Behind the Scenes – “Cast a Giant Shadow” (1966)

If recruiting John Wayne is essential to getting your new picture off the ground, it would help not to have fallen out with him big-style previously. After every studio in Hollywood had turned down Cast a Giant Shadow, writer-producer-director Melville Shavelson turned to the Duke. The only problem was the pair had hit trouble on football picture Trouble All the Way (1953) should take.  

In his capacity as producer of Trouble All the Way, Shavelson, also co-writing the screenplay, had given Wayne one version of the script while behind his back instructing director Michael Curtiz to shoot a different version with subsidiary characters that would change the film’s plotline. When Wayne found out, Shavelson was the loser. When you make an enemy of John Wayne, it takes a lot to win him back as a friend.

After that debacle, Shavelson had gone on to win some kudos and occasional commercial success as a triple hyphenate on pictures like Houseboat (1958), It Started in Naples (1960) and A New Kind of Love (1963) with top-ranked performers in the vein of Cary Grant, Sophia Loren, Clark Gable and Paul Newman. When Shavelson pitched to Wayne the story of Cast a Giant Shadow, about the birth of Israel and based on the bestselling biography of Mickey Marcus by Ted Berkmann, the star’s response was: “That’s the most American story I ever heard.” Wayne was hooked on the idea that America had helped Israel achieve its independence and that top American soldier Colonel Mickey Marcus had died in the process.

Senta Berger as the gun-toting Magda.

Wayne’s potential involvement came with a proviso – he had script approval. And while Shavelson owned the rights to the book, he didn’t have a screenplay. Nor, with his background as a writer being primarily concerned with comedy, did he consider himself best suited to the job.

He had, however, written a treatment. In his eyes, a treatment was not just about encapsulating the story, but about selling it to a studio. So his first few paragraphs included references to box office behemoths Lawrence of Arabia, The Guns of Navarone and Bridge on the River Kwai – planting in the minds of potential backers the notion that this film was headed down the same route of substantial profit – and a reference to an “American of heroic proportions…with  the ability to love,” the latter being code for sex.

But in the end he wrote the screenplay as well. Wayne put his imprimatur on the picture in more ways than one. Part of the deal was that his production outfit Batjac become involved, with son Michael in line for a co-producer credit. Shavelson managed to snag Kirk Douglas for the starring role only by giving up part of his own salary to meet the star’s fee. Douglas and Wayne, with the credit ranking reversed, had starred together in In Harm’s Way (1965).

It was Douglas who insisted his character’s role be change from passive to active. Shavelson invented an American general for John Wayne and a female Israeli soldier (Senta Berger) for Douglas – in reality his character was a married man – to have an affair with. “I’m introducing a fictitious romance into the film with the full consent of Marcus’s widow,” Shavelson told Variety, though it’s doubtful that real-life wife Emma Marcus went along so merrily with this notion.

It wasn’t only Wayne who demanded script approval.  The Israeli government, with whom cooperation was essential to guarantee the use of troops and equipment, had made the same condition. The Israelis worried that the film would fall into the usual Hollywood trap and to that extent the government insisted that the picture not end up as a “an Errol Flynn Burma stunt” – a reference to Objective Burma (1945), originally banned in London for Americanizing the film.  The government spelled it out: “Col Marcus didn’t win our war, he just helped.” But the production was offered “further facilities than normal.” Two sound stages – the first in the country – were being built in Tel Aviv.

Shavelson was shown military locations that no other civilian had ever seen. When the Israelis did “approve” the script it was with the proviso that 31 changes were made including the deletion of the “sex-starved woman” (Senta Berger), although in reality Shavelson got away with his vision intact.

When the film went ahead it had a crew of 125 plus 800 Israeli soldiers, 1,000 extras and 34 featured players including Yul Brynner, Frank Sinatra, and Angie Dickson. Only some of the film was made in Israel. The interiors for the Macy’s department store were built in Rome, along with the concentration camp sequence, one of the battles, and scenes set in Coney Island that were edited out from the final picture.  

The biggest problem was the supply of soldiers and equipment at a price the production could afford. Shavelson was being charged twice as much for the soldiers as the producers of Judith (1966). It took the intervention of the Israeli Prime Minister for sensible negotiation to get under way and for prices to drop to a tolerable level. Neither was it possible to film on the original battle sites in Israel since they were basically in a no man’s land, covered in barbed wire and littered with mines.

Principal photography began on May 18, 1965, in 115 degree heat – so hot the film buckled in the cameras – at the fortress of Iraq Suidan to recreate the Battle of Latrun. Shavelson had been denied permission to access the Latrun fortress itself which stood across the Jordanian border even though the engagement had been an Arab victory. To keep the sun off his face, Kirk Douglas decided to wear an Australian Army forage cap, and it did the job so successfully he kept it on for the entire movie.

