During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Leon Uris' novel Exodus was arguably the most popular and influential novel in America. The book offered a grand, sweeping examination of the creation of the then-newly-established State of Israel, beginning with the intense voyage made on the immigration ship Exodus and then going on to detail the ensuing conflict between the Jewish immigrants and the Palestinian Arabs. The book – which took a firmly pro-Israel point-of-view – is often credited with playing a significant role in re-shaping the American public's view of Israel (shifting the perspective from one of relative apathy to one of sympathetic solidarity).
The book was subjected to its share of criticism: numerous critics were dismissive of Uris' writing style, but more significantly, the book came under fire for perpetuating some strikingly negative Arab stereotypes and for distorting the historical facts on a regular basis. Still, these problems weren't enough to stop the novel from becoming a cultural juggernaut: the book topped the New York Times best-seller list for a whopping nineteen months, and Uris became an instant superstar. A mere two years after the book was published, an expensive film adaptation directed by Otto Preminger was released in theatres, and achieved similar success.
The conflict the film examines is an extraordinarily complicated one, and I won't pretend to have enough historical knowledge to be able to speak authoritatively on just how skewed Exodus' perspective is (though I'll note that there are numerous illuminating pieces out there that thoroughly detail the film's assorted inaccuracies). The film is dealing with a divisive subject, and the biases one brings to the table are likely to inform one's view of the story the film tells. Even some of the film's participants weren't pleased with the final product: star Paul Newman later admitted that he regretted doing the film. Setting all of that aside, how well does Exodus work as a large-scale cinematic experience? Well... it's certainly large-scale.
Much of the film is seen through the eyes of Katherine “Kitty” Fremont (Eva Marie Saint, North by Northwest), an American volunteer working at a British internment camp in Cyprus where thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors are being held. Haganah rebel Ari Ben Canaan (Paul Newman, The Hustler) is determined to get his people to Palestine, and manages to smuggle hundreds of Jews from the camp onto a cargo ship he has secured. Alas, the British find out about his scheme before the ship can leave port, leading to a tense stand-off and a refugee hunger strike. During this time, Kitty serves as a messenger for both Ari and the British government, and begins to develop something of a romantic relationship with Ari.
That relationship serves as something of a narrative anchor for a film that makes room for a host of prominent supporting characters and subplots. Over the course of the film's sprawling 3½-hour running time, we spend large chunks of time with the eloquent General Sutherland (a charming Ralph Richardson, Time Bandits), the oblivious Major Caldwell (Peter Lawford, The Longest Day), Ari's conservative father Barak (Lee J. Cobb, On the Waterfront), Ari's good-hearted Arab friend Taha (John Derek, The Ten Commandments) and a host of others. The most compelling strand of the film is the tender love story between Jewish-Danish girl Karen Hansen (Jill Haworth, Home for the Holidays) and her young lover Dov Landau (Sal Mineo, Rebel Without a Cause), which ends up being a considerably richer, deeper tale than the central story involving Newman and Saint. Mineo's performance in particular is a stand-out: an interrogation scene in which he confesses to a dark chapter from his past is easily the film's most powerful moment.
If the bulk of Exodus were as good as that interrogation scene, the film would be a classic (politics be damned). However, a fairly significant chunk of the movie suffers from the sort of inertia that often afflicted grand, knowingly “important” historical dramas: the film seems all too aware of its own significance, and lumbers forward with a stateliness that doesn't fade away until the action-packed third act (in which Dalton Trumbo's thoughtful but curiously stilted dialogue scenes give way to a series of fairly conventional action scenes). Newman's leading performance only adds to this sensation: the actor has rarely seemed so stiff. The lack of momentum feels particularly curious given that Preminger is behind the camera: contrast the sluggishness of this movie to the gripping snap of Anatomy of a Murder and Advise and Consent (the films made directly before and after this one).
To be sure, the film always looks like a million bucks (well, $4.5 million, to be precise), making excellent use of its diverse outdoor locations (a large chunk of the movie was indeed shot in Israel), boasting consistently handsome production design and benefitting considerably from Ernest Gold's Oscar-winning score (highlighted by that sweeping, instantly memorable main theme). At any given moment, it looks and sounds like a classy picture, but too often, it feels as if we're witnessing the birth of Israel in real time.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 208 minutes
Release Year: 1960