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.
Prelude to War: Pacifism
When World War II started on September 1, 1939 with the German invasion of Poland, the American public opposed U.S. involvement. Americans were disillusioned with war. World War I had been the war to make the world safe for democracy and the war to end all wars. Instead, the war had created anger and disillusionment. Instead of a negotiated peace settlement, victor’s justice was imposed. The Versailles Treaty was a punitive settlement that rewarded the victors and despoiled the losing countries. Reparations were imposed on Germany that destroyed its economy. One immediate consequence was the financial and economic malaise and collapse in Germany that was the seedbed for extremists like Adolf Hitler. Hitler’s popularity rose and fell in inverse proportion as the economy did.
Woodrow Wilson had created the conditions that allowed for the emergence of Adolf Hitler and World War II. By entering World War I on the side of Britain and France in 1917 to save American bankers such as J.P. Morgan, who were financing the war, he tilted the balance of the war. The American public was against the war and had vehemently opposed U.S. entry. Wilson was re-elected because he had pledged to voters that he would keep the U.S. out of the war. If the U.S. stayed neutral, there would have been a negotiated settlement to end the war because by 1917 the conflict had reached a stalemate. In a controversial punitive settlement, Germany would lose huge chunks of territory and be made guilty of starting the war. By stripping Germany of territory and making Germany pay war reparations, Wilson destroyed the German economy and impoverished the German people. Adolf Hitler exploited this injustice and the road to World War II was thus paved. Wilson did not make the world safe for democracy. He made the world very unsafe. And the American people knew it. This was why Americas did not want to enter World War II..
In the 1920s and 1930s, American movies reflected the pacifist, anti-war sentiments of a public disillusioned and soured with war. King Vidor had reflected this pacifist theme in The Big Parade (1925). The antiwar milestone in American film was Lewis Milestone and Maxwell Anderson’s adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front in 1930. That film epitomized the public perception of war in America. Other anti-war movies followed such as director Edmund Goulding’s The Dawn Patrol (1938), starring David Niven, Errol Flynn, and Donald Crisp, Frank Borzage’s 1934 No Greater Glory, Jean Renoir’s 1937 Grand Illusion, and Ernst Lubitsch’s Paramount release Broken Lullaby (1932), released in the UK as The Man I Killed, starring Lionel Barrymore, Nancy Carroll, and Phillips Holmes, about the guilt and remorse a French soldier experiences in killing a German soldier in World War I. What emerged was a pacifist or isolationist trend in America. This was reflected in the America First Movement, a commitment to focus on domestic affairs and to avoid foreign entanglement overseas.
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration were aware of this anti-war sentiment. The U.S. thus maintained a policy of neutrality. To be sure, this neutrality was at times strained and the U.S. clearly favored Britain and France, but officially and publicly, the U.S. maintained a non-aggressive and passive posture toward European affairs.
Movies reflected and mirrored the public mood in the United States. The ambiguous and ambivalent stance was evident in the movies released in the run up to the start of World War II. One anti-German film was Warner Brothers’ Confessions of a Nazi Spy released on May 6, 1939 with an overt anti-Nazi theme. This was the first major anti-German film in the United States. The film depicted the menace that Nazi infiltrators and spies posed to the United States. The film starred Edward G. Robinson as an FBI agent who seeks to expose and uncover Nazi spies in America, in particular, members of the German-American Bund. The cast included Francis Lederer, George Sanders, and Martin Kosleck as Joseph Goebbels. The film was based on the articles of former FBI agent Leon G. Turrou. He had been investigating Nazi spy rings in the U.S. but was dismissed after he published the articles without permission. Warner Brothers followed that up with Espionage Agent, released on September 22, 1939, starring Joel McCrea as Barry Corvall, an American diplomat. He suspects his wife, Brenda, played by Brenda Marshall, of being a Nazi agent. He goes undercover to expose an espionage ring planning to sabotage American industry before the outbreak of war. They go to Germany where they try to obtain information on Nazi spy rings that have infiltrated American industry. Martin Kosleck played the Nazi spy Karl “Mueller” Mullen. In a climactic scene, Corvall and his wife Brenda are able to seize evidence of Nazi espionage and infiltration in the U.S. from a train in Europe. The film sought to warn Americans of the dangers of bombings by German agents in the U.S. by invoking the 1916 Black Tom bombing of an ammunition depot in Jersey City during World War I. That bombing was attributed to German agents. Warner Brothers studio consistently maintained an anti-Nazi position in its film releases while the other major Hollywood studios sought to follow the U.S. government policy of neutrality.