On another location – this time when the temperature reached 126 degrees – a $40,000 Panavision camera exploded filming too close to a tank-muzzle firing, the jeeps got vapor lock, three soldiers were wounded by dummy bullets and the charging tanks vanished after the first take when their commander received new instructions from his army superiors.

Shavelson had met Sinatra some years before when he and scripting partner Jack Rose had helped write the Inaugural Gala organized by the singer in honor of President John F. Kennedy. Using that connection and the fact they shared the same agent, Sinatra, who had a pilot’s license, agreed to play a two-day role as a Piper Cub aviator dropping seltzer bottles on tanks. When filming began Shavelson discovered that what he had imagined was his own inspired invention turned out to be close to the actual truth.  To write the score, Elmer Bernstein visited Israel to conduct his own research.

He also discovered the real reason for Sinatra’s eagerness to be involved. His salary had been donated to set up the Frank Sinatra Arab-Israeli Youth Centre in Nazareth. Actually, there was another less noble reason for Sinatra signing up. He had begun an aviation business, Cal-Jet Airways, supplying planes to Hollywood, and clearly thought appearing as a pilot in a picture would help promote the new company.

However, when filming of his scenes began Sinatra proved unintelligible. He had taken the script at face value and thought he was playing a Texan and delivered his lines with a Texan accent. Eventually, Sinatra was persuaded to play it with his own normal voice. But Sinatra could only be filmed in the plane on the ground since his insurance didn’t cover him being in the air unless accompanied by a co-pilot.

By the time they came to film the immigrants’ landing scene the picture was already half a million dollars over budget. With the country enjoying full employment and nobody inclined to take time off to work in the blazing sun as an extra, the 800 extras were in reality all newly arrived immigrants – and therefore unemployed – from Hungary, Rumania, Poland, Russia and Czechoslovakia.

The only item that was lacking to complete the landing scene was a ship offshore, but the owners were asking too much money. Instead, the director came up with the idea of a “glass shot.”  An artist had painted in smoke billowing from the funnels, but it was blowing in the wrong direction from the wind. The solution – a double-exposure job in the lab – cost as much as hiring the ship.  

Once the production headed home, Shavelson discovered that virtually all the sound recordings made in Israel were unusable. Frank Sinatra and Kirk Douglas re-recorded their dialog in Hollywood, Yul Brynner and Senta Berger in London and dozens of Israeli students attending Los Angeles universities were called upon to replicate background Hebrew voices.  

For prestige purposes, the movie was launched at the end of March 1966 as a restricted roadshow, just three cinemas in New York – the DeMille in the Broadway area, the Fantasy Theater in Long Island and Cinema 46 in New Jersey. Douglas employed a helicopter to fly from venue to venue. The first wave of first run houses followed in Baltimore, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Miami.

Most of the promotional activity centered on the true story of Mickey Marcus but in London, where the character was unknown, United Artists took the gimmick route, placing an advert in The Times newspaper calling for “giant men” standing over six foot seven inches tall. Expecting to find 25 such giants, they ended up with 100 attending the British premiere, the tallest seven foot three inches. In keeping with this gimmicky approach, tickets for the first performance were also a king-sized  twelve inches by nine inches.  

SOURCES:  Melville Shavelson, How To Make a Jewish Movie, W.H. Allen, 1971; “Wayne To Co-Produce, Star in Israeli War Pic,” Variety, May 27, 1964, 2; “We’ll Lift Part of Local Expenses, Israeli Offer to UA,” Variety, July 1, 1964, p3; “Kirk Douglas Set to Star in Cast a Giant Shadow,” Box Office, March 8, 1965 pW-2; “Batjac Productions Moves to Paramount Lot,” Box Office, March 29, 1965, pW-2; “Shavelson Aim on Mickey Marcus Film: Realism,” Variety, March 31, 1965, p25; “WB-Sinatra Film in October; Sinatra’s Aviation Firm,” Box Office, August 23, 1965, 6; “Elmer Bernstein to Israel for Film Music Research,” Box Office, October 18, 1965, pW-3; “Cast a Giant Shadow Set for 3 N.Y. Roadshow Dates,” Box Office, December 6, 1965, pE3; “Kirk Douglas To Helicopter to All 3 Shadow Openings,” Box Office, March 28, 1966, pE-7; “Cast a Giant Shadow set in 14 Key Centers, April 6-8,” Box Office, April 11, 1966, p6; “Small Ad Brings 100 Giant Men to London Opening of United Artists’ Cast a Giant Shadow,” Box Office, October 3, 1966, pA3.   

Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) ***

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.