REVIEW: DVD Release: Battle Of Sutjeska

Film: Battle Of Sutjeska
Release date: 7th June 2010
Certificate: 15
Running time: 126 mins
Director: Stipe Delic
Starring: Richard Burton, Irene Papas, Ljuba Tadic
Genre: War/Drama
Studio: Arrow
Format: DVD
Country: Yugoslavia

One of the most expensive movies ever to emerge from Yugoslavia, The Battle Of Sutjeska sees Hollywood icon Richard Burton forget his British loyalties.

Bosnia, 1943. The occupying Axis force sets about eliminating the resistance put up by Marshall Tito (Richard Burton) and his National Liberation Army of Yugoslavia (or the Partisans), a group of soldiers and civilians haggard and worn down by years of combat with the invaders.

Despite unfavourable odds, the Partisans begin a bold offensive on the plains of Sutjeska in an attempt to break free from the oppressive Axis army closing in around them...

One of the select movies to fall within the category of 'partisan films' - a sub-genre popular in former Yugoslavia between the 1960s and ‘80s, mainly geared towards the portrayal of the country's military exploits against the Nazi invasion - The Battle Of Sutjeska less portrays and more boasts about the efforts of Partisan soldiers against the Axis army during the Second World War.

From the outset, director Stipe Delic makes very clear the distinction between Partisan and Nazi, depicting the former - their cause spearheaded by their steely leader Tito - as a collection of gutsy, morally-vigilant everymen, and disregarding any significant exploration of the latter - their mission championed by an incorrigible, cold-blooded German Major (Demeter Bitenc) - by simply painting them an anonymous, brutal mass, homing in with the intentions of eliminating from the world the final bastion of righteousness represented by the Partisans. The Allied forces aren't shown to be much better, with the only assistance sent in from the outside to help Tito and his men being a few British soldiers who only serve to remark upon the tremendous spirit of the Partisans, and outline the fact that they are very much dependent on only themselves for survival.

You need not reach the end of The Battle Of Sutjeska to come to terms with the fact that the film is seen through eyes very concerned with the enhancement of the Partisan's legacy, but that is not to say that it is a complete fabrication of events, nor that it is not an enjoyable film. In fact, the idealistic speculation aside, this is in places a rather powerful affair, with some legitimately poignant interactions between the weary comrades, whose discussions and banter – from banalities concerned with social conduct to impending battles - are consistently convincing. Also effective are the battle scenes themselves, with the allotted budget mostly spent on planes, explosions and seven-time Academy Award nominee Richard Burton.

Burton's Tito has everything required to be a realistic leader for the rough but lovable rag-tags under his guidance: stoic, resolute, but impossibly devoted to every one of his people - Tito is the ideal embodiment of the Partisans. A bitterness etched on his face that never seems willing to even try to hide the contempt for not only the impending German, Italian and Bulgarian troops, but also for the rest of the world that has so irresponsibly, and heartlessly left little Yugoslavia to fend for itself.

While the hammering home of the Partisan's lack of help is perhaps excessive, the film expresses very adeptly the hopelessness of the situation that they have found themselves in. The script is well-written, and makes frequent reference to the manner in which the Axis forces edge in closer, almost seeming to become part of their surroundings. "Where's the front?" asks a British soldier of Tito, to which the Marshall replies, "Wherever the Germans are - everywhere." The dialogue succeeds throughout in expressing the isolation endured by the Partisans, and the fact that they can only rely on themselves to survive but, at times, this mostly well-crafted diction falls foul to Delic's ambition to make victims of the Yugoslavians with, at one stage, the characters professing to being able more to trust themselves than a god they otherwise had faith in. While such spirit and belief are honourable, attractive traits in a protagonist, this, at times, borders occasionally on shameless self-righteousness, and makes enemies of all that are not Partisan.

Technically, the film is excellent. The shot composition is often stunning, with slow pull-outs regularly employed to express the vastness of the terrain, and the music is rousing throughout, lulling only during the more heartfelt scenes - doing so to great effect, aiding in the construction of some genuinely moving, memorable moments. Never is this indelibility more profound than during a late scene where a woman, shortly after hearing of a comrade's death, undergoes surgery for the amputation of an infected hand, and expresses deeply the hurt - both physical and emotional - from her multiple losses and those of her fellow Partisans which, until this point in the film, had been held in, muted by the brave-hearted souls.

There are times, however, when the overestimation of the protagonists works only to undermine the portrayal of their struggle. On more than one occasion, characters react to injuries as if bullet-proof, and retain full clarity of thought and coherence of speech despite gaping shrapnel wounds. It is this overestimation of the Partisan's feats and the underestimation of the importance of the Allied forces fights elsewhere that puts holes in the audience's sympathy for their struggle, and makes the suggestion that The Battle Of Sutjeska is simply an attempt to garner praise for the Partisans that, despite the heroism of their true, reported achievements, could not feasibly be warranted.

The Battle Of Sutjeska does a good job of playing up the efforts of the Yugoslavian Partisans when put under threat of extermination but within the film exist more than a few genuinely moving scenes, held together by a mostly sharp script. DWS

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