EXODUS—–there is a famous Hollywood story concerning the premiere of this movie. The great satirist Mort Sahl was in the audience. At the three-hour point, he stood up and said in a loud voice to director Otto Preminger, “Otto, let my people go!” Maybe Sahl had recently sat through 1960s other magnum-length Freedom epics, Spartacus and The Alamo, and felt he was spending too much of his life in the dark with strangers, or maybe it was just a case of “Enough, already!”
Mort’s aside aside, this earnest, king-sized, location-shot story of the birth of Israel ends up being a 208 minute keister-buster. There’s ample sincerity in Dalton Trumbo’s adaptation of the famous Leon Uris bestseller, and the subject certainly demands screen treatment. But much of the impact is diluted by the screenplay’s sprawl, Preminger’s plodding pacing, and the very nature of several key portions. There’s a lengthy hunger-strike sequence, a lengthy incarceration sequence, and a lengthy village-evacuation sequence. These are the only moderately tense episodes in a movie full of chatter and half-developed characters.
Paul Newman, glowering throughout, is just okay as the main hero. Oddly, he smacks his tongue to the roof of his mouth, like someone unused to public speaking, so much that it becomes pointedly distracting. I don’t recall him ever doing that in any other part (Newman was not fond of the film, his work in it, or Otto). The romantic angle between him and Eva Marie Saint (a sop to WASPs?) lacks conviction. Ralph Richardson has an easy prestige passage, and Peter Lawford scores some tart lines as an anti-Semitic British officer. John Derek isn’t much more believable here, as an Arab with robes and a beard, than he was four years earlier, as a Hebrew, with robes and a beard, stumbling through The Ten Commandments.
Best acting in the movie, hands down, is from Sal Mineo. He has an especially powerful scene where he is interrogated about his life in a concentration camp: it brought the gifted Mineo a deserved nomination for Supporting Actor. The story’s Sacrificial Lamb is the less-than-inspiring Preminger ‘find’, Jill Hayworth, who manages to be both too sweet and inexpressive at the same time. She was better a few years later in the director’s WW epic In Harm’s Way.
Expansive locales in Cyprus and Israel are a plus. Producer Otto’s $4,500,000 brought in $22,000,000 worldwide, the success stimulating American public support for Israel (that’s worked out just swell, ask a Palestinian).
Aside from Mineo, the most memorable thing about this is the truly beautiful theme music from Ernest Gold. An irate Academy, irked by the obnoxious publicity campaign drummed up for The Alamo, gave Gold’s score the Oscar that should have gone either to Dimitri Tiomkin’s much richer scoring for the Wayne epic, or maybe to upstart Elmer Bernstein for his thrilling The Magnificent Seven. Gold basically just repeats the main theme, but the haunting title track, played to a backdrop of flames during the credits, struck, well, gold (sorry). Ferrante & Teicher had their biggest piano success with their cover of it. Sam Leavitt’s photography was also Academy award nominated.
With Lee J. Cobb (bellowing), Hugh Griffith, Gregory Ratoff, David Opatashu, Felix Aylmer, Marius Goring, Martin Benson, George Maharis and an early, uncredited bit from Paul L. Smith, who 18 years down the line would achieve chills as the brutal jailer in Midnight Express.