Exodus may be a film that has gone under your radar for some reason or another, but don’t let it this time. This film has more socio-political significance than simply the establishment of Israel narrative or its darker and more critical discourse about the horrors of British Colonialism (politics over people! Huzzah!). Not only was this THE FIRST FILM to allow screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to have an actual screen credit after the Hollywood Blacklist, but it was also the first film to actively hire two formerly blacklisted writers (one after the other) and not give a shit about Joe McCarthy and his Witch-hunt. Now you may be thinking: “But what about Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960)? I thought that was the film that broke the Blacklist? I heard Kirk Douglas talking about…” And yes, you may have heard Mr. Douglas’ recollections about that production and his fight for Trumbo. There is no argument that Kirk Douglas was/is a badass and he did make certain that Trumbo got billing. But one cannot dispute history and cold hard facts. It was Otto Preminger with his balls of steel that insisted that Dalton Trumbo write Exodus. While Spartacus was released 2 months before Preminger’s beautiful Panavision work, the fight for Trumbo’s credit and billing went on with the United Artists Production before Douglas and co. got to it. Sorry, Kirk!
Seven years earlier, Preminger had released a film called The Moon is Blue without a seal from what was ostensibly Hollywood’s biggest censorship organization and the self-proclaimed arbiter of film taste for the US of A: the Production Code Administration. This had caused a humongous uproar in the film world as a) the film did remarkably well (go figure, having the word “virgin” in a script doesn’t change how good a film is… shocking, eh?) and b) it started making studios realize that perhaps things were changing and the Old Guard was truly on its way out… it was ok to release a film without Mommy and Daddy Production Code’s approval. This is the kind of creative Otto Preminger was. He didn’t give a fuck about the way in which America had managed to retard our own artists and squelch their lives and work. For Preminger, it was less about breaking down walls than just smashing through windows.
When Exodus came along it was a no-brainer for Preminger. Although literary critics had given it a pass, the novel had been on the best-seller list for weeks and its reputation as a “Jewish Western” (according to the New York Post) made it a worthy choice for film adaptation.
Dore Schary, the former studio head at MGM, had previously had designs on this project and really wanted to produce it himself. However, after Preminger read it, he managed to convince MGM that there was simply no way that they were going to be able to make the picture. As an independent, Otto Preminger would be far more accepted in more countries than a studio like MGM. The likelihood of Exodus being boycotted by Arab countries during that period of time simply because it was produced by Hollywood was quite high. Otto got the property. And Dalton Trumbo got the gig.
Preminger began with novelist Leon Uris. But much like other authors, he was unable to make the transition from “writer” to “screenplay writer” and he got canned. The next in line for the job was Albert Maltz, one of the infamous Hollywood Ten, the men who went to jail because they refused to name names or cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Maltz made some progress with Exodus but did not end up being the man for the job. That work fell to the one and only Dalton Trumbo, at which point United Artists made certain that it was widely known that Otto Preminger was 100% allowed to pick whomever he liked as his screenwriter and that they were supportive of that. THIS WAS A BIG DEAL.
Much has been written about the film’s historical adherence to the Zionist party line in regards to the creation of the state of Israel. But this is not a film that goes at the subject blindly. While involving actual historical events, the strength of Exodus is its ability to widen the narrative scope by delving deep into painful human experience and not shy away from acutely uncomfortable topics. The most compelling example of how Exodus questions its subject as much as it stays the course comes in the scene between the Jewish Ari (Paul Newman) and his Palestinian best friend Taha (John Derek). If we can put it out of our minds for a moment that Newman and Derek are perhaps the furthest thing from Middle Eastern men that could possibly be, their discourse over the establishment of the state of Israel in terms of their lifelong relationship is critically important.
Ari: What’s wrong?
Taha: You’ve won your freedom. I’ve lost mine.
Ari: All our lives we’ve been under British rule. We’ll be equal in the free state of Israel. The resolution guarantees it.
Taha: Guarantees are one thing, reality’s another. They’ve made my lands and village part of Israel-
Ari: These are still your lands. They always will be.
Taha: I’m a minority….
Ari: Minority, majority, we’ve proved it makes no difference.
Taha: If it makes no difference, why have you fought so hard?
Ari: Because we had hundreds of thousands of people with no other place to go.
Taha: Where shall my people go?
Not only is this conversation a result of British Colonial rule and the aftermath of the Balfour Declaration, which General Sutherland (Ralph Richardson) so kindly explains to Kitty Fremont (Eva Saint Marie) over an evening meal, but it also clearly reflects the way in which colonialism itself is passed down through the ages. While Ari Ben-Canaan means well and does not intend to make Taha feel marginalized, he could not see the forest through the trees. Tragically, not too much later Taha, too, becomes subjected to Western Political influence, coming in and playing his culture like a puppet, forcing the young man to pick sides.
This book and film meant a lot to me as a teenager. I went to high school in Israel from the age of 15-16, so rewatching Exodus meant Newman’s blue eyes and a great chance to reminisce about some really fun times. There is one shot in the film that Preminger made that gets Israel perfectly. Not the strife, not the bombing, not the over-celebration, just Israel on its own. When Ari and his team are going to do their jailbreak, there is a short shot – it’s almost nothing – blink and you’ll miss it – of a bunch of army kids, boys and girls, taking off their uniforms and running to the water to go swimming. THAT is what Israel is like. That is what my memory of that country is. I hope you catch that.
But I also remember connecting to Exodus in a huge way because of Sal Mineo’s character Dov Landau. While Leon Uris’ book was wonderful (and I ended up reading everything he wrote after that), it did not do Dov Landau as much justice as Otto Preminger and Dalton Trumbo did. Being a teenager, I completely “got” his emotional fuck-you-ness. I knew that pain. I recognized that isolation. To add to it, I knew that if it hadn’t been for a few lucky steps, I might not be here since members of my family escaped Hitler much like Dov had. In Hebrew, Dov means Bear, a fitting name considering his protective attitude towards Karen (Jill Haworth) in the film. I always thought that was a great choice for a name and that Sal Mineo was perfect for that part since he looked like a baby bear. You think weird things when you’re a kid, y’know?
Mineo was nominated for Best Supporting actor for that role as well he should have been. His scene where he joins the Irgun is not for the faint of heart. It is gut wrenching. It is a brilliant and explosive display of pure acting talent. It is also a clip of cinema that will stay in your head for the rest of your life. What Mineo does as Landau in that scene is beyond acting: it is taking one of the ugliest experiences of a young Holocaust survivor and showing the audience exactly what trauma is, who it belongs to, and how it works. Lit by Sam Leavitt, even if this is the only bit of the film that gets you, you’ll be glad you saw it. Mineo was a master and never better than when given a platform to simply work.
Exodus is full of villains. In fact, almost no one is 100% good. Kitty goes around saying she’s not comfortable around Jews (!!!). Ari is ignorant of his buddy’s problem with the creation of Israel. Dov joins the most violent radical group in Israel and ends up in jail a few times (but it’s up to you whether you think offing some of the British Colonial jerks was bad… I’m Team Dov on this). If you look at this film as a classical Hollywood narrative, you won’t see the layered-ness of it or the criticism of the central characters. It will simply be a film about the formation of the state of Israel. But I would ask, as someone who loves Israel deeply, that you appreciate the famous Ernest Gold-score, the Saul Bass poster art, those Paul Newman baby-blues (*swoon*), and the political incisiveness that Dalton Trumbo wrote in. We owe him that much.