“This land is mine, God made this land for me.” Those are just song lyrics, while Otto Preminger’s politically daring 70mm mega-production is a lot more subtle in its presentation of the ‘Palestinian problem’ that led to the formation of the State of Israel. It’s a bit ponderous, but Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay avoids the pitfalls — 56 years later, the story is still relevant.
1960 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 208 min. / Ship Date March 15, 2016 / available through Twilight Time Movies / 29.95
Starring Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint, Ralph Richardson, Peter Lawford, Lee J. Cobb, Sal Mineo, John Derek, David Opatoshu, Jill Haworth, Hugh Griffith, Gregory Ratoff, Felix Aylmer, Marius Goring, Alexandra Stewart, Martin Benson, Paul Stevens, George Maharis, John Crawford, Victor Maddern, Paul Stassino, John Van Eyssen Cinematography Sam Leavitt
Art Direction Richard Day
Film Editor Louis R. Loeffler
Original Music Ernest Gold
Written by Dalton Trumbo from the novel by Leon Uris
Produced and Directed by Otto Preminger
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
At one time experienced as a giant, lumbering 65mm production that with commercial interruptions sprawled across five hours of network TV, Otto Preminger’s Exodus was big news in 1960. It hit the public with its soundtrack first — Ernest Gold’s ponderous, monumental music was rather serious for the AM radio waves, yet it played constantly, if not the original score, then Ferrante & Teicher’s double piano version. The first of four big-scale epics produced and directed by Otto Preminger at the peak of his directing career, Exodus takes on a daunting subject. Leon Uris’ bestseller was about nothing less than the birth of the nation of Israel, and was therefore instantly controversial. Preminger would also need the cooperation of the Israeli government, to bring in a monster 65mm filming company and shut down whole neighborhoods and districts while scenes were being filmed. With Exodus Preminger added Visual Context to his credo of Objective Ambiguity — nowhere does the camera need to push-in to avoid extraneous traffic or gawkers.
Possibly the most organized director of all time, Preminger courted the powers that be, lined up the military cooperation, found a proper ship and somehow got his sprawling production done under schedule and under budget. And that included filming in Cyprus too. And he also found time to publicly bust the blacklist.
The story begins on Cyprus, where the British have herded thousands of Jewish refugees trying to reach Palestine into detention camps. Two Jewish political groups in Palestine, the somewhat diplomatic Hagenah and the more militant Irgun, are trying to take the country away from its British occupiers, knowing that the Arab population wants them all expelled, or annihilated. Fighter Ari Ben Canaan (Paul Newman) has a father in the Hagenah, Barak (Lee J. Cobb) and an Uncle in the Irgun who orders anti-Brit violence, Akiva (David Opatashu). On Cyprus, Ari tricks the British command into loading a ship (the Exodus) with Jewish refugees, and then pulls a hunger strike in the harbor, until the Crown allows the ship to sail. They have to get as many people to Palestine as possible, to sway opinion for an upcoming United Nations vote on Israeli statehood. American nurse Kitty Fremont (Eva Marie Saint) is in Cyprus to visit places where her late husband, a news photographer, worked. The British commander of Cyprus General Sutherland (Ralph Richardson) entreats her to help in the detention camp, where she meets and tries to adopt Karen (Jill Haworth), a young refugee who wants to go to Palestine to see if her father, missing since the death camps, is still alive. Kitty and Karen both end up on the Exodus, along with young Auschwitz survivor Dov Landau (Sal Mineo), who is looking for a fight and wants to volunteer as an Irgun guerilla.
Preminger packs pretty much everything into Exodus — its three-plus hours have action, romance, political intrigue and a lot of talk. The production seems undeterred by physical limits, as Preminger is able to clear entire shorefronts, valleys and urban districts for his recreation of the events of 1947 and 1948. For a director known for losing his temper and treating his actors terribly, Preminger won every battle on this film. Against the wishes of author Leon Uris, he emphasized moderating elements in the story, such as a ‘good Arab’ chieftain (played by John Derek) who gives aid to a Jewish youth camp. Neither could the British feel offended: with the exception of one bigoted officer (played by Peter Lawford) we see no abuse or mistreatment by the Palestinian occupiers. Even a Cypriot colluding with Ari Ben Canaan (Hugh Griffith) doesn’t seem to mind the Brits much, and they occupy his country too.
