Some 65 years after a band of foreign volunteers fought in the skies above Israel to assure the nation’s birth and survival, filmmakers are racing to bring their exploits to the screen before the last of the breed passes away.
Among the competing producers and their financial backers are such famous names as Spielberg and Lansky, and although their budgets fall well short of Hollywood standards, their competitive spirits are just as intense.
In the first desperate months after Israel declared its independence in May 1948 and immediately faced an onslaught from five Arab nations, overseas pilots and their crews made up 90 percent of the fledgling Israeli Air Force. Their role at a time when Egyptian forces were closing in on Tel Aviv may well be compared to that of the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain in World War II.
They came mainly from English-speaking countries, almost all of them had fought against the Axis powers in World War II, and one-fifth of their number were non-Jews. In Israel, they were considered Anglo-Saxons and, more officially, members of Machal, the Hebrew acronym for what translates as “volunteers from outside the land.”
Three filmmakers are pushing hard to wrap up separate productions related to the story of these volunteers between the end of this year and 2015.
Nancy Spielberg, producer of “Above and Beyond: The Creation of the Israeli Air Force,” is the youngest of Steven Spielberg’s three sisters and has the considerable advantage of sharing the surname of Hollywood royalty.
Her main challenger is Mike Flint, producer of “Angels in the Sky: The Birth of Israel.” He was raised on tales of derring-do by his father, Mitchell Flint, who battled Japanese planes in World War II and then joined Israel’s famous 101 Squadron in 1948.
Spielberg, who lives in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, and Flint, an Angeleno, also face competition from Boaz Dvir of the University of Florida in Gainesville, who has been working on “A Wing and a Prayer” since 2007.
Of the four Spielberg siblings, Nancy is the most connected to Israel, having spent a year working on a religious kibbutz. With a kosher home and as a Shabbat observer, she is also the most religious of the Spielberg clan.
About 10 years ago, the Hollywood grapevine had it that Steven Spielberg was planning a feature film on the genesis of the Israeli Air Force, so when Nancy started getting serious about her own project, she alerted him.
“I didn’t want to step on my big brother’s toes,” she said.
However, he encouraged his sister to go ahead, contributed a modest amount toward her $1.3 million budget and noted that if her documentary was well received, it might inspire a future feature film. Backers include other family members, actor Kirk Douglas and “100 small donors,” she said.
Spielberg has assembled a crew, headed by San Fernando Valley-bred director Roberta Grossman (“Hava Nagila (The Movie)” and “Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh”) but does not expect to complete “Above and Beyond” until 2015.
Her film is aimed chiefly at North American audiences, and although the Machal airmen came from a dozen countries, she is focusing solely on stories of the American and Canadian fliers. Spielberg views her subject and its participants with obvious awe.
“These men are heroes, and the stories of their exploits are incredible. It is an honor to talk to them and to show others what they did.”
Flint is an ebullient type and an enthusiastic promoter who hardly pauses for breath, or for anything else, when describing his documentary, “Angels in the Sky.”
“I’ve been preparing for this film all my life, ever since I heard my dad talk about his experiences as a fighter pilot,” Flint said. Five years ago, he started thinking seriously about making a film on the exploits of his father and fellow pilots during the 1948 War of Independence.
On his resume, Flint lists his background as former head of the story department at Paramount Pictures, his participation in the development of such films as “Top Gun” and “Forrest Gump” and now as founder of the Producer & Management Entertainment Group.
He pegs his budget for the documentary at about $4 million, or three times the size of Spielberg’s, and said that he has two-thirds of the amount pledged or in hand. By far the largest backer of the film — and its executive producer — is Mark Lansky, the nephew of Meyer Lansky, best remembered as the “brains” and “accountant” of the Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel gambling empires in the United States and Cuba during the 1930s and ’40s.
In addition to his association with the film, Mark Lansky producing a film on the life of his uncle, Meyer Lansky, based on the book "The Devil Himself" by Eric Dezenhall, and other sources that will focus on the more savory side of his uncle’s activities in helping to break up pro-Nazi rallies by the German American Bund in New York, his efforts to aid the U.S. war effort by keeping mob-controlled dock worker unions in line, and his clandestine work to supply an emerging Israel with money and weapons.
A retired businessman and financial adviser, Mark Lansky said that he and a small group of fellow investors are covering the bulk of the film’s budget, although he would not give specific dollar figures. The motive, he said repeatedly, is his conviction that “those who support Israel are blessed.”
Flint envisions that his “Angels in the Sky” will have a broader approach than Spielberg’s “Above and Beyond.” He wants to credit the contributions of the foreign airmen from all countries, not just North American, and pay special tribute to the Christian volunteers who joined their Jewish comrades in the battle for Israel.
Dvir, the third producer to tackle the Israeli Air Force story, teaches documentary filmmaking at the University of Florida. He has the advantage of hands-on experience in the genre and the handicap of a very modest budget of $189,000, mostly his own money.
Born in Israel, Dvir has interviewed 20 pilots, co-pilots and radio operators, as well as surviving family members of those who died during and since the 1948 war. Like Flint, Dvir has a personal link to his film, “A Wing and a Prayer,” which he hopes to release to television and through DVD sales by the end of this year.
“My father told me that, as a little boy in Tel Aviv, he stood on the balcony of his Tel Aviv apartment while an Egyptian Spitfire was bombing the city.
“Then my father looked up and saw a plane piloted by one of the Machal volunteers blast the Spitfire out of the sky. These men saved the city … but for them, I would not be here today.”
Dvir has finished shooting his 60-minute film and is now going into post-production.
It is not unusual in filmmaking, as in scientific and technological breakthroughs, for almost identical projects to go public at about the same time, but the nearly simultaneous arrival of these three films raises some questions.
For one: Why focus on the Israeli Air Force? Some 4,000 Machalniks from 58 countries fought in Israel’s War of Independence, the overwhelming number in the infantry, artillery and other ground forces, as well as in the navy.
Two low-key documentaries, which include interviews with overseas volunteers who served in the ground forces, were released last year. One is “My Brother’s Keeper” by New York Machalnik Ira Feinberg, the other by Stephanie Ronnet, whose film “804” refers to the number of South Africans who came to Israel’s aid during the war.
However, the lion’s share of film and press attention has been on the dashing flyboys, to the intense annoyance of the grunts of World War II and of Israel’s war (such as this reporter), who always saw the beribboned airmen walk off with the prettiest girls.
When the question was put to Spielberg, Flint and Dvir, they agreed in general that, for one, the airmen lent themselves to more dramatic treatment, and, second, that trying to tell the story of thousands of foot soldiers would diffuse the focus of their films.
More germane to the case at hand is why the three producers don’t pool their resources and talents and come up with one really major production.
There actually have been a number of attempts to do so, which have foundered so far on such Hollywood clichés as “creative differences,” as well as on conflicting egos. Dvir said he tried to make common cause with the two other producers, while Flint said he tried several times to enlist Spielberg’s cooperation.
A somewhat embittered Flint also charged that Spielberg had lured away some of the pilots slated to be interviewed in his production. Spielberg responded that filmmaking is above all a collaborative effort and that she felt that a joint enterprise with Flint “wouldn’t be the right fit.”
Such squabbles aside, it needs to be said that the War of Independence was first and foremost won by the Israelis themselves, who bore the overwhelming brunt of casualties in dead and wounded.
However, few would question that the story of the Machal volunteers on the ground, in the air and on the seas, is worth telling, if only to redeem — in some measure — the inaction of their Diaspora communities during the Holocaust.
With the vagaries of filmmaking and the shattered projects endemic to the trade, the hope is that one, or even all three, of the projects will last the course and preserve a brave chapter in Israel’s history for this and future generations.