Thursday, July 9, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Exodus"

"Exodus" is a big, sprawling (209 minutes) epic about the birth of Israel. It uses fictional characters, but infuses the production with enough historical fact to lend it a certain sense of verisimilitude.

Paul Newman plays Ari Ben Canaan, a Jewish commando responsible for transporting 611 Jewish refugees from a British internment camp on Cyprus to the land of Palestine, as it was then known. Eva Marie Saint plays Kitty Fremont, an American nurse who gets caught up in the exodus and eventually falls for Ari, in one of the most unconvincing cinematic romances I've ever seen.

The film was directed to Otto Preminger, one of the most active directors of the 1950s and '60s. It was notable that Dalton Trumbo was credited as screenwriter, since he had been blacklisted. He continued working steadily through the '50s, using other writers as fronts. "Exodus" marked the first major film in which he was given an official credit, and doing so effectively ended the blacklist. In 1960, besides "Exodus" Trumbo also wrote "Spartacus," another huge-scale epic. Not a bad year.

"Exodus" is a decent film, but its first half is stronger than its second. That deals with the actual exodus, which includes a neat bit where Ben Canaan impersonates a British officer and fools them into supplying their own trucks and crew to carry the refugees to a ship. The ship is promptly blockaded, but a hunger strike by the Jews draws world-wide attention, and eventually they are allowed to go on to Palestine.

From there, the middle section is taken up by a prison break to spring Ben Canaan's uncle, who's the leader of the Jewish terrorist organization. The last third or so deals with the United Nations vote to partition the land for a Jewish state, followed by the violent aftermath.

I should mention the strong performance by Sal Mineo as Dov Landau, a hotheaded young Jewish revolutionary. Mineo is one of those wonderful supporting actors who sometimes get forgotten with the passage of time. He was nominated for an Oscar for this film, as he was five years earlier for "Rebel Without a Cause," when he was just 16 years old. He was stabbed to death in 1976.

I have to admit that it's only in recent years that I've learned much about the founding of Israel. So "Exodus" acts as interesting document (somewhat fictionalized) of recent history that many people know little about. As a work of cinematic fiction, it's somewhat weak, but certainly an enjoyable spectacle.

2.5 stars

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