiliary Police chief responsible for his parents' deaths, and the brothers stage raids on the Germans and their collaborators. However, casualties cause Tuvia to reconsider this approach because of the resulting risk to the hiding Jews. Rivalry between the two eldest brothers, Tuvia and Zus, fuels a disagreement between them about their future; as winter approaches, Zus decides to leave the camp and join a local company of Soviet partisans, while his older brother Tuvia remains with the camp as their leader. An arrangement is made between the two groups in which the Soviet partisans agree to protect the Jewish camp in exchange for supplies.
After a winter of sickness, starvation, attempted betrayal, and constant hiding, the camp learns that the Germans are about to attack them in force. The Soviets refuse to help, and they evacuate the camp as German dive-bombers strike. A delaying force stays behind, led by Asael, to slow down the German ground troops. The defense does not last long; only Asael and a camp member named Sofiya survive to rejoin the rest of the group, who, at the edge of the forest, are confronted with a seemingly impassable marsh. They cross the marsh with only one casualty, but are immediately attacked by a German platoon supported by a Panzer III infantry tank. Just as all seems lost, the Germans are assaulted from the rear by a partisan force led by Zus, who has deserted the Soviets to rejoin the group.
As the survivors escape into the forest, the film ends as on-screen text states that they lived in the forest for another two years, building a hospital, a nursery and a school, and ultimately growing to a total of 1,200 Jews. Original photographs of the real-life characters are shown, including Tuvia in his uniform, and their ultimate fates are shared: Asael joined the Soviet Army and was soon killed in action, never getting to see the child he fathered; and Tuvia, Zus and Aron survived the war and emigrated to America to form a successful trucking firm in New York City. The epilogue also states that the Bielski brothers never sought recognition for what they did, and that the descendants of the people they saved now number in the tens of thousands.Daniel Craig as Tuvia Bielski
Liev Schreiber as Zus Bielski
Jamie Bell as Asael Bielski
George MacKay as Aron Bielski
Alexa Davalos as Lilka Ticktin, a Polish refugee and Tuvia's love interest.
Allan Corduner as Shimon Haretz, the brothers' old schoolteacher
Mark Feuerstein as Isaac Malbin, an intellectual
Tomas Arana as Ben Zion Gulkowitz, a resistance leader.
Jacek Koman as Konstanty "Kościk" Kozłowski
Mia Wasikowska as Chaya Dziencielsky, Asael's love interest
Iben Hjejle as Bella, Zus's love interest
Jodhi May as Tamara Skidelski, a cousin of the Bielskis who had been raped by a Nazi soldier
Kate Fahy as Riva Reich
Iddo Goldberg as Yitzhak Shulman
Sam Spruell as Arkady Lubczanski
Ravil Isyanov as Viktor Panchenko, Russian partisan commander, roughly based on the real life partisan figure, Nikolai Mayakov
Rolandas Boravskis as Gramov, the second-in-command of the Russian partisans
Zwick began writing a script for Defiance in 1999 after he acquired film rights to Tec's book. Zwick developed the project under his production company, the Bedford Falls Company, and the project was financed by the London-based company Grosvenor Park Productions with a budget of $32 million.
In May 2007 actor Daniel Craig was cast in the lead role. Paramount Vantage acquired the rights to distribute Defiance in the United States and Canada. The following August, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos, and Tomas Arana were cast. Production began in early September 2007 so Craig could complete filming Defiance before moving on to reprising his role as James Bond in Quantum of Solace.
Defiance was filmed in three months in Lithuania, just across the border from Belarus. Co-producer Pieter Jan Brugge felt the shooting locations, between 150 and 200 kilometres from the actual sites, lent authenticity; some local extras were descended from families the group had rescued.
Defiance received mixed reviews from film critics. Rotten Tomatoes reported that 57% of critics gave the film a positive review based upon a sample of 132, with an average score of 5.8/10. At Metacritic the film has received an average score of 58/100 based on 34 reviews.
