This is a website with a focus on the Hollywood view of the history of the world. In this segment on Israel, I have traced the development of Old Testament Judaism, which along with New Testament Rome, accounts for the religious territory most privileged by the Hollywood lens. This is not to say that there is not an equally strong secular strain, if not stronger, in Hollywood films. In this final post under Israel: Old Testament, I hope to move beyond the traditional politics of established religion and search for faint glimmers of hope for a world in which all forms of belief are accepted as part of the rich and diverse tapestry of human life. This is not a quest that everyone will love, but it seems to be the last best chance for the human race to live in harmony on this planet.
My purpose here is to sidestep any point of view that involves malice toward others, and to shine a light on those few faint efforts that look at the cultures of the world as parts of a whole. Clearly, the anchor for the Hollywood view of modern Israel is Exodus 1960. It was a hugely popular book and movie in its time, but it has since been heavily criticized for its biases. It is undeniable that this landmark film credits heroic Judaic destiny while pushing its opponents into darkness. Even so, this film is exceptionally valuable for bringing most of the relevant issues to the surface, while at the same time pointing to the pitfalls in Hollywood’s treatment of history.
Watching this film again, more than fifty years after I first saw it in a movie theater, my perspective had changed but my opinions had altered very little. My first impression was not positive. I was put off when this movie about the struggle of the Jews to return to their homeland in Israel began with a focus on the visit of an attractive blonde American woman to the island of Cyprus. She is with a private tour guide who is narrating the many foreign dominations this island has endured. Next we see her socializing with General Sutherland (Ralph Richardson), who is commander of the British occupation on the island. Only gradually, she becomes aware that thousands of destitute Jews are being held in detention camps on Cyprus in an effort to prevent them from immigrating to Palestine. It is 1947. The 1958 Leon Uris novel begins differently, but there is the same deflection of focus to the pretty American woman whose name is Kitty (Eva Marie Saint). Perhaps the novelist and the moviemaker were not incorrect in thinking that this framing device was necessary to capture the attention of the mainstream moviegoing public in 1960.
In a taxi on the way to the commander’s mansion, Kitty has had a glimpse of the convoy of trucks loaded with Jews headed for a camp. Among them is a very pretty young Jewish girl (played by British actress, Jill Haworth), blonde and bearing a striking resemblance to Eva Marie Saint. Kitty will later attempt to adopt her and bring her to America. A hotheaded young survivor of Auschwitz (Italian-American actor, Sal Mineo) tries to escape from a truck but is beaten by British guards.
The story at the center of the movie only shifts into gear when Ari Ben Canaan (Paul Newman), a Jewish paramilitary officer, makes a midnight landing on the beach at Cyprus and takes charge. His plan is to load a ship with over 600 Jews and steam into the harbor at Haifa with the intent to stay or die. Somehow, Kitty makes it onto the ship as a volunteer nurse and emissary of the British command. This is not historical, but neither are many of the other details involving the actual ship, renamed “Exodus.”
At the time, I felt that the casting of the famous Hollywood leading man for the key role in this movie finally tipped it over into a full-blown travesty. Later I learned that both Newman and director Otto Preminger have a Jewish heritage, though one sounds American and the other sounds inappropriately German. Newman, of course, was an asset at the box office and a good pairing with Eva Marie Saint, but he was far from ideal casting for this role.
After a hunger strike, the Jews are permitted to depart from Cyprus and land at Haifa. Life in Palestine becomes the backdrop for the story while all concerned wait for the UN partition of the land into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Arabs are outraged by this intrusion but they get virtually no screen time. The only significant Arab character is a friend from Ari’s boyhood with a conciliatory disposition toward the Jews. He is played by the American actor John Derek, who is best known for his marriages to a string of beautiful blonde actresses.
The strongest Jewish characters in the film are played by actors with the best credentials. Lee J. Cobb is Ari’s father, already a long-time resident of Palestine, and a fiercely conservative proponent of moderation in relations with the Arabs. He has a brother, played by David Opatoshu, who has come to the conviction that the only way for the Jews to overcome their past reputation for passivity is to fight terror with terror.
Peter Lawford has the unenviable role of expressing British contempt for backwardness. This story is set in 1947-48 and it might be assumed that the British were of no mind to offer a helping hand to those they had come to dominate. The empire was crumbling; India would achieve independence in 1948, and the African colonies would follow. The novel and the movie have been criticized for denigrating attitudes toward the Arabs. Leon Uris wrote unapologetically from the Jewish-American point of view. Like Huckleberry Finn from a century earlier, this novel must stand against the wind of criticism for its portrayal of prevailing attitudes, however unattractive.
The ending comes three and a half hours after the movie began with the announcement of the UN resolution in favor of the ecstatic Jews and the beginning of a new level of warfare with the Arabs. In recognition of the courage of the young men and women led by Ari, a fragment of the story of Deborah and Barak from the Book of Judges is recounted. Two important characters have been lost in the battle, the young blond girl who was beloved of Sal Mineo, and the sympathetic Arab leader played by Derek. They are buried side-by-side while Newman gives an impassioned speech about Jews and Arabs one day living together in harmony. He then leads his troops back to the battle.
Although lesser in quality and monumentality, and drenched in controversy, this film remains standing as one of the milestones in the cinematic history of the world. It has an iconic position along with The Ten Commandments, Troy, The Agony and the Ecstasy, Lawrence of Arabia, and Gandhi – to name a random few. The yardstick I have found most useful in the building of this website is the measure of a movie’s ability to put the viewer into a time and place, and to reflect all sides of the picture.
The Hollywood view of history is notoriously unreliable, though many would say that is part of it’s charm. Speaking for myself, assembling this movie montage has given me a cascade of remembered images that I find easier to keep in mind than passages from books. Virtually every historical movie produced by Hollywood is a mix of fact and fiction. This is the definition of legend.
Here is a further sampling from my list of movies about Israel since 1948. My focus here has been on films that have high healing quality and argue for looking at a difficult human situation through different lenses.
Every Time We Say Goodbye (1986)
Broken Wings (2002)
Waltz with Bashir (2008)
The Other Son (2012)
The Attack (2012)
Israel: Old Testament Related Posts:
- Movies About the Old Testament: Genesis
- Movies About the Old Testament: From Moses
- Movies About Modern Israel