Exodus (1960) is adapted from the blockbuster novel by Leon Uris. It is set in Cyprus and Palestine during the British Mandate period of 1947-48. First it follows the misadventures of a boatload of Jewish refugees from Europe whom the British imprison in Cyprus rather than allow them entry to Palestine, then it follows characters on that boat and their friends and lovers through the events leading up to Independence in 1948.
The movie was produced and directed by Otto Preminger, and it starred Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint, Ralph Richardson, Peter Lawford, Lee J. Cobb, and Sal Mineo. One notable aspect of the movie is that it was filmed entirely on location in Cyprus and in Israel. Paul Newman makes an odd-looking Israeli, but every scrap of the scenery is authentic. Given that the real star of Exodus is the land itself, Eretz Israel, that is especially appropriate.
Other notable facts: Otto Preminger hired Dalton Trumbo to adapt the screenplay from the novel, despite the fact that he was one of the people on the Hollywood blacklist. This marked one of the first times a major director “broke” the blacklist.
Exodus won the Oscar for Best Music, and Sal Mineo received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Exodus is another film that runs deep in the Jewish-American psyche; I have listed it as a must-see. It is an excellent way to experience the narrative of the foundation of the State of Israel as many American and Israeli Zionists understand it.
It reflects a time when many Israelis were thoroughgoing socialists, when the “black hat” orthodox of Eastern Europe were believed to be dying out, when tourism in the area was unthinkable, when no one at all was talking about “Greater Israel.” Europe was interested in getting rid of the few Jews who had survived the Holocaust, and because no one else wanted them either, they were living in DP (displaced persons) camps. There were three groups of Jews in Palestine at this point, the “Old Yishuv” Jews who had been in the land all along (and who do not figure into this film at all), the Sabras (Jews born in Israel, whose parents or grandparents had settled there from Europe) and the new immigrants, mostly survivors of the Holocaust, who managed to get into the country despite the British blockade.
The film was a huge undertaking, one of the most elaborate of its time, and it is impressive but flawed. Uris’s novel is simply too massive for a film adaptation; both plot and characters are truncated to make them fit. As history, it has obvious flaws (starting with the fact that nearly all the characters are fictional, and the fictional characters crowd out the historical ones.) Why, then, is it a must-see? It is because if you want to understand why so many Jews feel passionate about the need for Israel, this film is a good place to begin. It is also a must-see because it is a way to see the Land itself.
Many of the events in the film really happened: there was a ship Exodus. The King David Hotel was indeed bombed by the Irgun. There was a prison break from the fortress of Acre. And of course, there was a War of Independence immediately after partition in 1948.
Just don’t be in a hurry: Exodus is one LONG film, 212 minutes. Make yourself and a friend some popcorn, and settle in for a long evening, because after it is done, you’ll want to talk.
Watch Exodus before or after watching Gentleman’s Agreement. They are set in exactly the same time period, one in Europe and the Middle East, the other in the United States. Keep in mind as you watch that the attitudes in Gentleman’s Agreement were the attitudes of the U.S. State Department as it participated in the U.N. discussions so critical to events in Exodus.