BR: Exodus (1960)

May 26, 2016 | By

Exodus_BRFilm: Excellent

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released: March 15, 2016

Genre:  Drama / Action / Historical Epic

Synopsis: Vivid film version of Leon Uris’ best-selling novel about the founding of Israel.

Special Features: Isolated stereo music & effects track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and / Limited to 3000 copies.




56 years since its release, Otto Preminger’s production of Leon Uris’ global best-selling 1958 novel may have aged into a curio of film history, seeming rather quaint for its politics and melodrama, but it deserves a peek, as it represents a daring cinematic maneuver in 1960 by its author, director, and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.

Uris had already been lured by Hollywood – he scripted his own adaptation of his WWII drama Battle Cry (1955), and penned the screenplay for Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) – but it was the research on the founding of Israel that drove him to pen a novel which drew from facts, personal interviews, and some doses of criticized dramatic license to craft a neat structure where a people fed up with being kicked around break from the pens of European-orchestrated refugee camps, claim a rickety freighter for an escape route, and ultimately navigate to Palestine where the story’s second half kicks in, tracing the events and parties involved in the creation of a new country. (A smaller scale dramatization of the mass migration lies in The Earth Cries Out, a striking 1949 production which specifically follows Italian refugees to post-WWII Palestine.)

Harsh critics blasted Exodus the novel + film as Zionist propaganda, but no one could deny the thrilling narrative of espionage, capers, escape, subterfuge, terrorism, flight, and combat, and while Trumbo’s script reportedly toned down the more sharp anti-British and anti-Arab tone of the book, the movie still takes jabs at racism, injustice, and the uneasy alliance between two formal rivals, the more moderate Haganah and the militant Irgun, who brought pro-active strategizing to the game plan when the United Nations voted for an Arab-Jewish partitioning of Palestine, and fears of next-day killings were very real.

The anti-British stance in the film is more pronounced – they’re portrayed as irritated overlords in having to spend time away from tea and more pressing international issues because of refugee processing – whereas the Arabs are almost gone from the picture. The token Arab is Taha (John Derek), boyhood friend of resistance leader Ari Ben Canaan (pouty Paul Newman), who naturally becomes a sacrificial lamb because he espoused moderate / civil relations, while the rest of the unseen Arabs are under the manipulative influence of eeeevil Nazi expat Von Storch (always slimy Marius Goring).

However Uris’ novel was structured, Trumbo’s adaptation has three cinematic chapters: the gathering of the Haganah in Cyprus where a camp escape plot is hatched in conjunction with sympathetic Cypriots; the arrival of Ben Canaan and travelers on the decrepit ship Exodus in Palestine, plus springing jailed Haganah and Irgun fighters from prison to organize anti-Arab defenses; and the build-up to the flight from a kibbutz, rescuing children and teens from a possible slaughter before morning clears the air and allows for a full reorganization of forces for the newly minted Israel.

The problem with the first section – escape caper notwithstanding – is some of the screeds that Trumbo and Preminger were compelled to inject to hammer home the message of an oppressed people, ready to die in a moored rust bucket than within the pens of a refugee camp. In 1960, the scenes probably packed a punch – like the book, the film was and remains a message picture about leaving the oppressed the fuck alone, and treating them as people – but there are some choice speeches that are hugely overwrought, notably a mother choosing to keep her child on board during a hunger strike to force the Brits to open the port; and a Russian refugee (played to the hilt by fist-pumping director Gregory Ratoff).

The finale has its Trumboisms as well, but the speeches are nevertheless precise and inarguable in their intent, if not applicable (again) to any people’s quest to end oppression. Ben Canaan’s speech of Arabs and Jews living in peaceful harmony under one flag is unintentionally amusing to present day cynics – the tug-of-war between both sides has been never-ending and bloody for decades – but the film, maybe due to its imagery, has an unexpected resonance today with Syrian refugees held in camps after epic land and ocean voyages, wanted by no one, and deemed unworthy and potential terrorists by fear mongers.

The midsection – the introduction of rival Haganah and Irgun factions banding together for the prison break of skilled members – is undoubtedly the film’s most thrilling third, as it’s not about politics, but action. Twilight Time’s trio of Big Heat (1953) commentators Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman, and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) commentator / film noir historian Eddie Muller gave concise explanations of Preminger’s directorial style (yes, he has one), and while his use of visual and editorial economy – wide shots, tracking shots, and occasional cuts – show a simplicity in dialogue scenes, the prison break illustrates his brilliant use of motion within the frame as the camera glides through environs, often with invisible edits.

Sam Leavitt’s Oscar-nominated cinematography is extraordinary – especially in lighting and exploiting real Cypriot and Israeli locations – but it’s Preminger’s technique in pacing the action that’s a fine textbook example on creating tension through movement and selective sound in place of rapid cuts.

One shot seems to go deep into the prison bowels – even a simple, prior scene of Ben Canaan’s incarcerated uncle has the camera tracking Steadicam-style down dank corridors – but it’s also tension derived from minimal sounds, especially Ernest Gold’s decision to score the entire sequence with a repeated motif using woodwinds and light percussion. The music, a near-perfect evocation of a warm summer breeze, keeps restarting itself, while the onscreen movements intensify, adding more information to the breakout whose precise details have been denied to audiences.