These anti-German movies were the exception, however, not the norm. The mainstream trend in the U.S. remained anti-war. This pacifist, non-interventionist trend was reflected in the official U.S. government foreign policy position of neutrality during the 1930s.
Between 1935 and 1939 Congress passed four neutrality acts to limit America’s involvement in foreign conflicts. Tensions and conflicts were emerging in Europe and Asia as Italy, Germany, and Japan were threatening the status quo with expansionist and aggressive foreign policy agendas. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, FDR sought to reassure allies Great Britain and France. FDR sought a more interventionist posture by seeking to repeal the mandatory U.S. arms embargo after the September 1, 1939 invasion of Poland by Germany. The U.S. had been committed to the policy of not selling weapons to nations that were engaged in war, belligerent nations. With Britain and France threatened, however, this policy was no longer as tenable. U.S. Senators William E. Borah, Arthur H. Vandendurg, Gerald P. Nye, and Robert M. La Follette, Jr., opposed this change in the Neutrality Act of 1939. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had lobbied Congress for changes to the earlier Neutrality Acts following the German takeover of Czechoslovakia and the invasion of Poland. The Neutrality Act passed on November 4, 1939 allowed for the sale of arms or weapons to belligerent nations, nations at war, on a cash-and-carry basis. This change, thus, in effect, ended the U.S. arms embargo. Overall, the U.S. signaled its commitment to stay out of World War II and remain officially and nominally neutral. Nevertheless, the 1939 Act marked a change in the U.S. foreign policy outlook leading inexorably and inevitably towards greater involvement in the conflict.
After the German invasion of Poland, the anti-German film Hitler, Beast of Berlin starring Roland Drew and Alan Ladd was released on October 8, 1939 by the Producers Releasing Corporation based on the novel Goose Step by Shepard Traube. The film was about an underground German resistance movement that opposed the Adolf Hitler regime. The promotional slogan of the film was inflammatory: “The mad monsters of war in Europe are loose…and civilization trembles on the brink of disaster!” The New York State Censor Board had banned the film on the ground that the film was “inhuman, sacrilegious and tended to incite crime.” The film was subsequently approved after the title was changed to Beast of Berlin, removing the reference to Adolf Hitler, and an edit was made to the content of the film.
Underground was a 1941 Warner Brothers film about the German Resistance and their opposition to the Nazi regime during World War II. The film starred Jeffrey Lynn as Kurt Franken and Philip Dorn as Eric Franken who play two brothers initially on opposite sides. Martin Kosleck played the German Colonel Heller.
The Hollywood War Movie
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the focus of mainstream movies predictably shifted drastically. After U.S. entry into the war, World War II movies openly focused on an anti-Hitler and anti-Axis themes: The Devil With Hitler (1942), Hitler—Dead or Alive (1942), Hitler’s Women or Women in Bondage (1942), Hitler’s Children (1943), Hitler’s Madman or Hitler’s Hangman (1943), The Strange Death of Adolf Hitler (1943), and The Hitler Gang or Hitler & Co. (1944).
The unprovoked, surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941 shocked, enraged, and polarized the nation. Instantly, the public mood totally shifted. From ambivalence and caution the mood shifted to retribution and retaliation. Public opinion no longer reflected a pacifist and neutral stance. There was a total and complete transformation. Now the emphasis was on total war and all-out mobilization for war.
Concomitantly, the focus of mainstream movies predictably shifted drastically. Anti-Nazi films were now the norm and the mainstream trend. Movies released in 1942 with anti-Nazi themes such as Casablanca, Mrs. Miniver, and Berlin Correspondent reflected the dominant trend of the period. Pacifism and neutrality were out. Demonization and enmity were in. The Germans and the Japanese were portrayed as the enemy, treacherous, brutal, and murderous. The floodgates were opened. There was no more ambiguity and ambivalence. Commitment, determination, and defiance were highlighted now. Dynamism and action were needed now.
Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas was released in this context, in this milieu of activism and stridency. 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. It is this image that was projected on the screen in Chetniks! Was this an accurate depiction?
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.
In Salisbury/Rowan County in North Carolina, for instance, the movie was shown in all the major theaters in 1943-1944, State, Victory, Rockwell, and Spencer: Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas was shown at the State Theatre on April 11-12, 1943, at the Victory Theatre on June 8, 1943, at the Rockwell Theatre on August 31, 1943, and at the Spencer Theatre on January 12-13, 1944. The movie was shown in movie theaters across the United States in 1943 and 1944, in both large and small markets.
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.
“One of the truly compelling pictures of the war—the best since ‘Remember Pearl Harbor!’”
This was the conclusion from a review of the movie which appeared in The Bladen Journal: “Bladen Theatre, Elizabethtown, N.C. Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 23-24—Those fighting guerillas of the Balkans, the Jesse James of today, fight on for their freedom! Philip Dorn and Anna Sten in ‘Chetniks’ (The fighting Guerillas) Also news and comedy. Matinee Monday at 3:30 p.m.” Thursday, August 19, 1943, The Bladen Journal, page 6, Elizabethtown, North Carolina.
“So far, in 1943 this is by far the No. 1 picture of the year and it should be on the ‘must’ list of every American .”
This was the opinion from a review in the St. Petersburg Times, Friday, March 5, 1943, page 15, St. Petersburg, Florida. “One of 1943′s Best Films. Florida’s ‘Chetniks’ Vivid Story of Guerilla Warfare. Review by L.B. “
Draza Mihailovich and the Chetnik guerrillas were presented as the top-of-the-bill as part of a double feature with the U.S. Marine Corps in Pittsburgh, as was reported in the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette, Wednesday, February 3, 1943, page 8, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: “Guerillas and Marines, Too. Virginia Gilmore. Philip Dorn. Martin Kosleck. The story of the fighting guerillas of the Balkans is highlighted in the Twentieth Century-Fox picture, ‘Chetniks!’ With a cast headed by the above trio and also including John Shepperd and Anna Sten, it comes to the Harris today along with ‘The March of Time’s full-length feature, ‘We Are the Marines.’ which was made in collaboration with the U.S. Marine Corps. News of the Stage and Screen.” Anna Sten is mislabeled as Virginia Gilmore in the photograph in the newspaper story.
The 20th Century-Fox documentary We Are the Marines produced by The March of Time was shown as an “Extra Added Attraction” for the premier of Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas at the J.P. Harris theater on Sixth Street in downtown Pittsburgh. Admission was 27 cents until 1 P.M. A World War II newspaper ad for the film We Are the Marines announced: “‘This is it!’ The Marine Picture of all time … Fight with them on Wake, Guam and Guadalcanal! A full-length fighting feature. We Are the Marines. A 20th Century-Fox release. Produced by The March of Time in cooperation with the U.S. Marine Corps. Ask your Theatre Manager when he will play this picture!”
In the St. Petersburg Times, Sunday, February 28, 1943, page 23, St. Petersburg, Florida, the film was advertised as follows: “‘Chetnik!’, Most Dramatic Story of War, Coming to Florida. Europe’s most dramatic war story —the fight of the Cheta’ under General Mihailovitch is told in ‘Chetnik!’ Based on authentic incidents in the famed general’s life, this picture was made with the aid of the Jugoslav government. Phillip Dorn is starred with Virginia Gilmore and Anna Sten in the cast. ‘Chetnik!’ comes to the Florida theater next Thursday for three days’ showing.”
In “’Chetniks’ At Mayfair: Dramatization Of General Mihailovitch‘s Stand Against Nazis Comes To Screen “ by Donald Kirkley, February 11, 1943, The Baltimore Sun, he gives a positive review of the film: “The screen’s winter offensive against the Nazis on many fronts is continued at the Mayfair with the showing of ‘Chetniks.’ This dramatization of Gen. Draja Mihailovitch’s stubborn resistance to the Nazis is further testimony to the fact that Hollywood has at long last mastered the knack… Dorn is handsome and dashing as the general, and Anna Sten is excellent as his wife… All things considered, ‘Chetniks’ is well worth seeing, and quite valuable.”
