Category Archives: United States

The Heartbreak Kid

I have not yet had an opportunity to write a commentary for this film, but I recommend the comments on it in The Top 10 Interfaith Films by Michael Fox.

Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds (2009) was described by its creator, Quentin Tarantino, as “a spaghetti western but with World War II iconography.”  It is a fantasy about a group of Jewish American soldiers “The Basterds”) who travel around occupied France hunting down, killing, and scalping Nazis.   The film opened to an enthusiastic box-office and mixed critical reviews.

Reviews

After talking to friends who had seen the film, I decided not to view it.  The violence level in this film is far beyond my tolerance.  Instead, I will point you to some reviews around the web:

Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun Times)

Manohla Dargis (New York Times)

Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times)

Tassoula’s Movie Review Blog

thumbsupordown

The Movie Blog.com

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Funny Girl

Funny Girl is a highly fictionalized account of the rise to stardom of the great Jewish American clown Fanny Brice.  It was a hugely successful film musical in 1968, made from the equally successful Broadway show, and it introduced Barbra Streisand to American moviegoers.  It is above all else a premier star vehicle, and it still holds the moment of recognition:  a star really was born in that film.

It follows Brice from humble beginnings on the Lower East Side of New York, and it offers romanticized glimpses of that legendary home to Jewish immigrants and their children.  In the film, Brice is pictured as the only child of a single mother who struggles to make ends meet.  Fanny is a talented singer and comic who is not sufficiently pretty to make it as a chorus girl.  She parlays mishaps in her one chance on a burlesque stage into a show-stopping song that inspires the boss to hire the hapless chorus girl as a singer.  That same night she meets Nicky Arnstein, (Omar Sharif) a professional gambler with whom she falls madly in love.

As her career soars, his luck falters.  At the end of the film, Fanny is alone but still strong, still singing as only Streisand can.

Commentary

I have tagged  Funny Girl as “US History,” but that has to do with the film’s place in history, not with the film as history.  It was the Oscar-winning debut of a great American Jewish entertainer, Barbra Streisand.  It was made during the same period as the Six Day War, and the kiss between Streisand (a Jew, and vocal supporter of Israel) and Sharif (an Egyptian actor) was very controversial at the time.

As biography, the film is nearly pure fiction:  do not take it as a bio-pic about Fanny Brice.  The film and the play from which it was made were produced by Ray Stark, Brice’s son-in-law.  Nick Arnstein was still living, and still his father-in-law.  The real Arnstein was a con man who had done time in Sing Sing prison before he and Fanny were married, and who in real life sponged cheerfully from her, eventually dumping her when it suited him to do so.

Brice, on the other hand, is made a lot ditzier and less professional in the interest of entertainment.  The real-life Brice may have had very poor judgment about men, but she was a consummate professional who would not have quit a show to run off and get married, or given Ziegfeld an ulcer with her antics.  For more about the differences between the film and reality, check out John Kenrick’s excellent article on Musicals101.com.

Some things about this film haven’t aged well; I tend to agree with Roger Ebert that, “It is impossible to praise Miss Streisand too highly; hard to find much to praise about the rest of the film.”   If you want to see why baby-boomers get crazy about Barbra Streisand, see this film.  The great movie that could be made about the true story of Fanny Brice is, alas, yet to be made.

Video Bonus

2001 Re-Issue Trailer for Funny Girl

Rare footage of a performance by Fanny Brice

Bugsy

Bugsy (1991) is a fictionalized, romanticized film about the last ten years of the life of Jewish gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, played by Warren Beatty.  It begins in 1937, when Siegel was sent by the Mob in New York to California to develop gambling rackets on the West Coast.  “Bugsy” (known by that name because of his violent temper) became enchanted with the bright lights of Hollywood and with his vision of a luxury gambling casino and hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada.  The film traces the story of his growing passion for the hotel (the Flamingo) and his love affair with Virginia Hill, played by Annette Bening.  Seigel longed for two things: legitimacy and glamor, and he thought that Las Vegas held the promise of both.  As his longing turned to obsession, he made promises he could not keep to his Syndicate bosses and bankrollers.  He died in a rain of bullets in his home in Beverly Hills.

