By Jacob M. Victor
Jacob M. Victor ’09 attends Harvard College and is a Social Studies Concentrator in Leverett House.
Imagine that an American director today decided to make a film about the founding of the State of Israel. And imagine that in this film he depicted a steamy romance between an American protestant nurse and a young Zionist freedom fighter, described the British as hapless, slightly anti-Semitic buffoons, claimed that the Palestinian Arab leadership employed former Nazis during the Israeli War of Independence , and ensured that all characters in the film—Europeans, Israelis, and Arabs alike—spoke with impeccable American or British accents. The controversies over political bias, cultural authenticity, and historical accuracy that seem to plague every current film on Middle East (such as political films like Munich and Syriana and even crude action films like The Kingdom and 300) attests to the fact that the press, academics, and politicians today would not look kindly on the kind of film described above.  And yet, when Otto Preminger’s Exodus—a most politically incorrect film by today’s standards—was released in 1960, it was treated by the American media with a politeness and fondness that seems rather unusual by today’s politically charged standards.
Exodus, which runs at a massive 3 hours and 28 minutes, is based on the novel of the same name by Leon Uris, and tells the epic story of a group of Jewish refugees imprisoned at a British internment camp at Cyprus, their successful attempt to reach Palestine by stealing a ship (which they rename the Exodus), and their experiences in Palestine’s sectarian, conflict-ridden political landscape leading up to Israeli War of Independence. The film focuses on the exploits of a leader in the Jewish Haganah named Ari Ben-Canaan, played by the dashing Paul Newman, and an American nurse named Kitty Fremont, played by the ethereal Eva Marie Saint, who eventually becomes Ari’s lover despite originally “feeling uncomfortable” around Jews. It also follows the story of Dov Landau, played by Sal Mineo, a bitter Auschwitz survivor who joins the more militant Irgun, and Karen, an idealistic young girl played by Jill Heworth. 
The film has all the trappings of a classic epic adventure: romance, idealism, and a fight for freedom. But its political overtones are clear. The movie allows each party in the conflict to present its point-of-view: Ari’s uncle, the leader of the Irgun, explains why violence is necessary to force the British to leave Palestine. Ari’s Arab best friend strives for coexistence with Jews, but is ultimately treated as a traitor by the uncompromising Palestinian leadership. And a friendly British general explains that the British troops are only following orders and want to get out of Palestine as much as everyone wants to see them leave. But despite these moments of balance, the movie explicitly endorses the Zionist point-of-view and paints the founding of the Israel in the most romantic terms. Regardless of one’s opinions on the events surrounding the creation of the State of Israel, the fact that Exodus can overtly defend one side of such a controversial piece of history, and get away with it, is quite surprising by today’s politically charged standards.
And yet, most of the political overtones, so jarring to modern sensibilities, were either ignored or overlooked in public responses to Exodus at the time of its release. Although a media frenzy developed around the film before it was released, the press paid more attention to its all-star cast and exotic filming locations than its political subject matter. Preminger, who produced and directed Exodus, was already well known from his previous films, including Laura: Fallen Angel (1945), and Anatomy of a Murder (1959).  The press reported how he was immediately attracted to Leon Uris’s novel and even proposed the film before the book was released to the general public.  As the novel became a bestseller and the stars of the film were announced, the press began to pay even more attention to the details of the film’s production, especially the fact that the entire movie was filmed on location in Israel and Cyprus.  The New York Times published two articles about the large-scale casting of locals and use of actual Israeli buildings and landscapes in the filming. Special attention was paid to the “impressive” logistics of the production, including the large collection of weaponry and military vehicles gathered for the sets, and of course, the twenty camels used in desert scenes. 
This media blitz culminated in a front-page photo essay on the film published in the December 12, 1960 issue of Life.  The essay painted a rather melodramatic portrait of Exodus and included several photographs of the main characters looking contemplatively into the distance with the fields and valleys of Israel as a backdrop. The photos were prefaced with a glowing description of the film that claims that it even “goes beyond the book.”  When Exodus finally opened on December 21, 1960, the premiere was attended by a wide array of celebrities, including Adlai Stevenson and Leonard Bernstein.  The film went on to win an Oscar for best music and was nominated for best cinematography. Sal Mineo was also nominated for best actor in a supporting role. 