As for the ‘ambiguity’ part of the Preminger equation, Exodus allows for a number of unresolved arguments and infighting among the Zionists. But the mandate to take back Israel for the Jews is never questioned. The Cypriot thinks the Jews belong in Israel and so does the Brit commander, although he can’t speak against policy; England would seemingly like to find a way to get out and still save face. The film’s argument is that the Jews were so victimized in the just-concluded war that the world owes them the right to re-establish their homeland. Akiva’s Irgun blows up the wing of a hotel to discourage the Brits, while Ari’s Hagenah fighters ask for Irgun help to liberate an entire prison.
There really aren’t that many active characters in the film; Trumbo and Preminger concentrate on only a few personalities while letting the rest be subsumed into the communal drive for a new nation. Paul Newman’s Ari is practically a superhero — if he’s such a well known outlaw leader, related to the top Jewish rebels, how come he isn’t recognized on Cyprus and can go about freely in Israel? Ari has energy and courage to spare, and is a one-man Napoleon when it comes to the formulaton of winning strategies. Eva Marie Saint’s Kitty Fremont serves at least four structural functions. (1) She is an American outsider, who gets to ask all the questions that the audience might have, (2) She embodies the spirit of American charity toward the new Israel, (3) As she wants to adopt Karen and maybe get involved with Ari, she establishes that most of the refugees have few if any familial survivors, and that the country is trying to rebuild a sense of family through communal living, (d) and, she provides one major kissing scene’s worth of romance. Paul Newman has to take at least one break from fighting.
Getting into politics in this movie is certain quicksand, but it is interesting to watch Sal Mineo’s Dov Landau character itch to fight and tearfully beg to join the Irgun, which demands a death oath of loyalty. Dov even volunteers to turn himself in and face a death sentence, to aid in the prison breakout. The Irgun doesn’t target civilians but by today’s definition are still terrorists. Preminger stays at a distance from the hotel bombing, so we don’t see the mayhem Dov and his killers have wrought; we instead identify with his touching teenage romance with Karen. Likewise it does seem a bit strained to present John Derek’s ‘good Arab’ character as such an obvious signal to anti-Zionists: “See, peace could easily be achieved if the Arab Palestinians would just welcome the new state of Israel.”
Then again, we do get a single scene where we’re told that a rabid ex-Nazi (Marius Goring) is lobbying the local Arabs to rise up and slaughter the Jews. I assume this is historically accurate? The effect in the movie is that the Arabs don’t hate the Jews enough on their own, but need professional encouragement.
The scene’s implications go one more step in realigning audience opinion, saying in effect, Are you for the new Israelis? If you sympathize with the Arab Palestinians, you’re really with the Nazis, aren’t you?
The story demands a number of position speeches, most of which are well written. Each male authority figures has something to say, and it all adds up to a moral argument that’s difficult to dismiss: “Let the Jews have what they want. Haven’t they suffered enough?” In some of his older WW2 morale-building films, Dalton Trumbo would take time out to have a character talk about a desired optimal post-war world, speeches that to some sounded like left-wing One World propaganda. Here the various spokespeople each offer a piece of the argument. Ralph Richardson all but raises a white flag, in some weak dialogue about the problem of all those refugees, presently being cooped up in tents. David Opatashu’s Irgun militant voices the opinion that the only way Jews can get respect is by demanding it with violence. Ari’s non-violent opposition to the Irgun is a little hollow, considering that he’s just as willing to kill when necessary. Detractors of the film also point to Paul Newman’s weak delivery of a final gravesite speech, a plea for Arab-Jewish peace even as Ari and the Hagenah saddle up to defend their turf. What do the critics expect, considering the impossible problems faced by all parties in this mess? Frankly, only Abraham Lincoln could write a speech that would make that final scene work.
