Saturday, June 27, 2009

"Undercover" // Review by Carl Savich of the 1943 movie about the WWII Chetnik Resistance movement in Yugoslavia

Undercover (1943)

"Underground Guerrillas" (U.S. 1944)

Movie Review

by Carl Savich

June 2009

On July 27, 1943, Ealing Studios in Great Britain released the movie Undercover on the guerrilla resistance movement in Axis-occupied Yugoslavia. Undercover was re-released by Columbia Pictures on September 14, 1944 in the United States under the title Underground Guerrillas. The movie was originally entitled Chetnik and was to document the Yugoslav Chetnik resistance movement headed by Draza Mihailovich. Because the movie was released when British support for Mihailovich was waning, however, the film was re-edited and references to Mihailovich and the Chetniks were deleted. The movie is invaluable, nevertheless, as a cinematic account of the resistance movement headed by Draza Mihailovich and the Chetnik guerrillas and how the perception of their role changed.

John Clements starred as Captain Milosh Petrovitch, a Yugoslav guerrilla resistance leader, modeled closely on Draza Mihailovich. Mary Morris played Anna Petrovitch, his wife. Morris later appeared in the BBC Masterpiece Theatre production of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in 1977 as Countess Vronsky, Dr. Who (1982), and the Ray Bradbury Theater (1988). Stephen Murray played Milosh Petrovitch’s brother, Stephan Petrovitch, modeled on Milosh Sekulich, a Serbian physician who had worked at the Municipal Hospital in Belgrade from 1935 to 1941. Michael Wilding played the guerrilla Constantine. He later starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn (1949), The World of Suzie Wong (1960), and the Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1963). He would be married to Elizabeth Taylor from 1952 to 1957. Stanley Baker, who was fourteen years old, made his film debut in Undercover as Petar. He later starred in Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. (1951), The Guns of Navarone (1961), and Zulu (1964). Baker turned down the role of James Bond in 1962.

Undercover was made by Ealing Studios in London, which was headed by Sir Michael Balcon. The film was directed by Sergei Nolbandov, a Russian émigré to Britain in the 1920s. Nolbandov had written the screenplay for Fire Over England (1937), which had starred Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, and The Four Just Men (1939). He had directed Ships with Wings for Ealing in 1941, which had starred John Clements, Michael Wilding, and Leslie Banks. In 1946, he was a producer for This Modern Time, a series of documentary newsreels. Michael Balcon had produced Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps in 1935. S.C. Balcon was the associate producer. The cinematography was by Wilkie Cooper. Frederic Austin composed the musical score.

Undercover was originally to be called Chetnik and was to be a movie account of the Chetnik resistance movement headed by Draza Mihailovich in German-occupied Yugoslavia. The movie was made by Ealing in collaboration with the Yugoslav-Government-in-Exile and with Dr. Milosh Sekulich (1900-1986), who was a technical advisor on the movie with W.E. Hart. Sekulich had worked on the original story and had written the first draft treatment, entitled “Chetnik”, with George Slocombe and Sergei Nolbandov. This draft was the basis for the movie which would be retiled Undercover and filmed in 1942 in Wales.

Sekulich was a representative of the Yugoslav-Government-in-Exile based in London and was the Yugoslav representative to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRAA). He had been a physician in Belgrade and was the head of a unit for Internal Diseases and Tuberculosis at the Belgrade Municipal Hospital from 1935 to 1941. The character Dr. Stephan Petrovitch was based on his life and career. Sekulich had left Yugoslavia in 1941 and had landed in Britain where he carried a memorandum from the Serbian Orthodox Church and Draza Mihailovich detailing the mass murders, forced religious conversions, and atrocities committed against Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia by the Ustasha regime.

Sekulich fled German-occupied Serbia in September, 1941 intending to bring accounts of the genocide committed against Serbs by Croatians and Bosnian Muslims to the Allies. He first traveled to Turkey and then to Egypt. His circuitous trek took him to Sudan and then the Congo, finally reaching Lagos, Nigeria. From there he went to Portugal, then to Ireland, from where he traveled to his final destination, London. In London, he submitted the Appeals of the Orthodox Church and documentation of the Ustasha genocide and Roman Catholic forced conversions of Orthodox Serbs. He continued to do medical research and published medical treatises, such as The Classification of Pulmonary Tuberculosis (1953) and Tuberculosis, Classification, Pathogenesis and Management (1955), published by Heinemann.