Exodus was fondly received by most major newspapers and magazines and many reviewers were moved by its epic scale and historical subject matter. The New York Times called it “a dazzling, eye-filling, nerve-tingling display of a wide variety of individual and mass reactions to awesome challenges and, in some of its sharpest personal details, a fine reflection of experience that rips the heart.”  Time named it one of the best films of 1960 and called it a “terrific show.”  The Los Angeles Times remarked that the film showed a remarkable lack of political bias, claiming that despite being somewhat slanted toward the Zionist cause, all parties in the conflict “are allowed to present their ‘sides.’”  Film critic Stanley Kauffmann wrote one of the most flattering reviews in the New Republic and despite being critical of the second half of the movie, which he described as “not often more than superficially exciting,” he described the film as not only an entertaining story, but a “powerful instrument of contemporary truth.”  Even somewhat disapproving reviewers failed to make the kinds of political criticisms that one would expect today. Roger Angell, reviewing the film in the New Yorker, criticized the cinematography, calling it “pretentious.” He further criticized the realism of film’s plot, especially its depiction of all the sides’ willingness to talk about their disagreements. He claimed: “one begins to wonder why all the problems of the Middle East could not have been settled over a glass of tea.” 
Reviews criticizing the film’s political message only appeared in less mainstream sources. For example, Film Quarterly, a scholarly journal published by the University of California Press, ran a scathing review by Gideon Bachmann, in which he asserted that Exodus is not only “a bad film” but propaganda designed to be “the best promotion Israel ever had.”  This claim comes close to the kind of political reading one would expect today. However, the specialized academic nature of Film Quarterly certainly ensured that the readership of Bachmann’s review was relatively small.
In trying to understand why Exodus was received so differently then than it is today, it is not enough to assume that reviewers at the time were less aware of the controversial political issues surrounding the events depicted in the movie. Several writers inside and outside the United States were publishing harsh criticisms of Israel at the time, but these criticisms seem to have been deliberately overlooked or dismissed by most of the mainstream medial when dealing with Exodus. It is instead important to ask what specifically about the film might have led Americans to embrace it.
First of all, Exodus is tremendously entertaining; it has all the grandiose features found in classic, epic Hollywood films: love stories, idealism, exciting battles, and exotic locales. Furthermore, the story of Exodus has all the characteristics of great historical drama. As the glowing review of the novel printed in the Nation pointed out: “[Exodus] contains in its borders and its brief modern history every conceivable element of drama—‘conquest of the desert,’ ‘return to the soil,’ ‘ingathering of exiles,’ ‘conflict of cultures,’ the ‘Promise and Fulfillment’ of Biblical prophecy.” 
Many aspects of the film also resonate very strongly with a uniquely American cultural and political sensibility. First of all, as recent historical scholarship has demonstrated, a fascination with the Middle East and with the Jews’ return to Zion is, in many ways, as American as apple pie.  But, even more importantly, Exodus also resonates with the more general American love of the underdog. Ari makes this especially clear when he asks Kitty, who is skeptical of the Jews’ chances at overcoming the odds and succeeding in establishing a state, “How many men did you have at Concord the day they fired the shot heard round the world? 77.” This reference makes explicit what the audience feels during the course of the film; that the Jews’ struggle is in fact representative of a universal struggle of freedom over tyranny. To add to this sense of universalism, the film carefully avoids overt ethnocentricity. Although Ari is originally distrustful of non-Jews, the very Christian Kitty makes him see that “there are no differences” between people.  Indeed, Exodus is adept at straddling the line between particularism and universalism: the film’s ideal seems to be a world where every nation is free to realize self-determination, but where pluralism and peaceful cultural exchange – not violent struggles – are the norm. This is the kind of a world where a Jew, like Ari Ben-Canaan, can fight for Israeli independence, while still being able to fall in love with a Christian and sustain a friendship with an Arab.