The film opened to warm reviews and strong box office receipts. It was eventually nominated for 10 Academy Awards, of which it won 2, for art direction and costume design.

Commentary

No doubt about it, Bugsy is a marvelously entertaining film and a treat to watch.  The period sets and costumes are beautiful, the script is excellent, the actors are wonderful, and we have the added pleasure of watching Warren Beatty and Annette Bening fall in love on the screen before our eyes.  (They married after this film, and remain married to this day.)  The trouble is that while it’s a great movie, it’s also wonderful fiction.  The real Bugsy Siegel may have been as handsome as Beatty, but in real life he was a much uglier character, a stone-cold murderer who was known and feared for his crazed rages and cruelty.

However, the film points to a part of American Jewish history that is often glossed over:  there was indeed a Jewish Mafia that operated during the first three quarters of the 20th century in the United States, with roots in the 19th century.  Jewish mobsters are often pictured as the “accountants” of the Mob, a stereotype that this film perpetuates with its depiction of Meyer Lansky, played by Ben Kingsley.  In fact, as the life of Bugsy Siegel shows, they were violent men engaged in organized crime who often died violent deaths.  (Lansky was an exception.  He retired to Miami Beach.)  Within the Jewish community there is often an urge either to romanticize them (as with this screenplay) or to forget them altogether.  The truth is much more complicated, and an interesting contrast to stereotypes of Jews as bookish and weak:  these were men who were completely unafraid of a fight, as Rich Cohen points out in his book about them, Tough Jews.

One other thing to note about the gangsters:  while the American Jewish community doesn’t talk about them much, Anti-Semites are obsessed with the Jewish Mafia.   They tell tall tales suggesting that the gangsters were part of an international conspiracy by the Jews.  The truth is bad enough, but those men were in no way part of a larger Jewish plan.  That is one reason it is worth learning the genuine facts, however unpleasant.

See this film for a good time, but don’t take it too seriously.  If you are curious about the Jewish gangsters, check out Cohen’s book, or any of the other good books on the subject.

Next Stop, Greenwich Village

There is a time in American life when we are just past adolescence, but not yet fully adult.  This is the time explored in Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976), a semi-autobiographical film written and directed by Paul Mazursky.   Set in Greenwich Village in 1953, it is not just a special time in a young man’s life, it is also a special time in the history of New York, when it was the epicenter of artistic ferment.  Greenwich Village attracted young men and women who wanted to break the rules and explore the world, and the protagonist, Larry Lapinsky (played by Lenny Baker) is just such a young man.  He wants to be an actor, and he works and studies to make his dream come true, while working a day job at a health food store.

Larry and his friends form a family of sorts, an assortment of characters, including early performances by Christopher Walken, Lois Smith, and Jeff Goldblum.  But Larry finds it difficult to leave his Brooklyn family behind, mostly because his mother, Faye, (played by Shelly Winters) keeps following him, dragging his father along to his apartment at inappropriate hours.

We see Larry through this transition in his life, right up until he comes to a truce with Mama and a new stage of life.   In the last frames of the film, he is walking down his old street in Brooklyn, munching on Mama’s strudel, saying goodbye to childhood, for real this time.

Commentary

Larry Lapinsky is not a “religious” Jew.  In the opening scene of the film, we see him take a yarmulke out of the bureau drawer as he is packing to leave home. He puts it on his head, looks in the mirror, shrugs, and drops it back into the drawer.  For him, religion is something that went with childhood:  he’s over all that now.

And yet for all that, this is a film about a young Jew in the transition from adolescent to man.  His mother is out of control, drives him crazy, and is the personification of the over-protective Jewish mother stereotype.  Shelley Winters is a force of nature, whining, screeching, cajoling, seducing, bribing, sulking, and flipping out:  she is a nightmare mom with whom her son is hopelessly entangled.  (Whatever you think of the stereotype, her performance is breathtaking.)