The movie opens with a trumpet fanfare with the title "Yugoslavia Spring 1941" over white blossoms blooming in spring on branches. The period is immediately before the German invasion of Yugoslavia on April 6, 1941. A voice-over narration presents the history of Yugoslavia.

"For centuries the Yugoslav people have sought and prayed for peace. For centuries peace has been denied them. Generation after generation in our lovely country has known the din of battle, the marching feet of invading armies, the massacre of brave men and women who would never accept defeat. This is our heritage, which has bred in our people their strength and their endurance in the cause of freedom, which led them in the last war to defy the whole might of German arms, which is guiding them now once again maybe to face the same enemy....Yugoslavia has made her choice..." A Serbian schoolteacher gives this narration to her class. She tells them that the Yugoslav government sought to let the Germans walk into the country but that the King had prevented this, pointing to a framed portrait on the wall, a picture of King Peter II. A coup in Belgrade had replaced the regime under the Regent Paul, who had signed a pact wit Germany. Adolf Hitler planned to retaliate by destroying Yugoslavia as a country. The period is days before the Axis invasion when Yugoslavia was preparing for the expected assault. One student in the class, Danilo, played by Terwyn Jones, declares: “Slavs face their enemies.” The school is in Serbia. There is a chalkboard with sentences written in Serbian Cyrillic script.

The teacher is Anna Petrovitch, the wife of Captain Milosh Branko Petrovitch, a Yugoslav army officer who will form a guerrilla army in the mountains of Serbia following the German invasion and occupation. This was a clue that Milosh was modeled on Draza Mihailovich and the Chetnik guerrilla movement organized at Ravna Gora. He comes to the school and tells Anna about the preparations for war. By contrast, Josip Broz Tito had been a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian Army, was taken prisoner by the Russian Army, and had returned to the Balkans as a hardcore Bolshevik and Communist agitator and organizer, whose wife, Pelagija Belousova, was Russian.

Anna, Milosh, and his brother Stephan, meet at a celebration of the 35th wedding anniversary of their parents, with guests shown dancing the Serbian kolo as a violinist plays. A Serbian Orthodox priest, played by Finlay Currie, is shown who gives prayers at the ceremony. The guerrilla leader Milosh crosses himself during the Orthodox prayer given by the priest who is seen wearing a large cross across his chest. This excludes the possibility that the character was based on the Communist, Stalinist, and atheist Josip Broz Tito, the "partisan" leader. This is another clue that Milosh is a fictionalized Draza Mihailovich. Colonel Mihailovich was appointed Major-General on December 7, 1941. In the movie, the Serbian Orthodox priest alludes to this when he says: “Why he’ll be a general one of these days”, when talking to Milosh and Anna.

The movie was filmed in the hills and mountains of Brecon in Wales, which were to simulate the mountains of Ravna Gora and the Serbian countryside. The wedding anniversary is disrupted when German aircraft drop propaganda leaflets during the prayer service: "Yugoslavs, mighty Germany offered you the hand of friendship but your king refused it. You have been betrayed. Do not despair. We are coming to liberate you." The British were accused by Hitler of fomenting and orchestrating the resistance to the pact with Germany.

The bombing of Belgrade followed as buildings and a hospital are struck. Dr. Stephan Petrovitch is shown in the damaged hospital treating the wounded with Dr. Jordan, played by Niall MacGinnis. Dr. Jordan asks sardonically: "An open town, huh?" This is an allusion to the status of Belgrade as an undefended, open city. A baby is heard crying as bombs strike the hospital. The mother of a baby dies.

A destroyed Yugoslav civilian column of refugees is shown with wrecked vehicles, carts, and dead horses. Stephan states that Yugoslavia cannot defeat Germany with “a handful of tanks and practically no air force.” The stationmaster Tosha, played by Ivor Barnard, who was also in The 39 Steps (1935), asked rhetorically: “Shall we fight the Germans or let them walk in?” For the common person, the stationmaster argued, this dilemma made little difference because people advanced through “influence” and by corruption, not through merit or talent. The stationmaster would later work with the German occupation forces.

After Yugoslavia is occupied by Axis troops, Milosh Petrovitch plans to organize a guerrilla resistance movement. Milosh tells Stephan: “We’re going into the mountains.” Stephan concurred: “To carry on resistance from there.” Milosh tells Stephan to go undercover, to use the cover of the clinic to gather information as “a secret clearinghouse” for the guerrillas: “You’ll take charge of things here in Belgrade.”

German General von Staengel, the Military Governor of German occupied-Yugoslavia, played by Godfrey Tearle, seeks to get the local leaders to help him govern, saying: “I welcome your collaboration”. Factually, Serbia was the only part of Yugoslavia that was under direct German military occupation. The term “Yugoslavia” and “Yugoslav” should more accurately be replaced by “Serbia” and “Serbian”.

The first guerrilla operation occurs after Stephan tells Milosh about the transport of Yugoslav POWs by train. Their mission is to free the prisoners. Using this information, Milosh and his guerrilla forces ambush the train and he shoots Staengel, in a guerrilla attack on the Petrovac train station. The POWs are freed and they join the guerrillas.

Stephan operates on the wounded Staengel at his clinic to remove the bullet, which is lodged an inch from his heart. Staengel recovers from the operation.

Milosh’s father, Kossan Petrovitch, played by Tom Walls, joins the guerrillas. Kossan had fought the Germans in World War I as part of the Serbian Army. His wife Maria was played by Rachel Thomas, who was Mrs. Parry in the 1940 Ealing movie The Proud Valley, which Nolbandov co-produced.

The German Colonel von Brock, played by Robert Harris, advocates a ruthless policy against any resistance to Axis occupation. Brock says: "All Slavs are the same. The only thing they understand is the firing squad." He recounted how he was stationed in Bohemia and witnessed how the Czechs resisted Nazi occupation. Staengel, however, seeks to work with the Yugoslav leaders to end the resistance movement. Stephan tells Staengel: “I’m a realist.” This is his explanation for why he is working with the German administration. Staengel tells him that his brother Milosh is a “romantic playing an outlaw.” He asks Stephan to talk to his father to convert him to “an active collaborator”.

After Staengel is shot, Anna is taken prisoner by German occupation forces and held as a hostage. She is interrogated and beaten to force her to reveal the location of Milosh. A German officer interrogating her says: “Nobody can stand up to us.” Anna replies: “We had other conquerors powerful and as ruthless as you. We beat them in the end.” She is then beaten and struck down unconscious on the floor. She is taken to a room from which she escapes with the help of her student Danilo, who places a ladder on the window. Anna is then reunited with Milosh in the mountains.

Staengel plans to retaliate against the village: “That village needs a lesson.” Colonel von Brock goes to the school and states to the schoolchildren that Yugoslavia must play a role and part “within the New Order”. He accused Danilo of being “a national hero” because he sought to defend his country from foreign occupation and control. Those who resist the Nazis are called "national heroes", nationalists. The designation parallels the label Serbian "nationalists" and "nationalism" used in the 1990s during the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Brock demands that the students tell him where Milosh is hiding. They refuse. When asked who helped Anna to escape, Danilo and four other students stand up. Brock tells Danilo: “I’m going to teach you a lesson. I’m going to plant a picture in your mind you’ll carry all your life.” He spares Danilo because he does not want to create a martyr. He selects two other students which are taken to the school courtyard, where a firing squad, made up of German soldiers, executes all six students. This event is an allusion to the October, 1941 Kragujevac Massacre where Serbian schoolchildren were executed in reprisal for guerrilla activity.

Milosh’s father Kossan and his wife Anna demand revenge and retribution for the murder of the six students. Milosh, however, opposes taking revenge, arguing that revenge would only bring “more Germans, more wasted lives, more reprisals.” Instead, “discipline and patience” needed to be stressed. Milosh tells them that “personal feelings” must be discounted in war. Kossan and Anna are infuriated at Milosh. This scene illustrates a dilemma the guerrillas faced. Should they continue attacking German forces that would inevitably result in the loss of civilian life?

