Exodus: An Epic Film About Israel’s Founding

Paul Newman in Exodus. Courtesy of MGM.

Exodus puts the epic into epic film with a three and a half hour run time but remains notable for helping end the Hollywood blacklist.

I must first confess that I have not read the novel by Leon Uris. Trumbo bases his script on the international bestseller, which retells the the founding of the modern state of Israel in a way that only historical fiction can. That being said, it took a brief online search to see some of the differences between the Exodus the movie and boook. The novel had a both an anti-British and anti-Arab sentiment. Some of the British do come off as being antisemitic in the film. It may very well surprise people to see that Haganah rebel Ari Ben Canaan (Paul Newman) and Taha (John Derek), the muktar of Abu Yesha, are friends. Ari himself is a stand-in for Haganah leader Yehuda Arazi, Moshe Dayan, and Yossi Harel.

A widowed American nurse, Katherine “Kitty” Fremont (Eva Marie Saint), is sightseeing in Cyprus. Everything changes for Kitty when she visits the Karaolos internment camp–this comes after General Sutherland (Ralph Richardson) offers a suggestion that she volunteer. Reluctant to do so at first, Kitty takes them up on the opportunity after overhearing antisemitic comments. Thousands of Jewish refugees were forced there by the British as they wouldn’t let them travel to then-Mandate Palestine after World War 2. Over the course of the film, only a few will command our main focus.

In the film, we see Ari and Kitty end up at Gan Dafna, a fictional kibbutz located near Mount Tabor, for the bulk of the film. Ari’s father, Barak Ben Canaan (Lee J. Cobb), heads up the Jewish Agency. He’s no doubt standing in for then-Agency head and future Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Kitty had met a young survivor, Karen Hansen Clement (Jill Haworth), and offered to bring her to America. Karen was looking to reunite with her father. As such, Kitty decided to help find her dad. Unfortunately, his health had deteriorated so much because of what happened in the camps. You can’t help but feel for Karen after everything she’s been through.

While all this is going on, we see different motives at play between the Jewish Agency, Haganah, and the Irgun. The Irgun in the film is run by Ari’s estranged uncle, Akiva Ben Canaan (David Opatoshu). In real life, Menachem Begin headed up the Irgun at the time. This comes shortly before the United Nations vote to partition Mandate Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state. As far as I can tell, the film uses the exact location in Tel Aviv where the announcement was made. The city of Jerusalem would have been a part of neither under this plan.

The film makes mention of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and his plot to attack and massacre the Jews living at Gan Dafna. Taha tells Ari that he must join the Grand Mufti in the fight against the establishment of Israel. Even if it’s reluctant on his part, the decision to do so is what ultimately cost him his life. It’s saddening to see him hung with a Magen David carved into his body. Karen, too, ends up getting killed by Arabs. Outside of Taha, you’d be hard-pressed to find Arabs being discussed in a nice way. Again, I was really surprised with how Taha was depicted when he was first introduced.

The main focus on the Exodus ship itself is the initial harbor blockade. We don’t see the part where the British board the ship as happened in real life. Come to think of it, this ship only has 611 Jews being smuggled out of the camps and onto the ship. In real life, this number was about 4,500. The film certainly takes some liberties here. In the film as in real life, the ship ultimately makes it to the port of Haifa after setting sail from France rather than Cyprus. That’s where things differ. The British transferred Jews to other ships and sent them towards Germany where Jews would be set up in camps. Go figure. With British attitudes being what they were, the SS Exodus helped with rallying international support for Israel.

The film also plays with some of the timing. The King David Hotel bombing actually took place in 1946, Meanwhile, the Acre Prison breakout wouldn’t be until May 1947. Unlike in the movie, Menachem Begin was not among those that were imprisoned. Here’s another fun fact: the Irgun begot right-wing Herut which begot Likud.

I cannot say enough good things about Ernest Gold’s Oscar-winning score. It finds a way to stay with you after the end of the film.

I’m not really going to get into the casting here. What I will say is that some of the people could not be cast today. Not unless you want a backlash when it comes to casting authenticity. To be fair, Hollywood’s awful history of casting non-Jews as Jews is still problematic to this day. Some do a fine job, yes, but I’d love it if Jewish actors could get the chance to portray Jews on screen.

Exodus‘s length owes to the fact that Leon Uris’s book is some 600 pages long. At least, this is the case for the mass market paperback. This gives screenwriter Dalton Trumbo a lot of room to play with. Without reading the book, it’s hard to figure out what got cut or changed as a result. The depiction of the founding of the modern state of Israel requires an epic film but the film takes a number of liberties–to be fair, the book is historical fiction. There’s no doubt that both the book and movie helped Israel’s reputation in the eye of Americans in the 1960s.

DIRECTOR: Otto Preminger
CAST: Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint, Ralph Richardson, Peter Lawford, Sal Mineo, John Derek, Hugh Griffith, Gregory Ratoff, Jill Haworth

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released Exodus in theaters on December 15, 1960.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.