This is perhaps the most troubling aspect of this film:  as Rabbi Brian Zimmerman pointed out in a comment elsewhere on this blog, many film directors and writers have been less than kind to Jewish mothers.  Faye is perhaps the worst of the mothers appearing in the films on this list, and yet in Winter’s capable hands, she holds an attraction for the audience, just as she does for Larry’s friends.

As those of youwho have read other commentaries in this blog know, I am interested and bothered by the depiction of Jewish women on screen.  For all the charms of this film (and most critics say it is Mazursky’s finest) the Jewish women in this film fall into unpleasant stereotypes a bit too easily.  Mama is a harridan, clingy and shameless in her manipulation.  Sarah, the girlfriend, can’t commit to anything.  Connie, played by Dori Brenner, the least developed of the Jewish women, is sweet and motherly: a bit too sweet and motherly, waiting patiently for someone to need her, and it is all too easy to see her as a younger version of Mama.

Double Features

Rabbi Zimmerman suggested a trilogy of films depicting Jewish mothers:  (1) Next Stop Greenwich Village, for the poisonous image of Mama, (2) Crossing Delancey, for the warm relationship of grandmother and granddaughter and (3) Kissing Jessica Stein, for an entirely new portrait of a Jewish mother in film.

The Nutty Professor

nuttyprofessorIn Jerry Lewis‘s most famous film, The Nutty Professor (1963) Professor Julius Kelp, a bookish chemistry professor concocts a formula to transform himself into a strong, suave hipster.   His new creation, “Buddy Love,” is strong, suave, and hip, but he is also cruel, misogynist, and a jerk.   Buddy Love romances Stella Purdy, the student that Professor Kelp admires from afar, and she finds herself mysteriously drawn to a man she does not admire.  In the end, the potion proves unstable, and Buddy Love is unmasked.  The ending of the film is curiously ambivalent, with Prof. Kelp rejecting the formula, and his new wife, Stella, tucking two bottles of it in her back pockets.

Loosely based on R.L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the movie has gotten mixed reviews over the years:  it has been hailed as a masterpiece and reviled as a mess.  There were rumors that it was Lewis’ revenge on Dean Martin, his one-time partner in comedy; other critics have suggested that Buddy Love is a portrait of Lewis’s own dark side.  In interviews, he has rejected both theories, saying that he was fascinated with the Jekyll/Hyde story as a child, and that it “clicked” in his mind as “Jekyll/Hyde = Funny/Not.” From that beginning, he grew the screenplay and the characters.

Commentary

No characters in this film identify as Jewish.  Still, Jerry Lewis is Jewish, and whether he intended it or not, this film is a brilliant  example of the traditional Jewish concept of the yetzer hatov [the good inclination] and the yetzer harah [the “evil” inclination, an inclination to selfish gratification] in every human being.

The term yetzer harah is somewhat misleading, since in fact this selfish inclination is as necessary for life and a complete person as the yetzer hatov.  There is a story in the Talmud, Tractate Yoma 69b, that the Great Assembly decided to cast out the yetzer harah from all of Israel.  Then they found, after a time, that “there was not an egg to be found” in the entire land.  What this means is that without the urge to selfish gratification, no reproduction occurred.  Other versions of the story say that no business was done, either.  Life cannot go on without the yetzer harah; our task is to live with it and subdue it, to act according to the dictates of the Law even when our selfishness would have us act otherwise.

Buddy Love is Professor Kelp’s yetzer harah:  he is physical, brutal, handsome, and cruel.  He has no difficulty approaching women, and has a strange attraction for them, despite his brutality.  He is utterly selfish.  He drinks too much.  He is greedy for attention.  He wants, and he takes what he wants.

