In some respects a sequel to the film Exodus (1960) as Israel, on the eve of independence in 1948, prepares to repel invasion from neighboring Arabs. Colonel Mickey Marcus (Kirk Douglas) is recruited to help organise the Jewish forces even though he has little actual combat experience, having sat out the Second World War behind a desk until D-Day, and having already resumed his legal career.
To facilitate entry to Palestine, he is met at the airport by Magda (Senta Berger), herself a soldier, pretending to be his sister. The journey from the airport in armored bus reveals the perilous reality of the situation, the vehicle strafed as they pass through towns. He finds a rabble of a fighting force, lacking in weaponry, disorganised, and made up of various groups at each other’s throats, and focused on defense rather than attack. Initially, Marcus is strictly an advisor, writing training manuals until he encourages a commando raid and is eventually, at the behest of Asher (Yul Brynner) put in complete command of all the units, effectively the country’s first general.
In the background, General Mike Randolph (John Wayne) is helping organise support in the United States to recognise Israel’s independence. Marcus organises a campaign to lift the siege of Jerusalem, first through direct attack, but then through an incredible foray into impassable mountains, building the “Burma Road,” equivalent in the tactical sense to Lawrence of Arabia’s trek through the desert to attack Aqaba.
A fair bit of the early part of the picture is flashback to establish Marcus’s military credentials, which are scant, in sum total no more than a week of active combat, and it would have been better to concentrate on why he was recruited in the first place, because of the name the real-life Colonel had made for himself in organizing the war crimes trials in Germany.
Apart from the action and military politics, the drama concerns Marcus abandoning wife Emma (Angie Dickinson) in New York, embarking on a romance with Magda and establishing a sense of identity with his adopted country. The action is particularly good, audacity the Israeli’s major weapon.
It is mostly through Magda that we view the Jewish experience. She married Andre (Michael Shillo) in order to save his life, although she did not love him. A veteran of many skirmishes, she suffers a breakdown when trapped in her vehicle during one particularly vicious battle. In what is possibly the most imaginative scene in the film, when Marcus encourages her to keep driving her stalled truck with cries of “Come on, Magda,” in cruel torment the surrounding Arabs take up the cry until it echoes round the hills. Once she falls for Marcus, of course, she never knows if he will return safe from battle.
Kirk Douglas (A Lovely Way to Die, 1968) leads mostly with his chin, never letting subtlety get in the way of his performance, but given the character assigned he has little option and is nonetheless effective as a leader and believable as a man torn between wife and lover. Senta Berger (Major Dundee, 1965) has never been better (or not so far in the films thus reviewed) with a meaty role that shows soldiering from a female perspective in a country where sacrifice is a given.
John Wayne (The Undefeated, 1969) has a small role as a grumpy general and Frank Sinatra (The Naked Runner,1967) a cameo as a commercial pilot who finds himself dragged into the war. Angie Dickinson (Fever in the Blood, 1961) is the long-suffering wife and singer Topol (Sallah, 1964) has a small role. The smattering of Brits includes Michael Hordern (Khartoum, 1966), Gordon Jackson (Danger Route, 1967), Jeremy Kemp (The Blue Max, 1966) and James Donald (The Great Escape, 1963).
Melville Shavelson wouldn’t be your first choice for an action picture given he made his name with comedies like It Started in Naples (1960), but does a fair job of directing, especially the action, the “Come on, Magda” scene and the confrontation with the British when immigrants land. He wrote the screenplay based on the biography by Ted Berkman.