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    Exodus: Its First and Subsequent Years

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Fifty-seven years ago tonight, producer/director Otto Preminger’s massive and sweeping film adaptation of Exodus (1960), Leon Uris’s 1958 historical novel set during the tumultuous early years of the formation of the state of Israel, celebrated its world premiere at the Warner Theater in New York with what historian Kim R. Holston notes in Movie Roadshows: A History and Filmography of Reserved-Seat Limited Showings 1911-1973, was “a capacity and invitational audience. Celebrities were interviewed in the lobby for national television and radio networks. Present were Preminger and performers Peter Lawford, Sal Mineo, Jill Haworth and David Opatoshu. Also in attendance were Adlai Stevenson, Leonard Bernstein, Myrna Loy, Maria Schell, Paddy Chayefsky and Billy Rose.” After two attempts at a screenplay from Uris (who Preminger thought couldn’t craft convincing dialogue) and blacklisted screenwriter Albert Maltz (whose draft reportedly came in at around 400 pages), he then struck a deal with another notable blacklistee Dalton Trumbo, with whom he was simpatico in coping with the book’s historical framework and complex characters. And work began in earnest almost precisely a year to day before the film’s debut. The Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert talked to Trumbo and recapped in a September 14, 1976 career reminiscence days after the writer died: “Preminger brought Trumbo out of exile in 1960, to write the screenplay for Exodus. Trumbo chuckled at the memory. ‘The book weighed 14 pounds and had 390 characters, and Otto needed a screenplay in three weeks. We started on December 16. I remember Christmas Eve, Otto impatiently watching my family unwrap gifts. I believe he had to restrain himself from opening the gifts for them, to speed along the process, you know.’” 

    When critics of the era unwrapped this beautifully shot, powerfully scored and perceptively acted Super Panavision 70/Technicolor epic, they appreciated its location-lensed (in Cyprus and Israel) authenticity and ambitious dramatic scope, but found the film’s three-and-a-half-hour length daunting and certain characters and subplots less compelling. But audiences nonetheless made the ultimately thoughtful and moving production a box-office hit and its considered approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict, reflecting a shift in tone by Preminger and Trumbo from the original Uris text, broadened its appeal in the international marketplace. Perhaps those receptive first moviegoers, drawn by the presence and gravitas of stars Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint, Ralph Richardson, Lee J. Cobb, John Derek and Hugh Griffith in addition to the already mentioned Warner premiere attendees, laid the groundwork for movie scholar David Thomson’s later assessment that “just because the problems in Exodus have hardly improved in more than 40 years that’s no reason to forget or reject the picture and the overall feeling that intelligence and good drama can convey the conflicting points of view in a great crisis. This is not a film that makes a travesty of the Arab or Palestinian point of view. There are good and bad men on both sides. Preminger uses depth of focus and reframing movements to enlarge the scope of an argument. And, for the most part, the supporting acting is as rounded and tolerant as the overall sense of context.” And subsequent visitors to the film through the decades have wrestled with the strengths and drawbacks of Exodus – and its enduring emotional pull regardless. Two interesting online takes are worth a read: Valerie Elverton-Dixon’s 2013 Tikkun Daily sociopolitical reflection (accessed here: http://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2013/03/28/exodus-the-movie-a-passover-maundy-thursday-reflection/) and Ariel Schudson’s film-perspective evaluation for Los Angeles’ New Beverly Cinema website blog earlier this year (click here: http://thenewbev.com/blog/2017/05/exodus/). The Warner Theater, which gave Exodus its starry, spectacular sendoff, fell to a wrecker’s ball 30 years ago. But the film’s screen-searing flame (courtesy of Saul Bass’s iconic Main Title Credits sequence, powered by the haunting principal theme from Ernest Gold’s Academy Award®-winning Best Original Score) still burns brightly on Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-ray.