The professor is bookish, brilliant, and timid.  He is physically weak but mentally strong.  He is devoted to education and science.  He pursues physical strength after being humiliated in public by a bully, initially for revenge and later because he becomes intellectually fascinated by the problem.  He pursues his scientific quest with great single-mindedness.  He also has a crush upon the lovely Stella Purdy (played by Stella Stevens) and could not possibly bring himself to act upon that crush. Without Buddy Love, without his yetzer harah, the Professor would never, ever approach Stella.

The conclusion of the film brings the necessity of the yetzer harah into focus.  Professor Kelp, still a nebbish, is loved and managed now by his beloved Stella.  His father and mother appear, and have made up bottles of the formula to sell for a profit.  The professor rejects this, but Stella redirects his attention to their upcoming marriage.  It is only when the two of them walk away from the camera that we see that Stella has tucked into her back pockets two bottles of the magic formula. In measured doses, confined within marriage, Buddy Love will keep love alive between the two of them.  Some critics have argued that the Jekyll/Hyde story line is never resolved in the film; I would argue that this is a uniquely Jewish resolution.

Double Feature

Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors also looks at the yetzer harah in human beings, especially in men.   His characters agonize over their choices, putting the struggle to be good and the inclination to selfish gratification on full display.

Something else to think about

Watching The Nutty Professor, I kept thinking that it was also an interesting investigation of gender.  One of the Professor’s most pronounced attributes is his high-pitched, feminine voice.  It is the first aspect of the Professor that pops out when the potion wears off.  Buddy Love has a deep, stereotypically masculine voice, and as the potion weakens, his voice ascends to the Professor’s squeak.

Talmudist Daniel Boyarin has written extensively about Judaism and gender, including Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture and Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man.   Dr. Boyarin argues that traditional Jewish standards for manliness included a devotion to study and an rejection of Roman standards of masculinity (physicality, violence, etc.).

The Nutty Professor was made in 1963.  American Jewish men were faced with hard choices in finding their own place in American society:  would they conform to traditional Jewish standards for masculinity, or throw that over for a new American image of a “man’s man”?  Might The Nutty Professor be an expression of this dilemma?

 

Body and Soul

BodyandSoulBody and Soul (1947) is most famous as a boxing film: cinematographer James Wong Howe had been a Golden Gloves boxer himself, and filmed the fight scenes in the ring, on roller skates, creating film that would set the bar for boxing films for decades ahead, notably Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.  It is the story of a young Jewish man, Charlie Davis (played by John Garfield) East Side son of a candy store operator, who has a talent for “nothing much but boxing.”  His father dies when a Mob bombing of the speakeasy next door destroys his shop. Charlie is a “wild” boy but a good one, and will not fight against his mother’s wishes until Mama (played by Anne Revere) is left without the means to support herself.  A pivotal moment:

Charlie: Shorty! Shorty, get me that fight from Quinn. I want money. Do you understand? Money, money!
Mama: I forbid, I forbid. Better buy a gun and shoot yourself.
Charlie: You need MONEY to buy a gun!

Money becomes the be-all and end-all of Charlie’s life.  He is successful as a fighter, but to be in championship fights, he needs to cozy up to the men who run the big fights, and not incidentally fix the big fights.  He insists to his best friend (played by Joseph Pevney) that it doesn’t matter if “they” want to buy his arm — after all it’s Charlie’s arm to sell, if he wants to.  He makes lots of money, and he spends lots of money, and eventually he is told by the crooked promoter who “owns” him that he must throw a fight.

The film was a special project of actor John Garfield, who searched for years for the right screenplay for a boxing film.  The screenplay for Body and Soul, by Abraham Polonsky, was nominated for an Academy Award, as was Garfield’s acting.  The film won the 1947 Oscar for Best Editing.

