From Novel to Film, pt. 33: Exodus

"Exodus tells the story of the Jews coming back after centuries of abuse, indignities, torture, and murder to carve an oasis in the sand with guts and blood. It's about fighting people, people who do not apologize either for being born Jews or the right to live in human dignity. Their story was a revelation to me as I discovered it in the farms and cities of Israel.

"The lingering effects of [the book's] sometimes-cartoonish portrayal of Israel's founding can still be seen in the opinions of the more unthinking among Israel's supporters." - Jeffrey Goldberg, author of Prisoners.

"The main narrative model that dominates American thinking still seems to be Leon Uris' 1958 novel Exodus." - Edward Said, author of Orientalism.

"(Uris) takes 130,000 words to display his incompetence." - New York Times review.

I'd heard variations of the three quotes above for years, but until last year I'd never read any Uris. I can see where that last one is coming from - he's no great stylist. He tends to write in a blow-by-blow style ("The Gestapo could get nothing from him. Dov Landau, age thirteen, ghetto rat, sewer rat, rubble rat, and expert forger, was marked for resettlement. Destination: Auschwitz!") more suited to comic books of the Silver Age, perhaps. And yet, he was one of 20th Century America's most popular authors.

Part of the reason for that (as explored pretty well here) is America's (the West's in general) ambivalent relationship with the Jewish people. Even among my own generation there seems to be surprise when certain celebrities (say, James Caan, Scarlett Johansson - or Paul Newman) turn out to be Jewish. The idea of the blue-eyed, fair-haired "apple pie" American is still thought of as a WASP, even if the actual models for that (in Hollywood) were almost always Jewish. 

Funny how that works.

I'm not the guy nor is Dog Star Omnibus the place to get to the bottom of that one. I will say this, though - I'm fairly tolerant of even blatantly pro-Israeli propaganda like Exodus considering the overwhelming anti-Israel slant throughout the media-academe that plays out in a hundred different ways. This is not to say the Israeli state nor its relationship with the US is beyond criticism. Just, if you want to get into the history of the region, it is imperative to identify bias so you can avoid it/ call it out. The default is anti. Suffice it to say, somewhere between the Vox history of the Jewish people in the Middle East - which I'll take as a placeholder for the antisemitism and disinformation of the aforementioned media-academe default - and Uris' account - "It was the army of Israel, and no force on earth could stop them for the power of God was within them!" - lies the truth. 

(Me, I recommend reading Exodus or Uris' other grand work of pro-Israeli propaganda, The Haj, for the broad-strokes ra-ra-Israel side, then  reading Avi Shlaim's The Iron Wall for an exhaustive dissent. And then In the Land of Israel by Amos Oz. Anything by Oz, really - that guy's great. Or just check out this cartoon from Nina Paley.)

Undoubtedly, though, Uris' account is sensationalist, 100% appeal-to-emotion, and undeniably stirring reading. Throughout his narrative, the Jews are betrayed (most notably by the British) and cheated (most notably by the wealthy effendi or Arab landowners who sell them their first parcels of land in Palestine) and outnumbered (in soldiers, 40 to 1, in population, 100 to 1, in area 5000 to 1) at every turn, yet they achieve dramatic victory after dramatic victory. (Not, of course, without considerable sacrifice.) If God is with us, who can be against us? "The six thousand year old case of the Jewish people was placed before the conscience of man."

It's impossible to read Exodus and not cheer when the Yishuv win and not grieve when they die. Like David Ben-Gurion once said, "As a literary work, it isn't much. But as a piece of propaganda, it's the best thing ever written about Israel." 

As I say, the pendulum has swung quite far in the other direction these days. Too far, if you ask me - I'll admit my bias up front, should it not be obvious already. Like many people I want a fair solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict; unlike many people, I care about said solution not stemming from misrepresentation, false premises, or outright fantasy. That goes for Exodus as well as any of the more fashionable BDS stuff these days.

Briefly, Exodus tells the story of the birth of the modern state of Israel through proxy characters: Ari Ben Canaan, a sabra or native-born, leader of the Haganah and the novel's intense, whip-cracking protagonist; Kitty Fremont, the gentile American nurse who gets swept up in the Israeli cause as a nurse on Cyprus (where the British interred thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing Europe as a favor to Arabs uneasy about too many Jews in Palestine); Ari's father Barak and his estranged brother Akiva (who joins up with the "Maccabees," the novel's stand-in for the Irgun) and their emigration to Palestine during the first aliyah ("return"); Karen and Dov, two European Jews who survive the Holocaust and join the defense of Gan Dafna, a kibbutz on the northern border; and Jordana and David, two other sabra dedicated to the birth of Eretz Israel.

Along the way the story encompasses pogroms in Russia, the inter-war riots and massacres inspired by the Mufti of Jerusalem (and ignored by the British), the Holocaust (most notably in the Warsaw Ghetto and at Auschwitz), the refugee ships and hunger strikes, and of course the military campaigns of the War of Independence that resulted in the original shape of the Jewish state and the various reversals, betrayals, and triumphs along the way. 

Couple quick things before we get to the movie:

- Neither the Poles nor the Brits come off particularly well. I know from other reading (principally The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski and Wartime Lies by Louis Begley) that Poland during WW2 was the epitome of Hell-on-Earth, but oy vey. 

As for the Brits, Uris seems to have a particular ax to grind with them.

Of course, neither group represents the only (or even the most egregious) cultural handicapping going on in Exodus.