The film was favorably reviewed in the Chicago Tribune, May 2, 1943: “’Chetniks’ impressed us as being a fiercely satisfying picture.” … “Amazing action.” The film appeared at the Balaban and Katz Apollo Theatre.
In the 1943 Motion Picture magazine, Volumes 65-66, page 22, the acting received positive reviews: “Chetniks. The dramatic and daring exploits of General Mihailovitch, famed rebel leader of Jugoslavia, are the basis…. Philip Dorn is convincing as the Chetnik leader and other interesting portrayals are rendered by Anna Sten, John Shepperd.”
Thomas M. Pryor reviewed the film in the March 19, 1943 New York Times when the movie played at the Globe Theatre. Pryor gave the movie a favorable review, emphasizing the action and the realistic performances:
“Fox claims it has an authentic document in ‘Chetniks!’ and since the studio undoubtedly has access to genuine source material, it may very well be that some incidents in the film, which struck this spectator as more fiction than truth, actually have a basis of fact. But one thing of which we are certain, in ‘Chetniks!’ the Globe has a better than average action picture, one that is, moreover, splendidly acted by Philip Dorn, Anna Sten and Frank Lackteen.”
Pryor noted that the movie presented only a selective picture of events and developments in German-occupied Yugoslavia. The complexities and the ethnic and religious antagonisms and conflicts were not presented because the focus was on Draza Mihailovich and his guerrilla resistance movement. He concluded that a more in-depth film on Draza Mihailovich was possible: ” There still is room for a film drama about the mysterious General Mikhailovitch and his guerrillas, but meanwhile ‘Chetniks’ at least has the right spirit.”
Peggy Simmonds wrote a more critical review of the film in the Miami Daily News, March 29, 1943, The Miami Daily News, Monday, March 29, 1943, page 6B, Miami, Florida. “On the Night Side. ‘Chetniks’ at Lincoln, Miami and Capitol, Hits High Pace, Strains Credulity; A Review by Peggy Simmonds.” She objected to the paradigmatic nature of the film and the predictable plot: “Except for occasional scenes of sincerity and eloquence, I personally thought ‘Chetniks’ a run-of-the-mill production, slightly too ‘Hollywood’ to be convincing. It has all the conventional ingredients of the present free-men propaganda pictures, and I have to confess I invariably respond with my emotions to the call of persecuted, enslaved peoples.”
She objected to the “implausible theatrics” and “implausibility” of the plot. She also found “a certain clumsiness of script and direction.” Nevertheless, she thought that “the message of the picture tips the scales a bit in its favor.” She found, however, that Mihailovich was “played capably” by Philip Dorn and that there were “good supporting performances”.
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.’” Hixson, Walter L. Edited with introductions by. The American Experience in World War II: The United States in the European Theater. Vol. 5. NY: Routledge, 2003. Walter L. Hixson, University of Akron, Ohio. “OWI Goes to the Movies: The Bureau of Intelligence’s Criticism of Hollywood, 1942-43.” Gregory D. Black and Clayton R. Koppes. Source: Office of War Information, Bureau of Intelligence, Media Division, “Weekly Summary and Analysis of Feature Motion Pictures”, no. 11, February 26, 1943, pp. 6-7, Records of the Office of Government Reports.
OSS Radioman Arthur “Jibby” Jibilian reviewed the film on January 4, 2010 on the IMDB website. He had the unique opportunity to compare the movie image of Draza Mihailovich with the real person whom he met in German-occupied Yugoslavia during the war:
“I saw the movie just before going into service, little dreaming that I would see Gen. Draja Mihailovich in person. It is an excellent movie, well acted. I volunteered with the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) and parachuted into Mihailovich territory to rescue airmen shot down bombing the oilfields of Ploesti. The mission was called Operation Halyard and is depicted in the book, The Forgotten 500. The movie is an excellent depiction of the Serbs resistance to the German invasion. It has been a long time since I saw the movie and I have forgotten much of it, but, if you like adventure and romance, it has both. Today, there is much controversy surrounding Mihailo[v]ich, and this is an excellent source to get one viewpoint.”
Jibilian concluded that the movie was an “excellent portrayal of Serbian resistance of Nazis”.
