What follows is a survey of films about the first Arab-Israeli war (1947-48) by Dr. Thomas Mitchell, an independent scholar who often contributes to this blog and to ISRAEL HORIZONS magazine:
Last fall when the 2006 French film O Jerusalem came to the theaters I looked forward to seeing it. The book by that name by Dominique Lapiere and Larry Collins was one of my favorite books when I was an undergrad in Jerusalem, along with Dan Kurzman’s Genesis 1948. But because of the bad reviews of the film on this blog and in the NY Times, I decided to give it a pass and catch it when it came out on DVD. I was glad that I took a second look at it, courtesy of Netflix (a great source for independent films on the Arab-Israeli conflict).
The film is a fictionalized version of the book with a rather contrived story of friendship between an American Jewish volunteer, Bobby Goldman, and a Palestinian Arab of the al-Husseini clan. I ignored the background story and concentrated on the battles: a bomb attack on Abu Musa’s (Abdel Khader al-Husseini) headquarters, Kastel, Deir Yassin, Latrun, the building of the “Burma Road” and the Arab attempt to break into the Jewish Quarter. It covers the period from the UN partition vote of November 29, 1947 to the surrender of the Old City in May 1948. Of these the best portrayed are probably the bombing of the Arab headquarters and the battle for Kastel.
Kastel was an Arab village on the road to Jerusalem that dominated the road and was named for the old stone fortress that nominated the small village. Yitzhak Rabin’s Harel Brigade was responsible for capturing it. Abu Musa was killed in this battle, although in reality his death was not accurately portrayed in the film. He was shot at a distance by a Jewish machine gunner when he prematurely entered the village that the Hagana was in the process of vacating. [Kastel and the death of Abu Musa turned the tide against the Palestinians in the “civil war” phase of Israel’s independence war, which lasted for nearly a half a year before Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948 and was invaded by the regular armies of the neighboring Arab states.—Ed.]
Latrun is probably better done in the 1965 movie Cast a Giant Shadow. But what is worth seeing here is how Ben-Gurion threw newly-arrived immigrants, most of whom did not speak Hebrew and had no military background, into the fighting with only a few hours training because he was desperate for manpower. This has been written about and shown in Israeli films, but few American Jews are aware of this.
The main problem with O Jerusalem, directed by veteran French director Elie Chouraqui, is that it is very low budget. His actors are not superstars and his battle scenes show a shortage of extras. I also noticed that the Hagana soldiers carrying either bolt-action rifles or Thompson submachine guns. While the former look accurate, the Hagana used a homemade version of the British Sten sub-machine gun, as carried by Paul Newman in Exodus, built in underground factories. This is a sign that it is easier to acquire Thompsons for the movie than Stens six decades after the war.
I have seen the war previously in five films: three from Hollywood, two of which were made in 1965, and two Israeli films. The Hollywood films were Judith and Cast a Giant Shadow. Judith starred Sophia Loren as a Jewish Holocaust survivor married to a Nazi working as an adviser to the Syrian army and was set during the Syrian invasion of the Galilee in May 1948. It was shot near Kibbutz Mazzuva and I met at least one kibbutznik who served as an extra for the battle scene while doing his national service in the IDF.
The next movie, Cast a Giant Shadow, was the true story of a Jewish judge and colonel in the Army Reserve who volunteered to help out the Hagana during the siege of Jerusalem. He arrived in Israel just after independence and served as a general in the Hagana for about three weeks before being accidentally killed by a Jewish sentry because he (Mickey Stone) did not know Hebrew and could not correctly respond to the challenge. This was a big budget movie and had a star-studded cast including Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Yul Brenner, and Frank Sinatra. I suggest renting this along with O Jerusalem so that you can see how the Battle of Latrun is portrayed in both films. The third American film was a TV miniseries from the mid-1990s about an SS lieutenant who somehow managed to worm his way into the Irgun in 1947 posing as a Holocaust survivor. He then became a career IDF officer. I found the film to be utterly preposterous.
The two Israeli films on the war were a black and white movie from the 1960s, whose name I don’t recall, that was a compilation of several short stories from the war. The other Israeli film is Amos Gitai’s Kedma (2004), which also tells the story of the Battle of Latrun. This is from the point of view of a group of Holocaust survivors who arrive in Israel a week before independence and have to make their way through British patrols only to be immediately thrown into the battle. It could also be profitably rented with the other two for a Latrun night. But in my opinion is inferior to them. This film features a script in several languages with subtitles and is also a low-budget film.
My other qualm with O Jerusalem is that its portrayal of Deir Yassin was not very able. The Hagana commander arrives at the scene and finds a few Arab bodies laying around and is informed by the Irgun/Etzel commander that the attackers broadcast a message to evacuate the village but that the armored car broadcasting the message fell into an anti-tank ditch. There is no mention of how many were killed and under what circumstances. But we can see that the Hagana was not responsible for the massacre. It is as if the director wanted to avoid the whole controversy about the massacre but still be able to say that he mentioned it in the film.