Israeli Air Force: Front and Center On Film
The vaunted Israeli Air Force is flying high with two documentaries screening on television stations and at film festivals, while a feature movie waits in the wings.
However, the focus is not on today’s highly professional IAF, or on its astonishing exploits during the Six-Day War in 1967, but on its very beginning, in 1948, when the newborn Jewish state faced an onslaught by six well-armed Arab armies.
With fewer than a handful of trained pilots and no combat planes while facing an arms embargo by the United States and the rest of the world, Israel’s survival depended to a large extent on a vast international smuggling operation of arms and aircraft and on the skills of foreign volunteers tested in the air battles of World War II.
As detailed in the one-hour documentary “A Wing and a Prayer,” it took an incredibly brazen and ingenious “conspiracy” to establish a transnational pipeline through which flowed everything from swastika-emblazoned rifles to B-17 Flying Fortresses to arm the nascent Jewish state.
The one-hour documentary will air on the PBS SoCal World channel on June 27.
At the head and center of the vast operation stood Al Schwimmer, a sometime Burbank resident, World War II combat pilot and TWA flight engineer. Schwimmer bought a fleet of some 30 American bombers and cargo planes at war-surplus prices and recruited U.S. combat vets to ferry them overseas under the guise of a fictitious Panamanian airline, while always staying one step ahead of the F.B.I. and a hostile U.S. State Department.
A dollar-hungry Czech government supplemented Schwimmer’s air force by selling knockoffs of the German wartime Messerschmitt fighter planes, whose unexpected appearance brought to an abrupt halt an Egyptian army marching on Tel Aviv.
Appropriately, then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion described Schwimmer as the Diaspora’s single most important contribution to the survival of Israel.
Schwimmer, who for obvious reasons never used his given birth name of “Adolph,” was stripped of his citizenship by the American government for violating the U.S. Neutrality Act.
In 1951, Schwimmer was running an aircraft maintenance company in Burbank, when Ben-Gurion asked him to come back to Israel to establish a company to build and service commercial and military planes. When Schwimmer retired in 1988, his company, Israel Aerospace Industries, was the largest in Israel and valued at $1 billion.
“A Wing and a Prayer” is the creation of Boaz Dvir, a Penn State senior lecturer and documentary filmmaker, who had the foresight to conduct lengthy interviews with Schwimmer one year before his death in 2011.
In addition, Dvir interviewed 29 other veterans involved in the airlift and subsequent combat, including some of the Los Angeles volunteers, such as Lou Lenart, Aaron (Red) Finkel, Rudy Augarten, Harold Livingston, Mitchell Flint, Willie Sosnow and Wayne Peake.
Dvir put in seven years researching and producing the film on a modest budget of $135,000, of which $70,000 came out of his own pocket.
“A Wing and a Prayer” will air on the PBS SoCal World channel on June 27 at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. DVDs of the film, including an extended director’s cut, are available for $19.95 plus $5 for shipping, by calling (800) 222-9728.
“Above and Beyond: The Creation of the Israeli Air Force” picks up where “A Wing and a Prayer” leaves off. Archival footage and interviews recreate the time when the foreign pilots, navigators, bombardiers and radio operators linked up with the smuggled-in planes to form the nucleus of the Israeli Air Force.
Although the volunteer airmen came from a half-dozen countries, the film, directed by Roberta Grossman, is aimed chiefly at a North American audience and hones in on the stories of the American and Canadian volunteers.
Nancy Spielberg, the youngest sister of top Hollywood filmmaker Steven Spielberg, is the producer and stands in awe of the now grizzled flying volunteers of the 1940s.
“These men are heroes and the stories of their exploits are incredible,” she said. “It is an honor to talk to them and to show what they did.”
“Above and Beyond” is now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, Sony PlayStation, Verizon, AT&T and DirecTV.
The third entry in the IAF film derby is Mike Flint, who grew up on the stories told by his dad, Mitchell Flint, who battled Japanese planes in World War II and joined Israel’s pioneer 101 Squadron in 1948.
In his resume, Mike Flint lists his background as former head of the Paramount Pictures story department, his participation in the development of such films as “Top Gun” and Forrest Gump,” and that he was founder of the Producer and Management Entertainment Group.
His project, titled “Angels in the Sky,” started out more than five years ago as a documentary, along the same lines as Grossman’s “Above and Beyond.”
Recently, however, Flint decided to switch genres and he is now aiming for a feature movie, focusing on the stories of four pilots hailing from California, Brooklyn, England and Canada, respectively.
Flint said that he’s pegging the film’s budget at $60 million and that retired Los Angeles businessman and financial advisor Mark Lansky is the executive producer and chief backer. Lansky is working with veteran entertainment lawyer and film financing expert Hal “Corky” Kessler, who said in a phone interview that Lansky had committed himself to raising half of the film’s prospective budget, ranging from $30 million to $60 million.
In an earlier interview, Lansky emphasized repeatedly that he is backing Flint’s project in the belief that “those who support Israel are blessed.”
He also mentioned that he is producing another film, presenting a different side of his uncle, Meyer Lansky, generally remembered as the “brains” and “accountant” of the Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel gambling empires in the United States and Cuba during the 1930s and ‘40s. This film, Mark Lansky said, will emphasize his uncle’s services to the U.S. government during World War II and in supplying Israel with weapons and money in 1948.
All together, some 4,000 foreign volunteers, collectively known as Machal, the Hebrew acronym for Volunteers from Abroad, served during Israel’s War of Independence, with the vast majority fighting in the ground forces (including this reporter), and others in the navy, medical corps and other branches.
Without diminishing the contributions of these men and women, the war was won, first and foremost, by the Israelis themselves, who also bore the overwhelming brunt of casualties in dead and wounded.