Celebrities performed at showings of the film. The original Ink Spots performed at a showing of Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas in 1943 in Buffalo, New York with Lucky Millinder and His Orchestra featuring Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Trevor Bacon, and Tab Smith with Peg-Leg Bates, and Gordon and Rogers, as reported in the February 26, 1943 Buffalo-Courier Express. The March 13, 1943 issue of Billboard magazine reported that the show grossed $24,600.
The movie was shown not only in American movie theaters during the war, but in Canada as well. The film was shown in theaters in the major markets in Canada, such as Montreal, Winnipeg, Calgary, and Windsor.
The Winnipeg Free Press, Monday, November 29, 1943, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, reported the showing of the film at the Bijou Theatre with Joe E. Brown’s The Daring Young Man.
Chetniks! played in Montreal at the News Reel Theatre: Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas at the News Reel Theatre, Friday, May 7, 1943. The Montreal Gazette, Wednesday, May 5, 1943, page 3, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The review was positive: “Philip Dorn has one of the most grateful roles of his screen career, it is said, in Chetniks, a story of the guerillas of Yugoslavia which comes to the News Reel Theatre on Friday. Dorn is cast as the leader of the Chetniks, the heroic battlers against Hitler’s tyranny.”
In Australia and New Zealand
Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas was shown in movie theaters in both Australia and New Zealand during World War II. Bay of Plenty Beacon, Vol. 7, Issue 74, page 1, Friday, May 19, 1944, Whakatane, New Zealand. “Amusements. Regent. Direction: R. J. Kerridge. To-night only. Philip Dorn, Anna Sten. In the thrilling story of General Mihailovich and his Yugoslav ‘Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas.’ Recommended for adults. An Unforgettable Love Story.”
In the Bay of Plenty Beacon, Volume 7, Issue 73, 16 May 1944, Page 1. Whakatane, New Zealand, a showing of the film was announced: “FRIDAY. A thrilling story of General Mihailovich and his Yugoslav ‘Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas.’ Recommended for Adults. A drama of Daring Courage, Tense with Emotions of an Unforgettable Love Story. Philip Dorn. Anna Sten. Don’t Miss!”
Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas was shown theatrically in Australia during World War II. The Advocate, Friday, January 26, 1945, page 3, Burnie, Tasmania, Australia. The Leven Theatre. Ulverstone. “To-night & To-morrow. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer presents The War Against Mrs. Hadley with Edw. Arnold, Fay Bainter, Jean Rogers, Richard Ney, Sara Allgood. For General Exhibition. Also Philip Dorn, Anna Sten, John Shepperd, and Virginia Gilmore in ‘Chetniks!’ Gaumont and Cinesound News. Monday — Laurel and Hardy in ‘Jitterbugs’, also Alan Jones and Jane Fraze in ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’.”
The movie was shown at the Lyceum Theatre in Melbourne, Australia in 1943. The Argus, Tuesday, December 7, 1943, page 11, Melbourne, Australia. “Now! Second of Lyceum’s Extended Season Hit Shows! Now! Now! Second of Lyceum’s Extended Season Hit Shows! Now. Lyceum— ‘Chetniks — 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! Petticoat Larceny — Ruth Warrick, Walter Reed. (Both Features for General Exhibition.) Secure your Reservations NOW at Theatre (Cent. 3935). Four Big Sessions Daily, at 10:30, 1:10, 4:25, 7:53.”
The movie was shown in Sydney, Australia, on September 28, 1943 at the Palace Theatre, Pitt Street. The Sydney Morning Herald, September 28, 1943, Sydney, Australia. “The Fire-and-Fury-filled story of a great Leader and his great Guerilla Army — ride with them as they fight so a Nation may live! PALACE, Pitt Street — Now Showing — Reserves, MA4855. ‘Chetniks’ — Fighting Guerillas. Starring Philip Dorn — Anna Sten — John Shepperd — Virginia Gilmore. Thrill to the courage of men — fighting for the women and the Freedom they Love!” The second feature was Petticoat Larceny with Ruth Warrick and Walter Reed.
On January 16, 1944, the movie began a run at the Carib Theatre in Kingston, Jamaica. Jamaica was a colony or possession of Great Britain at that time. Jamaica would become a fully independent nation in 1962. The Daily Gleaner, Tuesday, January 18, 1944, page 5, Kingston, Jamaica, UK. “Carib. Today 4:30, 8:00. Until Thursday. Guns cannot kill them! Invaders cannot conquer them! ‘Chetniks’ The Fighting Guerrillas. Philip Dorn, Anna Sten, John Shepperd, Virginia Gilmore, Martin Kosleck.”