At 3 hours and 27 minutes, Exodus is a monster (legend has it an audience member at the premiere stood up during intermission, turned to Preminger, and shouted ‘Otto! Let my people go!’), but it’s actually quite lean; only the early intro material seems to hover a bit too long, because Trumbo’s script sets up the ennui and limbo of refugees, present critiques of the British management team (led by Sir Ralph Richardson and Peter Lawford), and wiggle in Ben Canaan’s unlikely love interest Kitty Fremont (Eva Marie Saint), an American nurse who eventually falls for our hero and helps his cause.

Kitty may feel like a contrivance, but she’s also rather banal, and whether by Trumbo, Uris, or Newman’s design, Ben Canaan has no sense of humour, no moments of lightness: he’s driven, cold, impatient, and ultimately too detached for audiences to latch on. Within the film, he’s the chess piece we follow, marking his position so we’re clearly aware of each faction, historic event, and the interconnected nature of the supporting characters, like Ben Canaan’s Irgun uncle (David Opatoshu), his kibbutz founding father (Lee J. Cobb), his sister (Quebec-born Alexandra Stewart), his Cyprus-based aide Reuben (The Mask’s Paul Stevens), Cypriot sympathizer Mandria (Hugh Griffith, lacquered in Cypriot Tan #12), Irgun handler Yoav (Satan Bug’s George Maharis), and token good Arab Taha (bronzed John Derek, sporting another impeccable beard).

In the blink-fast-and-he’s-gone domain there’s Paul Smith (Midnight Express, Sonny Boy) making his film debut as a prisoner exchanging detonators at a fence. The two other stars for younger audiences are a mixed bag: strong (if not a bit too earnest) Sal Mineo (Rebel Without a Cause) earned as Oscar Nomination for his role of Dov Landau, a concentration camp survivor; and Jill Haworth is kind of affecting yet dramatically often out of her league, as camp survivor Karen. Karen’s been shaped into an ‘innocent light,’ but she’s also a bit of a doe-eyed dunce, so her fate doesn’t really resonate as much as it should. The actress remained under contract with Preminger, appearing in the director’s underrated The Cardinal (1963) and In Harm’s Way (1965).

Ernest Gold was an extremely erudite and gifted composer, having enjoyed a long association with ‘message’ producer-director Stanley Kramer in stellar works such as Inherit the Wind (1960), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), Ship of Fools (1965), and lighter fodder such as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969), but his masterwork, at least in the dramatic epic category, remains Exodus, for which he wrote an exquisitely stirring theme and superb score, deservedly winning an Oscar for Best Music.

Those who’ve spun the original LP many times may be surprised by how little music there seems to be within the film – most of the prime cuts are on the 44 minute album – and yet the theme does make its way into many scenes; the trick is doing it with great subtlety and strength when called for. Twilight Time’s Blu features a stereo isolated music & effects track for completists, although some might be surprised by the sonic quality. (The full 78 minute score was re-recorded by Nic Raine and James Fitzpatrick for Tadlow Music.)

The LP always sounded rather pinched, and the mixed film – neatly remixed from surviving elements by Mike Matessino in 5.1, 4.0, and 2.0 stereo – still has a dry quality, as though elements were captured, recorded, and mixed in a hurry, including the score engineering. The orchestra’s performance is superb, but the recording isn’t. The restored surround sound mix adds some depth, directional effects, and gets rid of the pinched sound, but it’s surprising a huge production like Exodus, shot in 65mm and released Super Panavision 70 and 6-track multi-channel audio, isn’t as crisp as one would expect.

Matessino provided a compact breakdown of the huge effort to restore the sound and create alternate mixes for alternate listening environments in his Twilight Time Blogs. What he and is associates accomplished was getting the sound ready for a modern 5.1 environment – now what’s left is for MGM to launch a picture restoration, using a surviving 70mm print and whatever sources still exist. The 35mm print used for TT’s Blu-ray is fine, but the opening reels do have their share of wear – an indication that MGM seems willing to create HD transfers of their stock for ancillary markets, but maybe not undertake a costly restoration. Perhaps one day…

In any event, TT’s disc replaces the mixed bag that existed on prior media: the MGM laserdisc had better sound, whereas the MGM DVD boasted sharper picture.

One would expect there to be some surviving ephemera of Preminger’s super-production – vintage featurettes, interviews, or publicity ephemera – but perhaps their absence on any home video release is another sign of the slow marginalization of both film and director. Exodus is known as a classic, but its length may have marginalized it to a footnote in film history few comprehend.

In hiring Trumbo and crediting the writer’s full name, Preminger helped break the Hollywood Blacklist that ruined many careers and lives. Although he continued to ghost write scripts during the 40s and 50s, from roughly 1951 thru 1959, Exodus and Spartacus (also 1960) put Trumbo’s name back on the screen, and his subsequent efforts include Lonely Are the Brave (1962), The Sandpiper (1965), Hawaii (1966), and Papillon (1973) – all genre classics.

Preminger would also credit blacklisted composer Jerry Fielding in his next production, Advise and Consent (1962), and would make a string of big budget classics before returning to smaller scale thriller material with Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), after which his choice of material became both odd (Skidoo) and poor (Rosebud), ultimately closing his film career with The Human Factor in 1979.

Leon Uris’ other film work includes the short documentary Israel (1959), Hitchcock’s dull film version of the muddled Cuban non-thriller Topaz (1969), and the Emmy Award-winning TV mini-series QB VII (1974).



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan



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