“Exodus,” Otto Preminge’s chronicle of the events that led to the 1947 formation of the State of Israel, is an ambitious but sprawling, occasionally stirring but ultimately unsatisfying historical epic.
Blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo adapted to the big screen Leon Uris’ best-selling novel of the same title, and Jewish director Preminger decided to give it the treatment of a big Hollywood saga, with high production values, on-location shooting, and major actors, such as Paul Newman (at a high point of his career after “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”) and Eva Marie Saint (after Hitchcock’s smash hit, “North By Northwest”).
On a superficial level, the movie is an enjoyable piece of propaganda, siding completely with the Jewish perspective and Israel’s heroic struggle for independence and legit right for nationhood in 1947. Nonetheless, most serious critics dismissed the film as honorable attempt that’s overlong (212 minutes), episodic, thematically diffuse, and lacking a strong emotional center.
As a star vehicle, “Exodus” also leaves much to be desired. Newman, a Jewish-American actor plays the hero, Hagannah leader Ari Ben Canaan, in a competent but not entirely compelling performance, that received at best polite notices and faint praise. Rumors have it that he didn’t get along with his autocratic director.
The well-known story of Exodus details the internment of some 30,000 Jews who have fled Europe to the island of Cyprus, their attempts to enter Palestine frustrated by the British. Ari Ben Canaan (Newman), an officer of the Jewish underground (the Palestine-based Hagannah), implements a heroic project designed to dramatize the Jews¬í plight and their determination to win through dignity and freedom.
Six hundred Jews are engineered by Ari and his aides into an escape aboard the Exodus, a freighter ship, before engaging in a lengthy hunger strike to protest the British destroyers who block their way to the Promised Land. They then threaten to blow themselves up if the British come aboard.
On the ship, we get to meet two lovely women. Kitty Fremont (Eva Marie Saint), is an American nurse-widow, whose journalist husband had died. She is now a surrogate mother to a refugee child, Karen (Jill Haworth), whom she has taken under her wing.
Surprisingly, General Sutherland (an impressive Ralph Richardson), commander at Cyprus, proves sympathetic to the Jews¬í plight and influences the British to permit the ship¬ís journey to Haifa.
The story veers uncomfortably from the political to the more domestic arena. Once the refugees land, Ari and Kitty fall in love despite tensions, hardships, and ideological disagreements.
Thereupon, Preminger and Trumbo offer some blatant lessons in Zionism for the non-Jewish spectators, framed in Freudian psychology. Through Kitty, we gets insights into the Jews¬í plight, bolstering Ari¬ís morale as he comes into conflict, along with his father, Hagannah stalwart Barak Ben Canaan (Lee J. Cobb), with his uncle, Akiva (David Opotoshu), and Dov Landau (Sal Mineo), a young Auschwitz survivor, who are members of the Irgun, a alternate Jewish terrorist organization, which disagrees with the Hagannah’s more pacifist approach.
In the end, convinced that action at all costs is mandatory if a Jewish State is to be established, Ari joins the Irgun despite his beliefs, thus helps actively to plan and carry out a mass breakout of Jews from the prison at Acre. Though the operation is successful, there’s a price to be paid and Akiva (and others) is killed.
Nonetheless, Israeli independence is achieved shortly thereafter with a huge celebration. Sharply uneven, the movie seldom is able to establish a narrative flow or desirable rhythm, and there are too many ideological and pedagogical speeches that are simple there for expository matters¬óto make sure that the audience has some necessary historical background.
That said, Preminger should be commended for orchestrating some memorable sequences, such as the bombing of the King David Hotel and other masterful crowd scenes.
Ernest Gold’s dramatically touching score deservedly was nominated for an Oscar. And so was Sam Leavitt’s color cinematography. A third Oscar nomination was awarded to Sal Mineo, who plays Dov Landau, a young committed Zionist who befriends Karen, and later on risks his life to save her.
Eva Marie Saint
Lee J. Cobb
Dahn Ben Motz
An Otto Preminger Production released through United Artists.
Produced and directed by Otto Preminger.
Screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, based on the novel by Leon Uris.
Photographed by Sam Leavitt.
Music by Ernest Gold.
Art Director, Richard Day.
Set Decorations by Dario Simani.
Film Editor, Louis R. Loeffler.
Titles designed by Saul Bass.
Sound by Paddy Cunningham, Red Law and John Cox.
Sound effects by Win Ryder.
Special effects by Cliff Richardson.
Makeup by George Lane.
Wardrobe by Joe King, Marge Slater, and May WAlding.
Hairstyles by A.G. Scott.
Miss Saint¬ís clothes by Rudi Gernreich.
Costume Coordinator, Hope Bryce.
General Manager, Martin C. Schute.
Production Manager, Eva Monley.
Assistant to the Producer, Maxt Slater.
Assistant Director, Gerry O¬íHara.
Filmed in Israel.
Technicolor and Super-Panavision 70.
Running time: 212 minutes.