The Daily Gleaner, Friday, January 14, 1944, page 5, Kingston, Jamaica. Coming attractions announcement. “Palace Tomorrow. ‘Casablanca’. Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre. Carib Sunday. Guns Cannot Kill Them! Invaders Cannot Conquer Them! ‘Chetniks’. The Fighting Guerrillas with Philip Dorn, Anna Sten, John Sheppard.” John Shepperd’s name was misspelled as “Sheppard”.
Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas was shown in India during World War II. The Indian Express, Wednesday, February 22, 1944, page 3, Madras, India. “From Friday, 25th February. Philip Dorn, Anna Sten in 20th Century Fox’s ‘Chetniks’. The heroic drama…. the blazing adventure, the fight to the finish struggle of a small but brave nation against a merciless but powerful aggressor!” Casino Theatre.
On American and Canadian Television
Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas was syndicated to television after World War II and appeared across the United States and Canada as a late night movie feature. The movie was shown on the following channels in markets across the U.S.:
1) Tucson Daily Citizen, Monday, April 30, 1962, Tucson, Arizona. “TV Previews by Leonard Hoffman. At 10:15. Movie ‘Chetniks’ (1943) with Philip Dorn, Anna Sten and Virginia Gilmore. Story of great Yugoslavian guerrilla leader who fought bravely from the hills so that his nation might not die. Quite good. (Channel 13).”
2) Sandusky Register, Friday, May 3, 1963, page 26, Sandusky, Ohio. “TV Listings. Saturday. CHETNIKS. Philip Dorn, Anna Sten – Ch. 7, 11:30 p.m.” The film was shown on Channel 7.
3) San Antonio Express and News, November 5, 1960, page 49, San Antonio, Texas. “Tonight We Think You’ll Like. 10:00 PM. 20th Century Theater – Ch. 12, 10:30 p.m. – ‘Angels One Five’ with Jack Hawkins and Michael Denison and ‘Chetniks’ with Phillip Dorn and Virginia Gilmore.” Channel 12 was an ABC affiliate, KONO.
4) Oneonta Star, Saturday, June 20, 1964, page 7, Oneonta, New York. Sunday TV Programs. Chetniks was featured.
5) Pasadena Independent, Tuesday, June 1, 1965, page 15, Pasadena, California. “TV TUESDAY. Tuesday Evening. 10:15 A.M. – 2 – Movie: Chetniks, ’43 – Philip Dorn. Resistance of Yugoslavs against the ruthless pressue of their Nazi invaders.”
6) Los Angeles Times, June 25, 1964. “1:15 – Movie-Drama-(1943) ‘Chetniks,’ Philip Dorn.” Los Angeles Times, September 2, 1962. “3:30 8 MOVIE – Drama (1943) ‘Chetniks’, Philip Dorn. Anna Sten. Story of the Yugoslavian peasants and their fight against the Nazi invaders.”
7) Chicago Tribune, February 11, 1961. “EARLY SHOW-Film 2 ‘Chetniks,’ with Philip Dorn and Anna Stan.”
8) Boston Globe, July 23, 1964. “10 -’Chetniks,’ Philip Dorn, Anna Sten.”
9) New York Times, June 16, 1963. “TELEVISION PROGRAM: MONDAY THROUGH SATURDAY. 20 6:30-8:46 – Early Show: ‘Chetniks’ (1943), with Philip Dorn and Anna Sten.”
10) Miami News, May 15, 1962. The movie was shown on channel 7, WCKT, an NBC affiliate. “This Afternoon. 4:30 7 Movie (to 6) ‘Chetniks’ (1943) – Philip Dorn, Anna Sten. Adventure tale of guerilla resistance to the Nazis in Yugoslavia. Forget that many Chetniks became Communists and you will find that this isn’t a bad action film. **1/2.”
Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas was shown in the largest and in all the major television markets in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s such as California, New York, and Texas. Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas continued to be a staple of the rerun circuit in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s disproving the claims of film historians that it was “shelved” after the war because it was politically incorrect.
