“Cast a Giant Shadow” is a pro-Israel movie released in 1966. Hollywood was looking for a way to put America into the heroic story of Israel’s founding. It found an opening with the tale of an American soldier named David “Mickey” Marcus. The movie is based on fact. “The major events actually happened…. The major characters actually lived.” Take that with a grain of salt.
Around Christmas time in 1947, Marcus (Kirk Douglas) is recruited by an Israeli to help train the new Israeli army called the Haganah. Although Marcus insists he’s an American, he decides to go. It will not be the first time he abandons his long-suffering wife (Angie Dickinson). She is used to playing second fiddle to war. Marcus led paratroopers in WWII Europe. The movie flashes back to liberation of the Dachau concentration camp just in case you forgot what the Jews had gone through.
When Marcus arrives in Israel, it is under attack from several Arab nations. He is transported in an armored bus through an Arab occupied town. He is chaperoned by a sexy Jewess named Magda (Senta Berger) who is married, but open to flirting. They visit an Arab chieftain who is entertained by a belly dancer to contrast to the Jews who are constantly engaged in communal singing and dancing. Marcus is viewed with suspicion by his new comrades until he helps rescue refugees coming in by ship and participates in a lame attack against a Syrian supply depot. Is it possible to have too many explosions? Yes. One positive development is Magda’s husband is killed, so end of that complication. The relationship develops as Marcus rescues Magda from an ambush. Unfortunately, Kirk Douglas cannot rescue Senta Berger from being a really bad actress. Marcus has to leave her when she needs him because his needy wife has had a miscarriage.
When Marcus returns he brings a mercenary pilot named Vince (Frank Sinatra) to be the Israeli air force. When Egyptian tanks attack a kibbutz, Vince flies a Piper Cub and drops seltzer bottles on the Egyptian soldiers causing them to panic. This is followed by a jeep attack which uses feigned retreat to lure the tanks into an ambush by anti-tank guns. Marcus is promoted to be the first Israeli general and put in charge of the relief of besieged Jerusalem. A failed attack on a fortress blocking the road to the city is fairly well-staged and enhanced by flame-throwers. Marcus then decides to build a road around the fortress. Teamwork. And communal singing and dancing ensue.
The film is a pretty good tutorial on the founding of Israel. Naturally it is very pro-Israel, but it does not make up the basics. Marcus did have a background with the paratroopers in WWII, but his role was enhanced for the movie. During WWII he was a valuable member of Civil Affairs and helped with several key negotiations including the surrender of Italy. He did parachute into Normandy and participated in some of the fighting before his superior pulled him out. He supervised the cleaning out of the concentration camps after the war and did visit Dachau, but not in the circumstances depicted in the film. He was approached by an Israeli official in New York in December, 1947 and asked to find Israel a military adviser to train the nascent Haganah. When Marcus could not find anyone, he volunteered himself. His wife was not amused. Marcus entered Palestine under the name “Michael Stone” and did a tour to determine the needs of the Israeli forces, which were many. He wrote a military manual based on the U.S. Army manual and gave valuable advice about strategy. He did have to return home when his wife was ill. Marcus did lead a force of jeeps and half-tracks against an Egyptian tank force that had invaded the Negev. It is very unlikely a mercenary pilot dropped seltzer bottles on tanks. After a failed attack on Latrun, Marcus was appointed the first aluf (equivalent of a Brigadier General) to unify the forces working to relieve Jerusalem. Marcus planned a second attack which also failed and then he came up with idea of what he called the “Burma road”. His death is accurately depicted in the movie. He was “the last casualty before the truce.
The movie was a worthy attempt at a biopic of a hero. Marcus was the first soldier buried at West Point who died fighting for another country. It also made sense to make a movie about the founding of Israel. The movie is not “Patton” however. It is not a warts and all portrayal. That does not mean Marcus was a loose cannon, but it does mean the movie is very pro-Israel. That is totally to be expected from a Hollywood movie made in the mid-sixties. The casting lends itself to the vibe as we see cameos by actors like Sinatra who probably wanted to be supporters of the cause. John Wayne was recruited to bring war movie gravitas.
The movie is technically sound. The cinematography is adequate. Elmer Bernstein provides a good score. The movie has a lot of singing in it which gets to be a bit schmaltzy. The set pieces are nothing special. Director Melville Shavelson had never directed a war movie and it shows. The violence is typically non-graphic for a movie of that period. The acting tends to be hammy. Topol as an Arab chieftain is especially embarrassing. Sinatra is slumming. Wayne plays Wayne. Douglas is his usual reliable self and is obviously sincere. The dialogue does not help the actors. The movie is stuffed with lines that are memorably sappy. I was forced to pay attention to catch the bon mots. Here are my favorites:
- “We’ve been knocking off a lot of guys who have been making soap out of my relatives.” (Marcus at Dachau)
- “War gets you more excited than I do.” (Mrs. Marcus)
- “You couldn’t advise a taffy bowl without slugging somebody.” (Wayne to Marcus)
- “ The olive branch has not worked around here since Noah ran the Ark into a mountain.” (Marcus)
- “This has got to be the biggest bluff since the invention of falsies.” (Vince about his air attack)
- “Did it make sense for a guy with a steady job building pyramids to march his people into the Red Sea?”
- “I’ve been so angry at the world ever since I was circumcised without my permission.” (Marcus)
The plot is themey. It hammers away at the “war is addictive” theme. Marcus is not the first cinematic soldier who prefers his job to his wife. You do feel sorry for Mrs. Marcus. Especially since the movie throws in the romance subplot with Magda. Angie Dickinson’s role is almost a cameo. The real “get” by the casting director must have been Senta Berger. She was a hot sex symbol at that time (coming off of “Major Dundee”), but not exactly known for her acting ability. The romantic subplot shoe-horns the requisite soap opera elements, but ends up leaving the audience unfulfilled in a twist that would not have been a twist in 1966. Another theme is that of the underdog. You certainly root for the Israelis. You would be standing and cheering at the end if it weren’t for…
In conclusion, “Cast a Giant Shadow” is a movie that needed to be made, but it only ended up being average. It’s too sincere and simplistic. It does not belong in the Best 100 War Movies list.
GRADE = C