Commentary

The dialogue in the film barely mentions the fact that Charlie Davis is a Jew:  certainly the name isn’t Jewish.  However, there are dozens of clues that make it clear that Polonsky was thinking of a Jewish boxer when he made the film (and production notes included as an extra in the Region 1 DVD release confirm) that originally Garfield was interested in making a biopic of a Jewish boxer who had drug problems, preventing the script from being greenlighted in that form.  Even though the biopic fell through, the screenplay of Body and Soul mentions that Charlie is Jewish, and his mother is determined and vocal about Jewish values of education, of not wasting, of modesty (against ostentation), and family.

Anna Davis (Mama) is adamant that Charlie is going to get an education.  She and her husband may have been small-time merchants, living on the East Side, but she has big dreams for her son, all of which have more to do with education than with wealth.  She is furious at the idea of him as a boxer.  This tension between the generations is a frequent theme in American Jewish film, from The Jazz Singer in 1927 to The Chosen in 1982, to Crossing Delancey in 1988.  How are the old Jewish values of the “old country” going to translate to New York of the 20’s or the 80’s?

Note, too, that the men making money on Charlie are white:  Charlie is a Jew, the champ he unseats is African American, and his opponent in the big fight at the end is a Texas hillbilly.  (Remember, in 1947, Jews were not yet considered “white” — see Gentleman’s Agreement, below.)

The moralistic plot (which may seem a bit heavy-handed for modern audiences) is a parable on the dangers and seductions of money, spun out with rabbinical details.  Three friends warn Charlie of the dangers of his path:  his fiance, his friend Shorty, and his trainer, Ben.  He is so mesmerized by the cash that he cannot hear any of them.  Other friends, “evil companions” straight out of midrash, encourage him to remain obsessed with making and spending “dough”.

In a post-Madoff age, this old film takes on a new edge:  if you wonder how Bernie Madoff could have done what he did, look at the gleam in Charlie Davis’s eyes.

Double Feature

John Garfield co-starred in another film in the same year, Gentleman’s Agreement, which deals much more overtly with Jewish issues.  Both Body and Soul and Gentleman’s Agreement had casts and crew who were decimated by the Hollywood Blacklist of the McCarthy Era; in some cases, this was the last American film they would make for 20 years or more.

Shanghai Ghetto

shanghaiShanghai Ghetto (2002) is a documentary by Dana Jancklowitz-Mann and Amir Mann chronicling the stories of German Jews who were able to escape Nazi Germany in the 1930’s by taking advantage of a loophole in passport operations in Japanese-occupied China.  At that time, the Jews of Germany were offered a choice with a very short time span:  either find somewhere to immigrate immediately or go to “resettlement” camps.  Even those who realized the seriousness of the situation were stymied:  no country in the world was accepting Jewish immigrants.   Jewish immigration to British-ruled Palestine was blocked.  The United States and other Western nations were closed to Jewish immigration.  There was nowhere to go.

Nowhere, except for a place where the chaos of war had already made enough havoc for a loophole:  The port of Shanghai was the only city in the world in which neither a visa nor a passport was required for entry.  Imperial Japan occupied Shanghai, and for various reasons chose neither to enforce Japanese nor Chinese passport operations there.  As a result, it was an open port:  a safe haven for the Jews who were able to scrape together the bribes to leave Germany and the steamship passage to get to China.

Once in China, they faced a new life, living in the slums of Shanghai among the Chinese residents.  They were helped by the Jews of China (another interesting story, one not sufficiently told in this documentary) and by the Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish organization that served Jewish refugees all over the world (and continues to exist today, operating out of Israel.)  As the war wore on, their lives became more and more difficult, but they survived, unlike countless relatives and friends left behind in Germany.

This documentary tells their story, through vintage film, through the memories and voices of the refugees themselves, and through poignant film footage of the now elderly refugees visiting modern-day Shanghai.  It is a simple, rather artless documentary, but the human story it tells is profound.

Commentary

Today it is difficult to comprehend how completely the Jewish People were abandoned by the rest of the world during the 1930’s and 1940’s.  Perhaps the greatest single contribution of this documentary is its testimony to what the world looked like without a homeland for the Jews.

