Sword in the Desert (1949): Vincent Sherman’s Controversial Film about

Billed as the first American film about the 1947–1948 conflict in Mandatory Palestine, Sword in the Desert was directed George Sherman, marking the first major role of Jeff Chandler.

Sword in the Desert
Sword in the Desert 1949.jpg

Theatrical poster

The screenplay was based on a short story by Robert Buckner, after his visit to Palestine in 1934. In the 1940s, he expanded this into a novel, then a screenplay titled Night Watch.

Mike Dillon, a freighter owner and captain, reluctantly smuggles Jewish immigrants into Palestine, motivated, as he claims to Jewish leader David Vogel, by monetary considerations.

Dillon is annoyed that he will have to go ashore to get paid the $8,000 he is owed. When a British patrol boat arrives sooner than expected, Dillon is forced to join the Jews in their flight for freedom.

There are casualties on both sides before the refugees get away, including one of Dillon’s men.

Because the film showed Jewish settlers fighting the British and not Arabs, Universal, fearing controversy, barred reporters from the set.

The Evening Standard claimed that the film was “not for the eyes of Britons” and the Daily Telegraph insisted that British audiences would be surprised to see the unwanted harshness with which the British troops in the film treated Jewish civilians. There were demonstrations and disturbances outside the New Gallery cinema, when the film opened there in February 1950. Pamphlets supporting Oswald Mosley’s fascist Union Movement were distributed to people wanting to see it. The theater also received a bomb threat, and Mosley threatened to picket other cinemas that showed the film.

The Public Control Committee of London Council prohibited further showings of the film in order to prevent protests. It ignored the claim of the National Council for Civil Liberties that their action is a violation of free speech.

Dana Andrews as Mike Dillon
Märta Torén as Sabra
Stephen McNally as David Vogel
Jeff Chandler as Kurta
Philip Friend as Lieutenant Ellerton
Hugh French as Major Sorrell
Liam Redmond as Jerry McCarthy
Lowell Gilmore as Major Stephens
Stanley Logan as Colonel Bruce Evans
Hayden Rorke as Captain Beaumont
George Tyne as Dov
Peter Coe as Tarn
Paul Marion as Jeno
Marten Lamont as Captain Fletcher
David Bauer as Gershon (as David Wolfe)


Directed by George Sherman
Produced, written by Robert Buckner
Music by Frank Skinner
Cinematography Irving Glassberg
Edited by Otto Ludwig

Production and distribution: Universal Pictures

Release date: August 24, 1949 (NYC); September 28, 1949 (LA)

Running time: 101 minutes


TCM showed this rarely seen film on January 26, 2021.