Kossan then secretly joins guerrillas in an attempt to blow up a mountain railroad tunnel. He is captured by German troops in this sabotage mission. Staengel tells Stephan to convince his father to be “an active collaborator.” Stephen states that Staengel wants to “blackmail into surrender” his brother. Stephan meets with Milosh and tells him that he plans a suicide mission to blow up the tunnel. Using his cover as Staengel’s “pet quisling”, Stephan plans to plant explosives in the train by hiding them in a suitcase with a timer. Brock places Kossan on the train as a hostage to deter Stephan from taking any action against the train. Stephan hides the bomb in his suitcase in the train and sets the timer. The bomb blows up in the tunnel, destroying the train and the tunnel and killing Stephan and Kossan.

In retaliation, Staengel makes a warning over the radio that German forces will kill “one hundred Yugoslavs for every German.” These measures will be taken “until you have learned wisdom and obedience.”

This sets the stage for the climatic battle between the guerrillas and the German occupation forces in the village.

Staengel cannot send reinforcements from Belgrade because the tunnel was blown up. He can only send Brock’s troops to the village. Milosh reveals that the mission of the guerrillas is to hold Brock’s forces until they receive a message to retreat. The guerrillas receive the radio message with the code word to begin the attack: “Calling Grey Falcon … Calling Grey Falcon … Sunrise … Sunrise.” Milosh declares: “Our offensive’s begun.” The guerrillas engage German troops in a pitched battle in the village. The guerrillas blow up a bridge. When the radio battery dies, Constantine runs out and takes one from a destroyed German truck, but is fatally wounded in the attempt. The battery is placed in the radio. They then receive the message “Sunset”, which is code that the mission is over and that they should retreat. When Brock and the other German officers enter the abandoned house in the village, Milosh blows up the building using a remote detonation device, killing all inside.

The closing voice-over is heard as images of Milosh and the guerrillas are shown: "In towns and hamlets they fight on from the mountains they sweep down on their enemies and back to the mountains they return waiting for the next battle, waiting for the day when with their allies from the free world they will drive the enemy from their soil forever."

The guerrillas are shown climbing, in a long column of men, the mountain terrain of Yugoslavia from where they will launch future attacks on the German troops.

The words “The End” appear over a streaming British Union Jack flag followed by the words "A British Picture".

The screenplay was by John Dighton and Monja Danischewsky, a Russian emigre. Dighton would be nominated for an Academy Award for the screenplays for the Ealing movie The Man in the White Suit (1951) starring Alec Guinness and for Paramount’s classic Roman Holiday (1953), starring Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, and Eddie Albert. He won a Writers Guild of America Award for Best Written American Comedy for Roman Holiday.

The script was based on the original treatment by Sekulich, Slocombe, and Nolbandov, but with references to Draza Mihailovich and the Chetniks deleted. The result was a generic and fictionalized account to reflect the changing political situation. The British government was moving to abandon support for Mihailovich and to switch support to the Communist and Stalinist Tito. After the conclusion of the Teheran Conference on December 2, 1943, the decision was made by Britain to break off contact with Draza Mihailovich and to back the Communist partisan forces under Tito.

The final released version of the movie retained the overall plot structure based on the original story, “Chetnik”, recounting the guerrilla operations of Draza Mihailovich and the Chetniks, but omitted and deleted any references to “Draza Mihailovich” or the “Chetniks”. The resistance fighters were referred to as simply “guerrillas”. The terms “partisans”, “Tito”, or “Communist” and “Communists” also do not appear anywhere in the movie. The title of the movie was changed from Chetnik to Undercover. The movie was also re-edited to delete any references to Draza Mihailovich and the Chetniks. Nevertheless, not all references to the Chetnik guerrillas were able to be deleted. For example, the guerrillas are shown wearing the black shubara-style Chetnik hat with a skull and crossbones insignia, which was worn by Chetnik guerrillas, with the words “Sloboda ili Smrt”, “Liberty or Death”. Moreover, the background scenario presented in the movie for Captain Milosh Petrovitch can only apply to Draza Mihailovich. Milosh is only a thinly disguised Mihailovich. This is because the movie was originally planned as a film version of the life and career of Draza Mihailovich.

Undercover remains an important World War II movie on the resistance movement in Yugoslavia and in Serbia. The movie shows how the perception of the role of Draza Mihailovich and the Chetnik guerrillas in the resistance movement was altered and manipulated to reflect and to accommodate the political machinations and maneuverings of that time. Nevertheless, Undercover is an invaluable film account of the Serbian resistance movement led by Draza Mihalovich and the Chetnik guerrillas, even though presented in a generic and fictionalized account.

Carl Savich


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