Review: “Exodus” the 1960 film

 

The 1960 film production of “Exodus,” directed by Otto Preminger was a watershed in the film industry and gave an information starved American public a glossy, star studded, if Israeli centric account of the Jewish struggle to remove the British from Palestine. Based on the book by the same name by Leon Uris, it really was the first look most Americans had on the State of Israel twelve years after its birth.

Preminger hired Dalton Trumbo, a blacklisted screen writer from the McCarthy era to write the screenplay. Ernest Gold wrote an unforgettable music score including a rather famous opening theme that became synonymous with Israel for years afterward.  Paul Newman in his prime took the leading role, as Ari Ben Canaan, the intrepid, angry, sometimes morose Palestinian Jew who cannot see any future for the Jewish people unless a state is declared. He represents those Jews, then as now who are willing to die for that purpose, the purpose of Zionism.

The entire film is 3hrs and 27min long, but it moves through the story keeping you interested so you don’t recognize its inordinate length. It is currently on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLicrU75se0

This is not the story of the war between the Arabs and Jews in 1948, rather it covers before that time when the Jews struggled to free themselves from the British primarily the years 1945-1948. While the war of 1948 has been covered ad infinitum, to the film’s great credit even in fiction the struggle against the British in “Exodus” might be the only documented drama on film of that part of history.

Several different story lines contained in the film, most of which converge on each other as the movie moves toward the inevitable conclusion of the British leaving Palestine and the Jews begin to defend their portioned territory against the expected invasion by the surrounding Arab countries.

Four seminal historic events bookmark and surround several developing story lines during the course of the film. The four incidents are not in chronological order however.  Uris, followed by Preminger used some heavy creative license to tell their story, one reason why the film cannot be considered historically accurate.

 

The Ship Exodus, caused world wide attention to the Jewish problem in Palestine. The fact that it was loaded with European Jews liberated from Nazi Germany carried heavy in the hearts of free people everywhere. The Haganna and the Jewish agency made the most of this and eventually won as the British acquiesced and allowed the ship to come to Palestine.

courtesy of JTA.org

First- the refugee ship “The Exodus.” Occurring in the summer of 1947 it became an international political protest of Jews surviving the Holocaust wanting entry into Palestine to work on the dream of creating their own country. The British, caught in the middle between both the west and the East led by the Untied States and the Soviet Union calling on the English government to let the Exodus go to Palestine and allow those survivors of Hitler’s annihilation, who had already been through a hell everyone else could never really know,  enter the land of their forefathers.

 

Second-The bombing of the King David Hotel famous for its violence and the killing of 91 people was ordered and

courtesy of wikipedia.org

courtesy of wikipedia.org

carried out by Menachem Begin’s Urgun in July, 1946, more than a year before the events taking place in the film.  The Urgun and the more ultra nationalist LEHI (the Stern Gang) believed that violence, not negotiation would get the results all Jews wanted. In the Urgun’s defense the British were warned three times to remove all personnel from the Hotel before they blew it up. To Begin’s ever regret fifteen Jews were among  the 91 fatalities in the bombing.  Begin  went on to become the first conservative Prime Minister of Israel in the 1970s and was the initializer of peace between Egypt and the Jewish State.

Jewish inmates during Passover in Acre Prison, courtesy of Jpost.org

Jewish inmates during Passover in Acre Prison, courtesy of Jpost.org

Third- The breakout at acre prison. The breakout actually happened in May 1947, not just before the partition vote, and did not have anything to do with securing soldiers after the UN vote as talked about in the story  line in the movie and the book. The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) had not even gone to Palestine yet to make their recommendation about how to proceed on finding a solution to the Palestine problem in May of 1947.

 

 

 

Fourth- The UN partition vote on November  29, 1947 which divided the contested Palestine into two States

courtesy of eipa.eu.com

courtesy of eipa.eu.com

one Jewish and one Arab. This was more or less historically accurate except for the fact that Lee J. Cobb, playing Barack ben Canaan read the UN vote to the people waiting in the plaza instead of David Ben Gurion the head of the Jewish agency. The movie ends with what was supposed to be the beginning of the Arab “General strike” which in reality began on December 2nd,  when Arabs began their reign of terror and fear on the Jewish community, starting what most historians believe was the beginning  of Israel’s War of Independence.

There are many criticisms about the movie. The over the top language, the apparent disregard to keep even to a semblance of the real history and  Newman’s scene stealing presence when it wasn’t necessary. Those blue eyes and that familiar gait when he walked was enough for Paul Newman anytime he was in a movie. Preminger must have misjudged his audiences’ reaction to Newman’s charisma. But, it appears he made that mistake with most of his main characters. You only have to watch the movie to become embarrassed by the 1960s Preminger style of movie making.

One of the other major criticisms I have with “Exodus”  which might fall more to Leon Uris here rather than Otto Preminger is that it was a fictional account of a true story. Such compositizing of real characters usually reserved for dramatic effect works well in other forums seemed somehow silly for this particular story. The founding of the State of Israel needs no extra dramatic effect. The real story has so much human drama attached to it, that to draw composites of  real characters and events takes away from the triumph of the Jews and their state.

The Ben Canaan family made up the entire struggle against the British mandate. The two brothers one being the Menachem begin character for the Urgun and the other covering all other aspects of Jewish politics from Prime minister to foreign diplomat. And of course, Paul Newman as the intrepid Haganna commander giving orders through his overly emphasized bad moods.  No other characters were needed to fulfill the drama of Israel’s coming birth.

In other words if the Ben Canaan family had never gone to Palestine you can deduce from Exodus that independence would never have happened. A ridiculous notion. So many heroes with unbending courage and conviction from individuals all playing a part in the establishment of the state, the true story would have been a more compelling tale.  Combined with the Hollywood glitz of Technicolor and Panavision could have chronicled  a genuinely righteous  document  before Israel went to war against the Arabs, the other half of that story that dominates that history.

On  a positive side, the movie was filmed in Israel and cypress in the late 1950s so you if your curious as to what the Middle East might have looked like when our parents’ generation was  smoking Marlboro cigarettes and tuning into the Beverly Hillbillies on Tuesday nights take a look. The movie might be worth seeing it just for that window into the past of what it look liked.

Three reasons to watch this movie. One, Otto Preminger’s Exodus might not be the best vehicle to express it, but it is enjoyable while giving you a sense of the Jewish struggle to remove the British from their homeland. Two, the Jews after the discovery of the full brunt of the Holocaust accelerated their independence demands on the British to leave probably by ten years or more. That desperation is evident in the film. And three, people need to know that the Arab states were not  the only obstacle to Jewish independence in Palestine and this movie is one the rare stories that documents it.

If you like you can watch the movie from here. just click on it  and enjoy

photo at the top courtesy of imgbuddy.com

Come to my website for more essays, reports, historical exposes, movie reviews and much more at hartnation.com

 

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