The story told here is about the German Jews.  The film alludes to but says much less about the other Jewish communities in Shanghai.  The Baghdadi Jewish community had originated in Iraq (hence its name) resettling in India during the British Raj, and the few families in Shanghai were there doing business for British concerns.  There were also a Russian Jewish community which had moved to Shanghai after the pogroms of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The German Jews arrived in Shanghai just before the beginning of war in Europe.  After it began, other groups began to trickle into the Shanghai Ghetto.  A few Austrian and Czech Jewish families followed.  Then a small group of Polish Jews arrived, some of them the faculty from the Mir Yeshiva, the only one of the yeshivot of Europe to survive the war intact. In 1943, all the Jews of Shanghai, Baghdadi, Russian, German, Polish, and so on were crowded into a ghetto less than a mile square and kept there by order of the Japanese army.  There they remained until the end of the war.

In Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of the Fathers, Hillel is quoted:  “In a place where there are no human beings, be a human being.”  I was struck, watching this film, how the Jews in this miserable situation managed to construct a society that worked despite the losses, the deprivations, the uncertainties, and starvation.  Our communities today, living in relative safety and prosperity, could stand to learn a thing or two from them.

Pi

PiPi (1998) is a daring low-budget psychological thriller written and directed by Darren Aronofsky .  Max Cohen, a mathematical genius plagued with monumental headaches, lives locked in a small apartment in New York.  The apartment is filled with a supercomputer (“Euclid”) he has built himself.  Max (played by Sean Gullette) believes that the universe can be described with a single mathematical formula, if only he is clever and persistent enough to discern the formula.

Initially, Max examines the patterns in the stock market, and has enough success using his program to predict fluctuations there that he comes to the attention of a group of sinister, well-heeled Wall Street denizens.  Later, a group of Hasidic Jews in search of the Name of God convince him to look at Torah as a “string of numbers.”  Both groups view Max as a means to an end.

Meanwhile, Max’s headaches and his internal demons rage. Aronofsky uses an arsenal of electronic music, oddball film techniques, and high-contrast black and white photography to convey the wonder and misery of Max’s world.

As the British Channel 4 reviewer writes, the film is “disturbing, exhilarating, and sure to send anyone of conservative temperament scuttling from the room.”  Definitely NOT a film for children.

Commentary  (contains Spoilers)

The search for God has been a subject of art since the beginning of art.  This is a film about a man who uses his sacred language (mathematics) to try to approach the Divine Meaning behind Creation.  It is a Jewish film for our purposes here for three reasons:  (1) Max Cohen is an explicitly Jewish main character (2)  Max is both protected and threatened by a group of Hasidic Jews seeking to identify the Name of the Jewish God with gematria, and (3) the conclusion of the film is actually quite Jewish (although I’m interested in knowing if you think so, too.)

Max is a seeker after truth who has a teacher but no real friends.  The struggle with his teacher is interrupted in the middle of the film; Max is left to find his own way alone, pursued by people who want what he might find.  Max seeks what Paul Tillich, a Christian theologian, called the Ultimate Ground of Being:  a mathematical or numerical key to Everything.  The two groups who pursue him are also seeking access to their gods:  an unspecified Wall Street firm seeks Money (and Power) and a group of Hasidic Jews seek the Power of the Name of God. Max’s pursuit seems to be purer:  he is driven to seek the key, but we never have any sense of what he will do with it.  He is frantically attracted to it, and all of his life has been subsumed to that pursuit.

In the end, Max fails to capture the knowledge he seeks, and the end of the film was described as “disappointing” by many critics.  (What did they think, that the filmmaker had the Name of God and was going to give it to us?)  I was initially let down, too, but later began to wonder about it.

Max finally is overwhelmed by the pain and his madness, and takes a power drill to his own skull.  After that scene, the next we see is Max in the park, looking at the patterns in the trees, looking relaxed and happy.  A little girl comes by and asks him to solve a bit of arithmetic:  he declines, and smiles.