New York Times critic A. O. Scott called the film "stiff, musclebound". He said Zwick "wields his camera with a heavy hand, punctuating nearly every scene with emphatic nods, smiles or grimaces as the occasion requires. His pen is, if anything, blunter still, with dialogue that crashes down on the big themes like a blacksmith's hammer". Scott also said the film unfairly implied that "if only more of the Jews living in Nazi-occupied Europe had been as tough as the Bielskis, more would have survived". The review adds that "in setting out to overturn historical stereotypes of Jewish passivity ...(the film) ends up affirming them." Zwick responded: "it is a tribute to honor and luck, and to help other people escape it is an honor. But the fact that you don't escape it is not a negative verdict on your honor."
The New Yorker critic David Denby praised the film, saying: "it makes instant emotional demands, and those who respond to it, as I did, are likely to go all the way and even come out of it feeling slightly stunned." Denby praised its performances, which he described as "a kind of realistic fairy tale set in a forest newly enchanted by the sanctified work of staying alive."
The Times and The Guardian reported that Poles fear "Hollywood has airbrushed out some unpleasant episodes from the story", such as the Bielski partisans' alleged affiliation with those Soviet partisans directed by the NKVD, who committed atrocities against Poles in eastern Poland, including the region where Bielski's unit operated. Gazeta Wyborcza reported six months before the film's release that "News about a movie glorifying [the Bielskis] have caused an uproar among Polish historians", who referred to the Bielskis as "Jewish-Communist bandits". The newspaper commented that it "departed from the truth on several occasions", including depicting pre-war Nowogrodek as a Belarusian town where "no one speaks Polish", "there are only good Soviet partisans and bad Germans", and "Polish partisans are missing from the film altogether".
Professor Krzysztof Jasiewicz, in an article published in the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita, criticized the film for vastly simplifying the historical reality and failing to adequately place the events it describes within the complex historical situation of World War II in Eastern Poland. A review by Armchair General magazine cited the book Women in the Holocaust by Dalia Ofer and Lenore Weitzman, to argue that in reality the Bielskis were less egalitarian than the film suggests, and that "the fighters had the first pick among women for sexual partners."
Zwick responded to the criticism by saying that Defiance is not a simple fight between good and evil. He told The Times: "The Bielskis weren't saints. They were flawed heroes, which is what makes them so real and so fascinating. They faced any number of difficult moral dilemmas that the movie seeks to dramatise: Does one have to become a monster to fight monsters? Does one have to sacrifice his humanity to save humanity?"
Nechama Tec, on whose book the film is based, stated in an interview with Rzeczpospolita that she was initially shocked by the film, especially by the intense battle scenes including combat with a German tank. These never occurred in reality; the partisans tried to avoid combat and were focused on survival. She explained this as a concession by the producer in order to make the film more thrilling and obtain the necessary funding from Hollywood. Nevertheless, after seeing the film a number of times, Tec said that she is liking it "more and more". Zwick said Adolf Hitler sent two German divisions into the forest to search for the partisans, but these were unable to locate them.
On March 5, 2009, The Guardian reported: "A film starring Daniel Craig about a Jewish underground resistance movement that took on the Nazis has prompted a storm of protest in Poland. [...] Defiance has been booed at cinemas across the country and banned from others because of a local perception that it is a rewriting of history and anti-Polish." On March 11, 2009, the Polish Embassy in London disputed the report, stating: "This embassy has been in touch with Defiance's only distributor in Poland, Monolith Plus, and we have been told that this film has not experienced any form of booing, let alone been banned by any cinemas."
Most reviewers from Belarus criticised the film for a complete absence of the Belarusian language and for the Soviet partisans singing a Belarusian folk song while they would more likely be singing Russian songs. "The word Belarusian is spoken out only three times in the movie", the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belorussii wrote. Veterans of the Soviet partisan resistance in Belarus criticised the film for inaccuracies. Some reviews, as in Poland, criticised the film for ignoring the Bielski partisans' crimes against the local population. The mention of ampicillin is an anachronism. In one scene it is stated that there may be an epidemic of typhus, and that ampicillin (which was not discovered until 1958) is needed.
Defiance made $128,000 during its two weeks of limited release in New York City and Los Angeles. It made $10 million during its first weekend of wide release in the United States, and by the end of its box office run, the film made approximately $52 million worldwide.
On January 22, 2009, the film received a nomination for an Academy Award in the category of Best Original Score for its soundtrack by James Newton Howard. It was also nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score for 2008.
Defiance was released on DVD and Blu-ray on June 2, 2009. The bonus features included a commentary by director Edward Zwick and four features about the making of the film.