The movie was shown in the following television markets in New York, Illinois, Texas, Vermont, and Indiana:
1) Rinebeck Gazette, Saturday, December 4, 1963, Schenectady, New York. “Television Programs. Saturday, Dec. 4. Afternoon. 11:15 (6) Film, ‘Return of Frank James,’ Henry Fonda. ‘Chetniks,’ Philip Dorn.” The film was shown on channel 6, WRGH, in Schenectady, New York.
2) Southern Illinoisan, Wednesday, September 13, 1961, page 14, Carbondale, Illinois. “Your Television Schedule. Wednesday Evening. 10:15 – Ch. 2 -Movie, ‘Chetniks’. This poor to fair 1949 adventure tale of guerilla resistance to the Nazis in Yugoslavia stars Phillip Dorn and Anna Sten.” The movie was shown on channel 2. The year of release was erroneously given as 1949 and Philip Dorn’s name was misspelled as “Phillip”.
3) Corpus Christi Times, Monday, January 4, 1971, page 27, Corpus Christi, Texas. Monday, January 4. 4:00. Movie Matinee. ‘Chetniks’. Philip Dorn. Anna Sten. The movie was shown on Channel 6, an NBC affiliate.
4) Bennington Banner, Sunday, May 22, 1971, page 9, Bennington, Vermont. “Sunday Afternoon. 12:30. Channel 5. Movie. ‘Chetniks’. Philip Dorn.”
5) Anderson Herald Bulletin, February 13, 1965, page 17, Anderson, Indiana. “This Week’s Hollywood Movie Schedule. Friday, February 19. 9 a.m. (8) – ‘Chetniks’ (1943) Philip Dorn, Virginia Gilmore. Story of a Yugoslav guerrilla leader who fought the Germans from the hills in World War II. (1 Hr.).” The film was shown on channel 8.
Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas was shown on the Late, Late Show on channel 8 in 1964 in Anderson, Indiana. Anderson Herald Bulletin, Saturday, September 26, 1964, page 19, Anderson, Indiana. “This Week’s Hollywood Movie Schedule. Friday, Oct. 2. 1 a.m. (8) ‘Chetniks’ (1943) Philip Dorn, Virginia Gilmore. A young Yugoslavian guerrilla leader fights from the hills so his nation might not die.” The movie was shown on channel 8. Anderson Herald Bulletin, Saturday, October 3, 1964, page 20. “Friday. October 9. Evening. 1:00 (8) News followed by Late, Late Show. ‘Chetniks’ (1943) Philip Dorn, Virginia Gilmore.”
On Canadian Television
Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas was also syndicated on Canadian television: Winnipeg Free Press, Tuesday, August 13, 1962, page 10, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. “Television Highlights. Matinee 1. 3:30 p.m. Ch. 7: Chetniks, stars Anna Sten, Philip Dorn. Yugoslavian guerrillas fight against the Nazi occupiers of their country.” The film was shown on Channel 7 of CJAY-TV in Winnipeg.
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.
Whereas the critical reception the movie received during World War II was unanimously positive and favorable, the post-war response was decidedly more negative and disparaging. The movie invariably got dismissed as wartime “propaganda” and an instance of misguided intent, a hyperbolic, melodramatic attempt at war propaganda.
Film critics invariably used the post-war events to color and to prejudice their critical evaluations of the movie. Film critics took the Communist claims and allegations as proven and documented facts. Film critics used these ex post facto rationalizations to dismiss and to deride the film. Robert Fyne dismissed the film in The Hollywood Propaganda of World War II:
“Over in the Balkans, the Nazis suffered new defeats. In Yugoslavia, Philip Dorn and his guerrilla army killed many German soldiers in Twentieth Century-Fox’s Chetniks— the Fighting Guerrillas, a loud tribute to the royalist, Draja Mikhailovitch. After the war, this B-picture was shelved because its ‘hero,’ an acknowledged fascist, was executed for war crimes.” Fyne, Robert. The Hollywood Propaganda of World War II. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997.
Robert Fyne’s analysis of the movie is grossly inaccurate. The movie was not “shelved” after the war but became a staple of the rerun circuit on American and Canadian television being rebroadcast in the largest and in all the major television markets in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. His statement is factually wrong and inaccurate.
