“1939 Battle of Westerplatte” is a Polish-Lithuanian movie written and directed by Pawel Chochlew. It was originally titled “Tajemnica Westerplatte”. The movie chronicles the “Polish Thermopylae”. This was the heroic defense on the Westerplatte peninsula in the harbor of Danzig at the start of WWII.
The movie opens just prior to the German invasion of Poland. The Polish commander on the peninsula is a Maj. Sucharski (Michal Zebrowski). He is informed that he will have to hold out for twelve hours instead of six. “This is a fight for honor.” He is upset because he has only 200 men. The clock starts ticking when a shell hits his headquarters. The initial German assault is repulsed with excellent explosive effects and graphic wounds, but the combat is brief. The next seven days are a series of assaults followed by lulls in the fighting. The Germans bring in CGI Stukas, an armored train, and flamethrowers, but the defenders continue to hold out. The stress is having an effect on the Poles, but especially on Sucharski. He is suffering from combat fatigue which looks a lot like cowardice. On the third day, he wants to surrender. This leads to command dysfunction as his second in command Capt. Dabrowski (Robert Zoledziewski) wants to hold out.
“1939 Battle of Westerplatte” was controversial when it was released. Some Polish patriots were upset with the less than flattering portrayal of the defenders, especially Sucharski. The fact that the word tajemnica means “secret” implied that it was a revisionist view of the battle. There is some justification for this viewpoint. The Battle of Westerplatte was technically the defense of the Military Transit Depot on Westerplatte peninsula. The defense was centered on the fortified barracks as depicted in the film. The battle opened with bombardment by the battleship Schleswig-Holstein. This was followed by an assault by elite German forces which walked into an ambush. A Polish soldier that was killed was the first death in WWII. The Poles used howitzers and mortars to repulse the attack. The second attempt was met by felled trees, barbed wire, and heavy fire. This and a third attack were also thrown back. The Poles were forced to withdraw to a smaller perimeter centering on the barracks, but they continued to hold out against renewed forays and intense artillery and Stuka bombardments. An attempt to set the bridge connecting the peninsula to the mainland failed when the fire from the train set the woods afire and allowed the defenders to wreak havoc. By this time, Sucharski was urging surrender, but Dabrowski took temporary command to prevent this. However, Sucharski got his way on the Sept. 7. Only 14 Poles died in the battle so it was not exactly Thermopylae or the Alamo. Sucharski came out of the battle as the most decorated hero and the defense was an inspiration to the Polish nation. The movie tarnishes Sucharski’s reputation, but not really the rest of the men. If anything, the Germans come off much worse. These are hardly elite soldiers. They are depicted as cowardly and incompetent. Since the Poles are far from stalwart warriors, it is hard to see why it takes the Germans a full week to defeat them.
The logical movie to compare this movie to is “The Brest Fortress” which covers a similar Alamo-type defense by Soviet troops in the early days of Operation Barbarossa. “1939 Battle of Westerplatte” does not come off well in this comparison. It is poorly acted. The dialogue is stilted and there is too much of it. At one point, Sucharski actually tells one of the men “You won’t die – that’s an order.” There is plenty of time for talking because there is a shortage of combat throughout the movie. There is a lot of fizzle to the events. You expect kick-ass moments, but you get long stretches of boring. This is disappointing because the initial combat is fairly well staged. Classic case of bait and switch. The lack of combat leads you to believe that there is no good reason for Sucharski to surrender. This is a disservice to the men who held out against incredible odds for a full week. One thing you can say, the movie is not overly patriotic.
The only positive thing I can say about the movie is it clued me in on an event in WWII that I was not familiar with. I was already familiar with the Alamo and as an American I think I would be upset if a new movie came out depicting Davy Crockett as suffering from shell shock and wanting to surrender early in the siege. For this reason I have to side with the historical critics of the movie.
GRADE = D-