I am reminded of the tale of the four rabbis in Chagigah 14b (Babylonian Talmud.)

It is the cryptic story of four Sages who “entered pardes”. The Four sages were: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elisha Ben Abuyah, and Akiba ben Joseph. Exactly what “entering pardes” means is a mystery. Theories include that it is: mystical ascent, or esoteric interpretations of the Torah, or Paradise.  Whatever the reality behind the event, it was catastrophic for three of the rabbis. Ben Azzai “looked and died.” Ben Zoma “looked and lost his senses.” Ben Abuyah “cut the root,” and became known only as Acher, while Akiba alone emerged whole.

One interpretation of the story is that Ben Azzai was so captivated by what he saw he could not give it up and refused to return to his body. Ben Zoma became so immersed in the mysteries he had seen that he ceased to be able to function in life. Ben Abuyah saw Metatron, an angel.  Thinking he had seen another deity besides God, he declared “there are two powers in heaven” (he became a Gnostic) and turned against the Torah.  Only Akiba, the superb scholar, was able to peek into this reality and remain unscathed.

Questions

1.  What does seeking after the True Name of God have to do with Judaism?  Is it the same as, or different from, seeking the Truth?

2.  What did you think of the depiction of the Hasids in this film?

3.  Did Max fail, or did he succeed? How did you feel about the ending?  What does it say about efforts to understand the Truth behind the Universe?

Cast a Giant Shadow

MickeyMarcusCast a Giant Shadow (1966) is a fictionalized account of the story of David “Mickey” Marcus, a Jewish colonel in the U.S. Army who fought in the Israeli War of Independence. Before his involvement with the nascent State of Israel, he served in WWII in Europe, and was part of the occupation government in Berlin after the war.  Among other duties, he was involved in the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps.  Marcus grew up in Brooklyn, received a nominal Jewish education, and attended West Point.

David Ben Gurion named him aluf [general] of the Israeli Defense Forces, the first person to hold that title since Biblical times.  Marcus’s advice and participation was critical to Israeli success in the war, and he is remembered with great fondness in Israel.  He is also the only soldier buried at West Point who died fighting under a foreign flag.

Marcus is played by Kirk Douglas, and his son, Michael Douglas, had his first film role as a jeep driver.  Yul Brynner (who looks eerily like Moshe Dayan), Topol, Angie Dickenson, and Frank Sinatra also appear in the film.  John Wayne plays an unnamed American general.

Commentary

Col. Mickey Marcus was one of the “Machal” fighters (the Hebrew acronym for Mitnadvei Chutz La’aretz, “volunteers from outside Israel”).  This film tells his story, and along with it, gives one of the best screen depictions of some of the most famous aspects of the Israeli War of Independence.

Aside from a schlocky romance with a beautiful Israeli that Hollywood could not resist adding, the screenplay  is  largely in keeping with the only English-language biography of Marcus, Cast a Giant Shadow by Ted Berkman.   The rest of the story is fairly reliable, and the film was shot on location in many of the places where battles in the War of Independence were fought.  I recognized Latrun, and a particularly bad spot on the road to Jerusalem, as well as the famous “Burma Road.”  (These are all places you can visit in Israel today.)

Many of the details are accurate.    There were indeed busloads of refugees, many of them survivors of the death camps in Europe, who were handed guns at Latrun and sent in to fight.  Women served in combat and were among the truckdrivers who made up the convoys that traveled under fire carrying food and water to the Jews of Jerusalem.  The Israelis were so short on munitions that they resorted to many ruses to make the Arab armies believe they had more firepower than they really did.   The “Burma Road” really was that perilous, and it was cut by hand in record time.  As far as is known, Marcus did eventually die as portrayed in the film.

I recommend this film to get a sense of what was going on in Israel immediately before and after the Declaration of Independence in 1948.  Just keep in mind that it’s fictionalized history:  if you are curious about particular details, then a little bit of research is required.