His characterization of the film as a “B-picture” is also inaccurate. Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas was shown as the top-billed movie in almost all of the theaters in which it was shown in the U.S., Canada, and internationally. By this fact alone it would be more accurately classified an A movie. Philip Dorn was a major Hollywood actor of the 1940s appearing in the major A movies of the period such as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Reunion in France (1942) with Joan Crawford and John Wayne, Random Harvest (1942) with Greer Garson and Ronald Colman, Passage to Marseille (1944) with Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet, The Fighting Kentuckian (1949) with John Wayne and Oliver Hardy, and I Remember Mama (1948) with Irene Dunne and Edgar Bergen, an Academy Award winning film classic. Virginia Gilmore and John Shepperd were also two of Hollywood’s top supporting film actors of the 1940s. The composer of the film score was Hugo W. Friedhofer, who had been the musical arranger on Casablanca and Now, Voyager, both from 1942. He won the Academy Award for best musical score in 1946 for the film The Best Years of Our Lives.
Finally, his characterization of Draza Mihailovich as “an acknowledged fascist” is totally inaccurate and factually wrong. U.S. President Harry S. Truman posthumously awarded Mihailovich the Legion of Merit award in 1948 on the recommendation of Allied Supreme Commander in Europe General Dwight D. Eisenhower as one of the closest U.S. allies of World War II. Fyne is mindlessly and uncritically parroting the spurious allegations made by the Stalinist and Communist dictatorship that seized power in Yugoslavia following the war. In 2005, the U.S. State Department approved the awarding of the Legion of Merit to Mihailovich’s daughter Gordana, acknowledging the authenticity of the initial award.
Similarly, Michael Barson and Steven Heller apply the same ex post facto rationalization based on false factual assumptions and premises to attack the film in Red Scared!: The Commie Menace in Propaganda and Popular Culture. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 2001:
“Some pictures were based on more historical situations. Fox’s 1943 production Chetniks dramatized the struggle of a brave group of Yugoslav partisans who battle, and ultimately outwit, their Nazi occupiers. Inspiring stuff—except that in reality, General Mihajlovic’s Chetniks often collaborated with the Nazis, the better to wage their own war against Tito’s Communist guerillas.” Pages 50-53. Red Scared. Just a Guy Named Ivan, Chapter 3.
Finally, in The Star-Spangled Screen: The American World War II Film (Lexington, KY, The University Press of Kentucky, 1985, republished in 1996 with Afterword), film historian Bernard F. Dick analyzed the movie in the context of American World War II films. He concluded that the film “may well be the greatest embarrassment of the 1940s”:
“In 1942, Mihailovich was a likely prospect for a film; the British still supported him (though not for long), and he had appeared on the cover of Time. Thus Fox went ahead with Chetniks, subtitled The Fighting Guerrillas, which may well be the greatest embarrassment of the 1940s: it is never revived or shown on television, nor can it be rented. While Britain was able to salvage its film about the Yugoslav resistance, changing the title from Chetniks to Undercover (1943) and the focus from the Chetniks to the Partisans, Fox was stuck with its paean to Mihailovich.”
Is this assessment accurate or valid? Dick based his conclusion on the post-war claims and allegations made by the Stalinist and Communist Yugoslav dictatorship that seized power after the war. He assumes that that closed the chapter on this issue. But he neglects the Legion of Merit Award to Mihailovich in 1948 by U.S. President Harry S. Truman and the support he received from rescued U.S. airmen. His glaring ignorance and appalling misinformation led him to conclude that the movie was not shown on television. Dick asserted that “it is never revived or shown on television, nor can it be rented.” This is a false assertion. The movie was a staple of the late night television rerun circuit in the U.S. and in Canada. With the emergence of Youtube and the internet, moreover, the film is available globally. Dick’s judgment is distorted and warped by the post-war developments when Yugoslavia became a pawn and tool of U.S. diplomacy during the Cold War. He does not want to consider the fact that the judgments of history are not static and unchanging, but evolutionary. It is Josip Broz Tito who is in the garbage heap of history now. It is his Stalinist and Communist dictatorship that has been discredited and discarded today. History resists being falsified. With time, a different picture emerges of the past. The past can only be manipulated and distorted so much.
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.
The 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.