Tag Archives: Drama

Exodus

exodusExodus (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.

Commentary

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.

Double Feature

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.

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Chariots of Fire

chariotsoffireChariots of Fire (1981) is a fictionalized account of the story of two British runners who participated in the 1924 Summer Olympics, Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson)  and Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross).  Both are men with something to prove which separates them from the “gentlemen athletes” on the rest of the British team.  In Liddell’s case, it was his evangelical Christianity; in Abrahams’ case, it was the fact that he was a Jew.

The film won 4 Oscars out of 7 nominations.  It was nominated for the Palm D’Or at Cannes, and won two other prizes.

Commentary

Chariots of Fire is one of those historical films that succeeds in conveying the emotions of a time, without necessarily getting every fact exactly right.  As a history of the 1924 Olympics, it gets things pretty badly scrambled, but its depiction of “polite” anti-Semitism is spot-on.  Abrahams is hailed as a sports hero, but the Cambridge establishment constantly frets over his “pushiness” and his lack of “gentlemanly” demeanor.

The film takes place in the period between the two World Wars before the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.  It offers an opportunity to look at British upper-class attitudes towards British Jews, and particularly the attitude towards those Jews who presume to full participation in British society.  These attitudes would play a significant role in the British debate about Nazism a few years later, and a role as well in the Allied response to the Holocaust.

The film is a good springboard for discussion and has the added benefit of being child-friendly.

Question

What’s odd about the funeral at the end of the film?  If you spot it, what do you think about it?

The Chosen

chosenThe Chosen (1981) is an excellent film adaptation of the Chaim Potok novel of the same name.  It is an account of two Jewish boys growing up in New York during WWII up to the founding of the State of Israel.  It stars Maximilian SchnellRod Steiger, Robby Benson, and Barry Miller.  It won awards at both the Montreal and Paris Film Festivals.

Commentary

The Chosen is a quiet little film that explores some key tensions in Jewish life in America.  It addresses the tension between the expressions of Judaism that seek absolute fidelity to the past and the expressions of Judaism that seek to remain Jewish while engaging with modernity.  It explores the tension between generations of a family, and the meanings that tension has for each generation.  The film is deeply rooted in time and place:  it was shot in Brooklyn, and it explores a particular moment in Jewish history.

I have seen comments to the effect that The Chosen is not a completely accurate picture of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) orthodoxy.  I find that it is a less sensational picture than many other more recent films have depicted.  The viewer might want to keep in mind that the film was made almost 30 years ago, and that both the communities shown in the film and the broader Jewish world have changed since then.   So don’t watch it and think it’s all there is to know about Haredi life.  On the other hand, the tensions portrayed are accurate and as vital today as they were then.

Unfortunately, at this writing, The Chosen is out of print in DVD, but it is available for rental from many sources.  A must-see!

Schindler’s List

schindlers-list-DVDcoverSchindler’s List (1993) is the most successful and famous of Holocaust films.  It is based on the true story of Oskar Schindler, an Austrian Catholic businessman who preserved the lives of over 1,000 Jews by putting them to work in his factory and then using his influence and his fortune to keep them from the death camps.

Steven Zaillian’s screenplay is based on the book by Thomas Kenneally, and the film was directed by Steven Spielberg.  It is meticulously researched and produced, and the end product is a searing film that merits its “R” rating.  Liam Neeson stars as Schindler, Ben Kinglsey as Yitzhak Stern, his bookkeeper, and Ralph Fiennes portrays Amon Goeth, one of the most reprehensible and terrifying figures in film.  This is not a film for children, but it is a truly great film.  It won 7 Oscars out of 12 nominations in 1994.

Commentary

This film has been the beginning of a Holocaust education for many people around the world, simply because of its availability and popularity.  It is an excellent source, but I would approach it with some caution:  it is NOT suitable for children, or for someone who gets nightmares from upsetting films, and while it is a good beginning of a Holocaust education, it should not be the end of anyone’s education.

I have been told by more than one survivor that Spielberg put on film what audiences would stand:  the real historical events were more horrible than anything that should be available on film.  Moreover, while narrative tells us a great deal, we also need to talk about the circumstances that came together to create the events we call “the Holocaust.”  Good as it is, the film does not say enough about the events it covers to be the final word on the subject.

All of that said, I would have tagged this film a “Must see!” were it not for the difficult content.  See it if you can, and discuss it with others.

Double Feature

For a non-fiction treatment of the topic, and especially of the details of the death camps, the 9.5 hours of Shoah are incomparable but horrific.   (I am not suggesting that one watch these two films as an actual double feature, in one sitting — I fear  that it might lead to suicidal depression and despair!  “Double Feature” is just a way of signifying in this blog that two films are related.)

Gentleman’s Agreement

gentlemans-agreement-DVDcoverGentleman’s Agreement (1947) was a groundbreaking film in its day, and it is still a powerful story about prejudice in America.  Moss Hart wrote the screenplay, based on Laura Z. Hobson‘s bestselling novel.  The movie stars Gregory Peck as a journalist assigned to write a series of magazine articles about anti-Semitism.   Searching for a “personal angle” on the story, he decides to pose as Jew, and soon discovers what it is to be on the receiving end of intolerance.

Darryl F. Zanuck produced it, and Elia Kazan directed.  In addition to Peck, the film stars Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield, Dean Stockwell, Celeste Holm, and June Havoc.  Gentleman’s Agreement won the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress for Ms. Holm.

Commentary

The situation of American Jewry in the 21st century is without parallel in world history:  we are better integrated and more welcome in U.S. society than Jews have been in any other time and place.  This movie is a reminder that only sixty years ago, things were quite different.  It catalogs many of the ways, large and small, that it was tough to be Jewish in America.

There is a curious art-imitates-life element to the film, in that Daryl F. Zanuck, a gentile, felt very strongly about bringing Hobson’s novel to the screen as a major film because he believed it was important to speak out against the anti-Semitism in society.  The story goes that prominent Jews in Hollywood strongly discouraged him against making the film because they feared backlash.  In the movie, the boss who assigns the magazine article about anti-Semitism is a gentile who wants to raise consciousness about the subject, just as Zanuck did.

The film is remarkably current in its depiction of “soft” bigotry.  The journalist discovers in the course of his research that many well-meaning people hold him at arm’s length with protestations of innocence: ‘Some of my best friends…”  A true mensch watching this film must ask him or herself, “Is there anyone I patronize with behavior and words like those?”

Double Feature

Watch Gentleman’s Agreement before or after watching Exodus.  They are set in exactly the same time period, one in 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.

Video Bonus

You Tube has a vintage video summary of the film and its Oscar nominations and awards.