The only patently lame Trumbo scene is earlier, on board the ship Exodus. The British won’t let them out of the harbor. Ari asks the refugees to decide if they want to knuckle under, give up. As in the weakest Soviet-style agitprop, a single refugee spokesman (actor-director Gregory Ratoff) fires up the crowd with the communal spirit: “Fight!” This allows Ari to remain democratically neutral — the Jews want to continue the hunger strike. It’s not being imposed on them. An emotional argument (hungry people sticking to what they want) is used to cement our sympathy for these worthy underdogs. It’s not offensive, just obvious.
Overall, the miracle of Exodus is that so much of it avoids special pleading of the kind that makes Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremburg such a masochistic chore. The Jews seeking a homeland are indeed glamorized, but the movie retains enough objectivity to not be egregious propaganda. Well, that may depend on your POV on this piece of history,
Exodus is a quite a production. It’s an impressive “traffic control” show, as almost every scene involves a wide swath of landscape, many actors, complex camera moves and dialogue. There is no second unit shooting — even the action set pieces are laid out in complex master shots. The wide camera views impart a feeling for spatial relationships in the prison and in the youth camp. It’s all for the most part beautifully done … and just loose enough to avoid the slick storyboarded / stopwatched / gimme-a-directing-Oscar look of modern action shot by Michael Bay, some of the makers of Marvel comic movies, and even Steven Spielberg.
Preminger’s ‘equal emphasis’ attitude also makes the movie less of a vanity showcase for the big-name stars. Like a super-pageant, the picture is packed with competent, nicely distinguished supporting performances. Alexandra Stewart is Ari’s sister, a soldier in those short-shorts the Israeli women wear. Personnel from British genre films are everywhere: Martin Benson, Victor Maddern, John Crawford, Peter Maddern, Paul Stassino, John Van Eyssen. Top guerilla fighters are played by the Canadian Paul Stevens (The Mask 3-D) and future Route 66 heartthrob George Maharis (The Satan Bug). The only actor not up for his role is John Derek, who has no screen presence as Taha, the good Arab. Preminger’s teen discovery Jill Haworth is sweet and innocent as required. Actually, she already had a small role in Hammer’s The Brides of Dracula. Ms. Haworth would return for two more Preminger road show epics.
There is no mistaking where the sympathies of Exodus lie. Our identification character Kitty begins as an unattached outsider. She makes a sentimental commitment to a girl and tags along only for the girl’s welfare. By the end she is an unambiguous combatant alongside Ari. In the last scene we see that Kitty has a rifle slung over her shoulder and is dressed in Hagenah combat fatigues.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Exodus is taken from MGM’s 35mm-sourced HD master, which looks very good, with excellent color and detail. The 70mm road show length was five minutes longer. I’ve found out that what was trimmed for the 35mm general release was one dialogue scene and part of another. Nobody watching Exodus is going to miss them… but a full restoration would be nice, should the studio be so inclined.
The audio comes in three multi-track stereo choices. To my ears at least, some of the dubbing of Israeli actors is rough, and in an early exterior scene with Ralph Richardson, the voice recording seems weak for a few lines. I also noticed a rubbery line or to later on, but everything looked in good sync. Ernest Gold’s music is certainly pitched for the ‘important’ feel that Preminger is after. It can be heard on a separate Isolated Score Track. A trailer is present as well.
Julie Kirgo’s liner notes are exceptionally good this time out, She approaches the movie through its director, who she describes as born a Jew but also a secularist. She nails Preminger’s objectivity to complex matters as being a function of his legal education, a background that prepared him for his many calculated attacks on the Production Code. These suited Preminger’s desire to get more adult content into movies, but also gave him sure-fire controversies to parlay shows like The Moon is Blue and The Man with the Golden Arm into big box-office winners.
By now it should be well known that the credit taken by Kirk Douglas (Spartacus) for being the first producer to break the blacklist rightly belongs to Preminger and this film. The movie scene was so thick with ‘important,’ ‘political’ movies that year — Spartacus, The Alamo — that neither Preminger, Stanley Kubrick or John Wayne were nominated. The show that did the best was Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. The other nominated directors were Jack Cardiff, Jules Dassin, Fred Zinnemann and Alfred Hitchcock.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Exodus Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good ++
Supplements: Isolated Music and Effects track , Julie Kirgo liner notes
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 6, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson