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Saturday Night Cinema: Exodus (1960)

Saturday, March 18, 2017 17:09
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As a I travel through the holy land of Israel, homeland of the Jewish people, I wanted to share the vibe with you. What better way than to run Otto Preminger’s epic cinematic masterpiece, Exodus. Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema classic is the story of the emergence of modern Israel as an independent country and home for world Jewry.

Follow me on Instagram for personal photos of my trip.

Intelligence applied exactly where it is most rare: in the lavish, star-studded epic. Otto Preminger’s 1960 film, based on the Leon Uris novel, makes fine use of dovetailed points of view in describing the birth pains of Israel. With Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint, Peter Lawford, Ralph Richardson, Sal Mineo, Lee J. Cobb, Alexandra Stewart, and John Derek.

3 1/2-Hour Film Based on Uris’ Novel Opens
Published: December 16, 1960

THE gingerly awaited film version of Leon Uris’ novel, “Exodus,” which its producer-director, Otto Preminger, unveiled at the Warner Theatre last night, turns out to be a massive, overlong, episodic, involved and generally inconclusive “cinemarama” of historical and fictional events connected with the liberation of the State of Israel in 1947-1948.

It also turns out to be a dazzling, eye-filling, nerve-tingling display of a wide variety of individual and mass reactions to awesome challenges and, in some of its sharpest personal details, a fine reflection of experience that rips the heart.

If this rapid-fire estimation of Mr. Preminger’s effort to pack the guts of Mr. Uris’ corpulent novel into a three-hour-and-thirty-two-minute film seems ambiguous and perhaps indecisive, it is because the film itself is an ambiguous piece of work, and the decisions that might have rendered it more cohesive and dramatically compelling were not made by the people who should have made them-namely, Mr. Preminger and Dalton Trumbo, who wrote the script.

Obviously, these two craftsmen, in all sincerity, wanted to embrace as much as they could of the three main phases of the popular novel. That is to say, they wanted to tell, first, the important story of the truly Odyssean transport of a shipload of European Jews from British blockaded Cyprus to forbidden Palestine. That is a full-scale social drama and a saga of resolution in itself, with its many vignettes of individual courage weaving into a large—well, mosaic is the word.

Then they wanted to continue the threads of several parallel plots involving an assortment of major characters through the subsequent conflicts and strains that occur vis-à-vis the powerful British prior to the United Nations’ partition of Palestine. And, finally, they wished to tell something of the post-partition fight of the Jews against the displaced Arabs, with respect to the major characters that remain.

Opting to fill such a canvas, which was a critical decision in itself, Mr. Preminger and Mr. Trumbo took a long chance on tangling and losing some threads. With so many characters — at least seven—to be picked up and engineered through a maze of separate tensions, some of a political nature and some of a purely personal sort, and to be got through emotional situations and explosive civil war incidents, they ran the risk of being superficial and losing momentum in sequential stops and starts.

They were not able to escape it entirely. The principal weakness of their film is that it has so much churning around in it that no deep or solid stream of interest evolves—save a vague rooting interest in the survival of all the nice people involved.

Ari Ben Canaan, the foremost hero, who is forcefully, albeit much too neatly, played by an always well-shaved Paul Newman, is a mighty stout fellow to have around, quick and sure with the command decisions, but it is hard to gather precisely where he stands or what distinguishes him as an individual from any other fellow who would naturally be attracted to Eva Marie Saint.

Miss Saint, in turn, is desperately wrought up and impressively earnest as an American widow and trained nurse who takes up with the Jewish refugees in Cyprus and goes on to fight and love with them. But she, too, lacks the depth and fullness that might be had if the film took more time with her. Say this for her, however: she does look a harassed, heat-worn girl.

As for a well-bred, friendly Arab whom John Derek plays stoically, it is hard to make out what he is thinking, except that he’s in a nasty jam.

However, for all the interruptions and surface skimming with other characters, the film makers do manage to come out strongly—even brilliantly—in certain powerful scenes. The character of Dov Landau, a Polish terrorist, played superbly by Sal Mineo, is absolutely overwhelming in a scene where he offers himself as a candidate for the Irgun, the Jewish extremists’ underground. And the character of Akiva, the Irgun leader, who is performed by David Opatoshu in a moving and unforgettable way, is also fine in this scene and others—a flaming symbol of devotion to a cause.

Ralph Richardson and Peter Lawford are incisive as British military types; Jill Haworth is fresh and deeply poignant as a brave 15-year-old refugee; Lee J. Cobb is impressive (particularly in one scene with Mr. Opatoshu) as a Jewish conservative, and Felix Aylmer, Michael Wager, Martin Miller and the late Gregory Ratoff are amusing and strong as other Jews.

Furthermore, Mr. Preminger has captured within the scope of his color cameras a continuously varied and vivid panorama of Cyprus and Palestine. He shot his picture in those places—most of it in the present Israel—and has spared no expense in reproducing historic events much as they occurred. The famous liberation of Jewish prisoners from the old fortress at Acre is excitingly done, and other scenes of Haganah and Irgun actions against the British and Arabs are sharp and tough.

It is notable, incidentally, that Mr. Trumbo and Mr. Preminger have considerably temporized in exposing the adversaries. They have more tension between Haganah and Irgun than between Jews and British, and the Arabs seem mainly inspired to resist the partition by villainous former Nazi provocateurs.

In the end, one should take from this picture a shaken feeling of having been through a lot of harsh and ennobling experiences. There is a colorful musical score by Ernest Gold.

The Cast
EXODUS, screen play by Dalton Trumbo, from the novel by Leon Uris; directed and produced by Otto preminger; distributed by United Artists. At the Warner Theatre, Broadway and Forty-seventh Street. Running time: 212 minutes.
Ari Ben Canaan . . . . . Paul Newman
Kitty Fremont . . . . . Eva Marie Saint
General Sutherland . . . . . Ralph Richardson
Major Caldwell . . . . . Peter Lawford
Barak Ben Canaan . . . . . Lee J. Cobb
Dov Landau . . . . . Sal Mineo
Taha . . . . . John Derek
Mandria . . . . . Hugh Griffith
Lakavitch . . . . . Gregory Ratoff
Dr. Lieberman . . . . . Felix Aylmer
Akiva . . . . . David Opatoshu
Karen . . . . . Jill Haworth
Von Storch . . . . . Marius Goring
Jordana . . . . . Alexandra Stewart
David . . . . . Michael Wager
Reuben . . . . . Paul Stevens
Sarah . . . . . Betty Walker
Dr. Odenheim . . . . . Martin Miller
Sergeant . . . . . Victor Maddern


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