- Was this the first popular work to convey the mind-numbing horror of the Holocaust? Not just the numbers of people murdered but the efforts undertaken by Nazi officials to maximize deception and assembly-line efficiency? I'm not sure of the timetable. Either way, it was, as always, sobering to be reminded of some of this stuff. We throw around terms like "Nazi" and "holocaust" way too casually in the 21st century. 

- It's disorienting to read the Israelis referred to as "Palestinian terrorists." Goes to show how malleable terms are.

As for the 1960 movie:

As mentioned here

"Otto Preminger was certainly no stranger to controversy and almost from the beginning his screen adaptation of the Leon Uris novel had its detractors. The first flare-up occurred when he decided to discard Uris's screenplay because Preminger claimed the author couldn't write dialogue. His remark ignited a feud between him and Uris for years. He then approached Albert Maltz, a blacklisted writer, to pen the screenplay but Maltz delivered a version that was 400 pages long. Preminger then turned to another blacklisted writer, Dalton Trumbo, who was hired to write the screenplay for Exodus under his own name. About the same time, Kirk Douglas helped hire Trumbo to write Spartacus (1960). The reappearance of Trumbo's name in 1960 helped break the power of the blacklist."

Anytime the blacklist / Dalton Trumbo comes up, I remind everyone to read either of Ed Dmytryk's memoirs for a less commie different take on the Hollywood Ten. That aside, though, Trumbo does a great job of translating the less polished aspects of Uris' story to the screen. I understand the film's development is dramatized in the film Trumbo, which I really have to see one of these days.

As Preminger notes himself, the film version of Exodus is a great deal fairer to all sides and far less inflammatory. (He should've read The Haj! Exodus is about half as inflammatory as that one. I give Tarantino a lot of grief, but if they announced tomorrow that he was adapting The Haj, I'd become a Tarantino apologist faster than you could say Tohar HaNeshek.)

The film clocks in about three hours and twenty minutes, placing it squarely in the "epic" genre. That said, it omits practically everything from the book except for the plight of the Exodus (the refugee ship of Holocaust survivors - plus Ari and other Greek and American sympathizers) and the raid on the British jail by the Haganah to rescue their own.   

All the Holocaust and first-and-second-aliyah stories are relayed as monologues. This definitely lessens the respective arcs of Barak and Akiva (not to mention David and Jordana). It also changes the nature of Karen's death. In the book, she is killed by vengeful fedayeen, (gangs of Arabs who cross the border to commit acts of murder or sabotage) precipitating Ari's finally releasing the tears he's held back his whole life. In the movie, she's collateral damage at just one of the battles of independence.

The relationship between Kitty and Karen seems realer in the film than in the book, primarily (to this reader) because Uris struggles with fully-realized female characters.
Although this sad reunion between daughter and father is more heartbreaking in the reading.

Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint are both fine as Ari and Kitty, though their chemistry never really sets the screen on fire. Apparently it was a troubled set with Preminger dismissing all input from his leads, leading to somewhat muted performances from both. It was exactly the wrong approach for Preminger to take; what the movie needs is a Liz-Taylor-and-Richard-Burton sort of chemistry in its leads.

All in all, it's a restrained and perfectly legit epic. But I prefer the two-fisted / pox-on-all-the-enemies-of-the-Jews approach of the book. Right or wrong, it keeps the pages turning. And suits the subject matter - this is, as its author asserts from the get-go, not a story about Jews who turn the other cheek or ask for the world's permission to depict events as they see them.

Filmed entirely on location in Cyprus and Israel.

Final Verdict: Worth reading, worth seeing, worth adapting again. 



  1. Good lord, I had no idea what this movie was about. All these years, I thought it was a Biblical epic. But I'm also one of those guys who didn't know Paul Newman was Jewish. Or Scarlett Johansson, for that matter.

    I suppose I should confess to being highly uneducated on the Arab/Israeli conflict. I don't know a LOT of things, but this is probably one of the subjects that is most important but on which I am almost entirely free of knowledge. Sounds like "Exodus" might be a decent jumping-off point.

    Preminger's disinclination to give Newman and Saint room to work reminds me of Hitchcock's similar disinclination with Newman and Julie Andrews on "Torn Curtain."

    1. Wouldn't it be funny if Newman just had terrible ideas?

      I'm inclined to think his ideas were fine - he seemed a savvy performer and all. But it'd be funny if that was the longrunning secret.

      A few years back when i first started noticing these things I was surprised by how every writer, actor, singer, etc. turned out to be Jewish. ("Jimmy Caan?! What?!") Not that I cared or that it was disillusioning or anything like that, just a surprise. Now, though, I'm surprised when they're not.

      Well mostly I just shrug and ask what's for dinner and mutter to myself, but concurrent to that.

  2. Replies
    1. Maybe Michener Drunk. Or Ad-Copy-Michener. Also Drunk.

  3. I want to say I might have either seen or heard about this film from somewhere a long while back.

    The problem is I'm not sure if either idea is valid. Still, this seems like an interesting read/watch. If the movie does come off as muted compared to the book, then maybe what we have is a perfect illustration of the dividing line between fact and fiction. It's the difference between bright colors and black and white, versus the differing shades of grey.

    I also think "Nazi" gets tossed around to often, mainly to do with partisanship rather than any solid, grounded facts. If I had to offer an alternative, then I'd suggest the word poser as a more accurate term.

    I had a variation on that"Really?" moment you describe when you brought up Scarlett Johansson. What's different is how it was such a non-issue reaction. My thought were like, "Oh is she? Still doesn't change the fact of jealous of Bill Murray."

    In other words, it was no reaction. Hopefully that's a good sign.


    1. I like increasing the usage of "poser." No time in human history has perhaps been more apt for that particular one!