January 4, 1998
Israel: The Arts
From heroic stories and dramaticrescues to critical portrayals, the movie industry has chronicled anation's history
This was thestory that had everything: a suffering, underdog people, outnumberedand surrounded by enemies, old and new, battling insuperable odds totriumph in a desert they had made bloom. It was "Rocky" before"Rocky," and Hollywood knew a good story when they saw it.
The strains of "Hatikvah" had barely faded in 1949when director George Sherman made "Sword in the Desert," with DanaAndrews and Jeff Chandler smuggling refugees out of Europe to theshores of Palestine. It was an old story recast. The wagons west hadturned into rust-bucket ships, the settlers were the Jews, theIndians were guess who, and Manifest Destiny had moved east.
By 1953, the angst was already beginning to creepin as Kirk Douglas played "The Juggler" in Eddie Dmytryk's film abouta disturbed victim of the camps trying to heal himself in the newcountry.
Then Leon Uris wrote "Exodus," and Israel hadarrived. This one had it all: the old, downtrodden ghetto Jewsturning into stand-up-straight, testosterone-laden freedom fighters.Hollywood smacked its lips. This was more like it.
More of the same followed in 1966, with KirkDouglas playing American Col. Micky Marcus, who creates the State ofIsrael with such other well-known Jews as Yul Brynner, Senta Berger,Angie Dickinson and Frank Sinatra.
In 1966, there was one for the boys, with SophiaLoren as "Judith," a particularly glamorous Neapolitan version of aJewish wife joining with the guys from the Hagannah to track down herex-Nazi war-criminal husband. How's that again?
By the 1970s, Hollywood had dumped Israel in favorof a "sexier" story -- the hunt for Nazi war criminals. "The OdessaFile," "The Boys From Brazil" and John Schlesinger's "Marathon Man"made it to the big screen, while the big David and Goliath story ofthe 1970s -- the miraculous rescue of a planeload of Jewishpassengers by Israeli forces at an airport in Entebbe, Uganda -- wasrelegated to television, where it underwent two rival recreations:one of them exciting stuff, the other an embarrassment.
Among the other stories passed over by Hollywoodwas the infamous massacre of the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972Munich Games; that had to wait another decade before getting any kindof an airing. Mysteriously, the biggest war-criminal hunt -- thedecades-long search for Adolf Eichmann -- didn't rate a big-screenversion either; it showed up on television in 1979 as "The House OnGaribaldi Street," with Topol and Janet Suzman.
By the 1980s, a new and disturbing tone had creptinto movies dealing with Israel, which was now a successful modernstate, beset by enemies within and without. It was also, if you go byits big-screen portrait, an arrogant police state, where anadmittedly super-intelligent spy network and deadly efficientsecurity forces took upon themselves powers that no democracy shouldtolerate. Exhibit A: "Hannah K.," made in 1983, was a French-financedfilm, in English, directed by that scourge of fascist hordeseverywhere, the Greek Costa-Gavras. Jill Clayburgh played an Americanlawyer defending an Arab unjustly accused of terrorism.
Exhibit B: "The Little Drummer Girl" (1984), inwhich John Le Carre's interesting novel about a band of Israelis andone of Arabs battling for the loyalty of a flaky, young actress gotwhat purported to be an even-handed Hollywood treatment.
On television, the view of Israel was more benign.At the beginning of the decade, "A Woman Called Golda" told the story-- one would swear it was fiction except that it was all true -- ofthe extraordinary woman who rose to become prime minister ofIsrael.
In 1986, the Munich massacres finally got amention. In "Sword of Gideon,"Michael York and Rod Steiger created anIsraeli commando unit to avenge the Olympic killings. A strictly forthrills soap, it could have been about any commandos, any time,anywhere.
And then therewas a strange little hybrid -- "Every Time We Say Goodbye," aromantic Romeo and Juliet story set against a background of 1942Jerusalem.
By now, Israelis were getting into theinternational film business themselves, and producer Menahem Golanattempted in 1988 to resurrect the old heroic Israel on film with"Hanna's War," the story of Hanna Senesh, who was executed in Hungaryas a spy. It was definitely a case of too little, too late.
Now in the 1990s, Israel has virtually disappearedfrom the Hollywood screen. Irish freedom fighters are the flavor ofthe month, Irish Americans being apparently less disaffected from thehomeland than Jewish Americans. Try pitching an Israeli subject to astudio mogul these days, and watch for the skid marks as he ushersyou out.
New and dramatic stories of Israel do abound --from the assassination of Rabin, to the resettlement of theEthiopians and the Russians, to the religious and cultural conflicttearing the country apart, to the scandals in Mossad and ShinBet.
Will any of them make it to the screen? Don't holdyour breath.
Below, Kirk Douglas and John Wayne in "Cast aGiant Shadow." Top, Paul Newman in "Exodus."
Maruscka Detmers as Hanna Senesh in the 1988film "Hanna's War."
"The Juggler" (1953)
The first film to deal with the mental problems ofthe survivors of the camps. Kirk Douglas plays a once-famous EuropeanJuggler who becomes a violent resident of a DP camp in Israel, wherethe facility's psychiatrist takes an interest in his case. Douglasruns away and, in the company of a young orphan, leads the camera ona tour across Israel before finally realizing he is ill and needshelp.
A titanic struggle in a leaky boat. A genuineJewish hero, who doesn't look Jewish, falls in love with a blond Shiksa Goddess and defies the Brits, the Arabs and the Irgun with equal vigor. Itgave Jews everywhere a lump in the throat, and Paul Newman, as AriBen Canaan, did more to foster aliyah in the 1960s, especiallyamong young women, than the combined efforts of the entire WorldZionist establishment. The Teutonic Otto Preminger kept the troops inline, and writer Dalton Trumbo wrestled valiantly with Uris'wandering scenario.
"Cast a Giant Shadow" (1966)
The fight for the Jewish state, American-style, asKirk Douglas, playing Col. Micky Marcus, a West Point Graduate, NewYork attorney and soldier of fortune, throws over domestic life andAngie Dickinson to go fight Arabs, the United Nations and worldopinion. Hackneyed flashbacks to Marcus' WWII exploits get in the wayof the story.
Judith, as played by Sophia Loren, spent the waryears in Dachau, thanks to the betrayal of her Nazi husband. She'sout for vengeance, and so is the Hagannah, who find in Judithconvenient bait to trap her husband. The real star of the show,however, is Peter Finch, the late Australian actor doing one of hisnot infrequent and entirely credible portraits of Israelis. Anotherwas his portrayal of Rabin in "Raid on Entebbe."
"Victory at Entebbe" (1976)
In spite of, or maybe because of, a cast ofheavyweights, including Elizabeth Taylor, Kirk Douglas (there he isagain), Burt Lancaster and Helen Hayes, this version of the stirringstory was strictly a quickie, adding nothing whatsoever to ourunderstanding of just how remarkable the raid was.
"Raid on Entebbe" (1976)
By far the better version. Peter Finch was superb.Yaphet Kotto was a great Idi Amin, and even the presence of CharlesBronson -- yes, really -- failed to dampen the excitement.
"A Woman Called Golda" (1982)
A mercifully unsentimentalized portrait of Golda,warts and all. Australian actress Judy Davis was superb as the feistyyoung Golda, and Ingrid Bergman won an Emmy in this, her lastperformance. She gave dignity without solemnity to the prime ministerof Israel.
"The Little Drummer Girl" (1984)
The book, unfairly criticized as pro-Arab when itappeared, turns into a potentially interesting movie ruined by ineptcasting: Diane Keaton as a Vanessa Redgrave-style pro-Arab Britishactress recruited by Israeli intelligence to capture an ace Arabterrorist; Klaus Kinski as the head of the Israeli squad who trainsher; and the Greek actor Yorgo Voyagis as the hunky Israeli whosnares Keaton into the plot. The Israelis emerge as marginally moremoral than the Arabs, and Keaton appears to take sides based on whichterrorist is sexier at the time.
"Every Time We Say Goodbye" (1986)
Though corny as cotton candy, this romantic weepydirected by Israeli Moshe Mizrahi, is of interest for the fact thatit features an early performance by a soon-to-be-major-star TomHanks. Hanks is a Canadian in the British Royal Airforce who falls inlove with the daughter of an upper-class family who has lived inPalestine for centuries. The film offers another take on the"marrying out" question and an interesting portrait of ancientSephardic traditions.
"Hanna's War" (1988)
Well-intentioned but simplistic telling of themoving Senesh story. Hanna, played by Maruscka Detmers, leaves behindthe anti-Semitism of her native Hungary to go to Palestine, where theBritish recruit her to go back to Nazi-occupied Hungary as a spy. Sheis arrested, tortured and ultimately executed, and becomes as closeto a saint as Israel has. Newcomer Detmers gives little insight intoSenesh's courage or spiritual strength. --S.O.D.
Sally Ogle Davis writes about entertainment from Ventura.