When Kirk Douglas was making the rounds as a young actor in New York in the 1930s, he auditioned for a Yiddish theater troupe whose members ultimately dismissed him—the sandy-haired, blue-eyed son of Russian Jews—for not looking Jewish enough. “If we have a part for a Nazi, we’ll call you,” he later recalled being told. In 1960, having cast Paul Newman as the golden, sweaty sabra Ari Ben Canaan in Exodus, Otto Preminger, the film’s producer and director, said he wanted Newman because he didn’t look Jewish, but was.
The Jewish warrior coming to movie screens on December 31 doesn’t look Jewish, and isn’t. He’ll be leading Jewish partisans against the Nazis in Defiance, and his name is Bond, James Bond—or, rather, James Blond, as the British press cheekily dubbed actor Daniel Craig when he inherited the secret agent role in 2005. Craig, a barrel-chested bruiser from the Wirral, near Liverpool, plays Tuvia Bielski, commander of the ragtag forest army, as an almost unwilling savior, a bully who finds himself responsible for preserving the lives of city Jews he knows would never give him the time of day in peace but desperately need him in war.
The real Tuvia was classically Semitic-looking—mustachioed, swarthy, brooding—a veteran of the Polish army who, from the look of his pictures, drank his vodka from the bottle, with no thought of shaking or stirring. Edward Zwick, who wrote and directed Defiance, has built his career around lionizing unlikely heroes, from the white man who commanded an all-black regiment in Glory to the American who trained Japanese soldiers in The Last Samurai, and he paints Tuvia as a kind of Moses figure, leading his people safely through the wilderness.
But Craig—recently described by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker as “everyone’s favorite non-Jewish Jew”—isn’t channeling Charlton Heston here. Instead, he brings with him traces of the Bond he created for Casino Royale and the recent Quantum of Solace, the first 007 incarnation to exhibit the strain of his missions rather than shrugging it off as easily as a tuxedo jacket. His Tuvia may be a violent peasant, equally ruthless in killing the village turncoat responsible for his parents’ deaths at Nazi hands as he is in shooting, point-blank, a Jewish troublemaker who challenges his authority over the forest encampment. But he is also transparent about the emotional and physical toll of the fight, moral about the choices he makes, and smoldering in bed—though his Bielski Girl, the almond-eyed Lilka (Alexa Davalos), wears men’s pants instead of bikinis and wrangles Nazi attack dogs rather than outwitting hit men.
“He has no niche as an actor,” Zwick recently told the McClatchy wire service, noting Craig’s performance as In Cold Blood murderer Perry Smith in the 2006 film Infamous.
As it happens, Defiance isn’t Craig’s first turn playing a Jewish warrior. Before he was plucked out of relative obscurity to play Bond, Craig and his blue eyes appeared in Steven Spielberg’s Munich as Steve, the crass South African driver. Unlike the other assassins sent to Europe by Mossad to kill the men who planned the Black September hostage murders at the 1972 Olympics, Steve is cool—he’s a Jew, proudly and viciously avenging “Jewish blood,” but he’s also fully in the world, singing to himself while waiting for the signal to detonate a hotel-room bomb and dancing to “My Girl” in a Roman piazza after a successful kill. “Don’t fuck with the Jews” is what he says, dropping a spent bullet casing onto a cafe table, but it’s his open collar and tight jeans that scream, “because we will kill you, and we will still get the girl in the end.”