History has always had a tough time at the movies. From the earliest days of Hollywood, epic biopics depicting the lives of figures out of the history books have often had little resemblance to the actual events depicted.
Though much about the movies has changed since MGM and its competitors were bowdlerizing the complex lives of the famous into simple inspiring tales of good triumphing over evil and ignorance, getting the facts right in films is a rarity.
But though we might be ready to grant old movies depicting the events of past a pass, should we be as generous when it comes to new attempts to show the events of the last century, especially those related to an ongoing bloody conflict? The answer provided the producers of a historical film that came out this month would seem to be no.
French filmmaker Elie Chouraqui's "O Jerusalem" tries to bring to the screen a factual version of the events that led up to the founding of the State of Israel and the climactic battle for the holy city in 1948. Given that some historical knowledge of this chapter of history might help inform the current debate on the Middle East, such a film was an opportunity to enlighten a public whose grasp of this time is largely nonexistent.
But "O Jerusalem," a truly awful film, based on the international bestseller of the same name by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, is not likely to educate very many people. It will, no doubt, sink like a stone in a sea of critical scorn and audience indifference. Its dramatic failures are legion. But rather than a noble failure that at least illuminated some part of the truth, the only thing that is really notable about "O Jerusalem" is the way its creators have validated some of the most hackneyed clichés about a conflict that it might have illuminated.
Though the film punctuates its scenes by giving the actual dates of events that are supposedly depicted, the main protagonists of the film are fictional creations who are about as nuanced as a car-bombing. Thrown together by chance in postwar New York City, the film's heroes soon find themselves emoting their way through the siege of Jerusalem.
J.J. Feld's Bobby Goldman and Said Taghmaoui's Said Chahine are just two nice guys who ought to be having fun in New York, but an unkind fate leads these two peace-loving idealists into mortal combat. Their relationship is a plot device as wooden as the acting. Neither character has much credibility or depth but are simply there to show us how wars can lead nice guys to kill each other.
In the film's defense, events such as the U.N. vote for partition of Palestine, and the various terrorist attacks and battles that determined the outcome of the Arab siege of Jewish Jerusalem, are also shown.
Familiar figures from the period are also depicted with American Jewish actress Tovah Feldshuh trotting out her Golda Meir imitation (familiar to those who saw her in "Golda's Balcony" on the stage), while British character Ian Holm's attempt to impersonate David Ben-Gurion is hampered by an unfortunate Eastern European accent and a fright wig.
Yet a disjointed script and some bad editing render the narrative incomprehensible except to those who have the history already memorized.
But far worse is the facile moralizing against what the film sees as the extremism of both sides. While the protagonists mouth minimalist versions of the eternal debate between Arabs and Jews — with the each side claiming their rights to live there and vowing not to be pushed out of their homes — the essential fact of Israel's War of Independence gets lost: The Jews were willing to share the country, but the Arabs were not.
The purpose of the partition vote that sent Jews out into the streets to dance the hora and Arabs to riot was not to dispossess them or to subjugate them to Zionist rule.
Rather, it sought to divide the portion of the country that had not already been allocated to Arab rule (the 77 percent of Mandatory Palestine that was by 1948 the Kingdom of Transjordan) between the two peoples. The goal of the Arab war to stop this partition was to prevent there being a State of Israel on any part of the country, let alone one along the lines that were its boundaries from 1949 to 1967.
"O Jerusalem" deserves a little credit for hinting at that from time to time such as the scenes in which Palestinian Arabs are commended by representatives of neighboring Arab countries for their attempts to "starve" the Jews of Jerusalem during the siege. But most of this is obscured by much maudlin lamenting about why the main characters just can't get along.
And though some Arab beastliness during the course of the siege is shown, the film makes an attempt at false moral equivalence by dredging up the myth of the "Deir Yassin massacre," in which ruthless (and really evil-looking) Jewish terrorists from the Irgun kill helpless Arabs to the disgust of the good Jews.
The Myth of Deir Yassin
Though a subject of much debate, the truth about Deir Yassin has long been obscured by the myth. The village was a base for anti-Jewish attacks in which Iraqis blocking the road to Jerusalem had been based. It was attacked by Irgun fighters, who conquered the place in a bloody battle. Casualties were heavy on both sides. Sadly, many civilians lost their lives but the charge of murder was unfounded. Sadly, the massacre myth was given legs not by the Arabs, but by Jews, who were only too happy to blacken the reputations of the Irgun, the political foes of the ruling Labor Party.
Deir Yassin was the first in a long line of lies that lead from that village to the alleged death of Mohammed al Dura, the Palestinian boy supposedly shot by Israelis at the beginning of the second intifada, but who was actually killed (if he died at all) by his own people. It's a shame this film has done its part to give this ancient lie new life.
The good news is that "O Jerusalem's" sheer unwatchability will minimize any damage it does with its muddle-headed even-handedness.
But Chouraqui need not blush too much. The same week that his film debuted in New York, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated during a visit to Bethlehem that the city was a model for reconciliation between the three great monotheistic faiths. Given the fact that Muslims have already driven out most of the Christians from this city — and have besieged the Jewish shrine of the Tomb of Rachel and rendered it a battle zone — it's hard to conceive of a more misleading statement.
Like the characters in "O Jerusalem," Rice is said to have meant well. But as students of history know, myths like these are the stuff of genuine tragedy.
Contact Jonathan S. Tobin via e-mail at: [email protected] com.