In recent years Exodus has received some of the political scrutiny that we would expect to see were a similar film released today. Some have called it orientalist, others simply historically inaccurate, and the late Edward Said even claimed that he was alarmed to what extent the novel still defines the “narrative model that dominates American thinking.”  These critics would probably claim that we are all now more enlightened and sensitive to the politics of the Middle East, which is why a movie like Exodus could never receive the kind of positive treatment today that it was shown in 1960.
Still, Exodus, despite its many historical inaccuracies, is not propaganda. Rather, it is the product of a more idealistic and perhaps more optimistic time. The film’s attempt to embrace liberal nationalism and pluralism simultaneously might strike us as naïve and simplistic by today’s standards, but it is also refreshing. Modern films about the Middle East, and especially about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are so self-consciously political and swept up in the assumption that they must blatantly defend one specific political message that they often seem to blur the line between the creative and the polemical. The way that Exodus so unabashedly presents its idealistic stance may be jarring to our modern sensibilities, but that may be simply the result of our cynicism over the many years conflict in Middle East. Though Exodus may now be an anachronism, it might still have something to tell us about art’s potential to create an optimistic and meaningful vision, which we can, at the very least, still hope to see fulfilled.
 Although the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was allied with Hitler during World War II the claim that Nazis came to Palestine after the war is of quite dubious historical validity.
 For instance, the recent film The Kingdom, which tells the story of an American FBI team charged with investigating a terrorist bombing in Saudi Arabia was panned by many critics, not for plot and acting, but for cultural insensitivity. The New York Post, for example described the film as “xenophobic” and “pandering” (see Lumenick, Lou. “The King-dumb.” New York Post Sept. 28, 2007)
 Exodus. Dir. Otto Preminger. United Artists, 1960.
 Fujiwara, Chris. “Otto Preminger.” Senses of Cinema. http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/02/preminger.html
 Pryor, Thomas M. “Preminger Plans Movie on Israel.” New York Times May 26, 1958: 25.
 Thompson, Howard. “Preminger Tells of ‘Exodus’ Plans.” New York Times Dec. 9, 1959: 58.
 Hift, Fred. “Guiding a Film ‘Exodus.’” New York Times Apr. 17, 1960: X5.
Crowther, Bosley. “Film Cameras Over the Holy Land.” New York Times May 15, 1960: X1.
 Cover image courtesy of: http://cgi.ebay.com/LIFE-MAGAZINE-1960-HAWORTH-MINEO-EXODUS-WALKERVILLE-MT_W0QQitemZ150092435481QQcmdZViewItem#ebayphotohosting
 “A People’s Return to the Promised Land.” Photographs by Gjon Mili. Life Dec. 12, 1960: 70-76.
 “‘Exodus’ Draws Crowd.” New York Times Dec. 16, 1960: 44.
 “Exodus (1960).” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0053804/
 Crowther, Bosley. “Screen: A long ‘Exodus.’” Review of Exodus, dir. Otto Preminger. New York Times Dec. 16, 1960: 44.
 “The Best Pictures of 1960.” Time Jan. 2, 1961.
 Scheuer, Philip K. “‘Exodus’ the Record of a New Genesis.” Review of Exodus, dir. Otto Preminger. Los Angeles Times Dec. 11, 1960: B3.
 Kauffmann, Stanley. “Double Feature,” Review of Exodus, dir. Otto Preminger. New Republic Dec. 19, 1960: 21-22.
 Angell, Roger. “The Current Cinema: 3:45 Flat.” Review of Exodus, dir. Otto Preminger. New Yorker Dec. 17, 1960: 136-138.
 Bachmann, Gideon. “Exodus.” Review of Exodus, dir. Otto Preminger. Film Quarterly 14.3 (Spring, 1961): 56-59.
 Wakfield, Dan. “Israel’s Need for Fiction.” Review of Exodus, by Leon Uris and The Anglo-Saxons, by Lester Gorn. Nation Apr. 11, 1959: 318-319.
 See: Oren, Michael B. Power, Faith, and Fantasy America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.
 Exodus. Dir. Otto Preminger. United Artists, 1960.
 Said, Edward. “Propaganda and War.” Al-Ahram Weekly Online 549 (Aug. 30-Sept. 5, 2001). http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2001/549/op9.htm