November 12, 2019

The Six-Day War changed Israel’s film industry forever

Consider Thorold Dickinson’s 1954 film, “Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer,” and Baruch Dinar’s landmark 1960 drama, “They Were Ten.”

Each film has a tragic ending in which the death of Zionist patriots is a necessary prelude to the founding of a Jewish state.

Then look at Uri Zohar’s “Every Bastard a King” and Joseph Millo’s “He Walked Through the Fields,” both made late in 1967 (although the latter is set in 1948), both guardedly upbeat, with heroic protagonists who cheerfully rush through shot and shell to victory.

That, in a nutshell, is the difference that the Six-Day War made to some Israeli filmmakers.

Of course, this is a gross oversimplification that does an injustice to both Zohar and Millo, but in essence, the remarkable and swift victory of Israeli forces in 1967 tore a veil of insecurity off the standard cinematic discourse around issues of Zionism and personal self-sacrifice and gave the nation’s filmmakers the right to a certain heroic panache without-guilt. It was a sunny day that lasted only a short while, ended by the storms of the Yom Kippur War a mere six years later, but it was quite real.

Amy Kronish, in her useful book, “World Cinema: Israel” (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996), offers those two films and Gilberto Tofano’s “Siege” as primary examples of the treatment of post-war issues in films of the period. As she observes, “These three dramas, produced in the wake of the war, are thematically dissimilar — one portrays a swashbuckling Israeli hero, one is a psychological study of the loneliness of a war widow and one examines the pioneering generation of the War of Independence. However, all three reflect the post-war obsession with military and security issues and the societal need to come to terms with the new feelings of both euphoria and ambivalence, which were a result of the war.”

It would take the disaster of the Yom Kippur War, compounded by the trauma of ministering the occupied territories and the increase in levels of terrorist violence against Israelis at home and abroad, to change the tone to something darker. A film as bleak and as pointedly anti-violence as Ilan Moshenson’s “The Wooden Gun” probably couldn’t have been made before 1979, just as a triumphalist action film like Menachem Golan’s “The Big Escape” (1970) would have been inconceivable 10 years later.

However, there was another, less noticeable, effect on Israeli film in the aftermath of the war, one with a longer-lasting impact. With Israel suddenly looking like the greatest upset winner in the history of modern warfare and, for the moment, a vastly more secure nation, foreign filmmakers came to shoot in the country in abundance.

While the political winds were still favorable, Susan Sontag, Claude Lanzmann and Frederic Rossif each made documentaries about the future direction of the Jewish state. Hollywood, Cinecita and Paris rolled in their big guns, shooting Westerns like “Billy Two-Hats” and “Deadlock” or biblical epics like “Moses the Lawgiver” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” in Israel.

The overwhelming majority of these films are rightly forgotten. On the other hand, John Flynn’s underrated 1972 thriller, “The Jerusalem File,” is probably worth another look, and its assistant director, Yitzhak Yeshurun, would go on to direct one of the best Israeli films of the 1980s, “Noa at 17,” 10 years later.

Clearly, having professional crews with the best available technology working in Israel had to be an eye-opener for a lot of young men and women who were thinking about a career in moviemaking, and a few of them even found work on those sets. In addition to Yeshurun, there is Dov Seltzer, who composed the music for dozens of Menachem Golan’s films, wrote dance music for “Moses the Lawgiver,” and Ken Globus, who wrote several of Golan’s films, was a dialogue director on that miniseries. Eli Yarkoni was a boom operator on the sound crew of “Jesus Christ Superstar;” today he runs sound on dozens of Israeli films every year and has won four Israeli Academy Awards.

Perhaps the most important change in the Israeli film industry to follow in the wake of the Six-Day War, however, was not directly caused by that event but followed quickly on its heels: the establishment of Israel Television (ITV). In fact, Alan Rosenthal, an Anglo-Jewish documentary filmmaker who subsequently made aliyah and was instrumental in the formation of ITV, believes that its creation was a direct result of the war.

David Ben-Gurion had been a consistent and powerful opponent of a state-run television network, but with the Arab nations watching the war unfold in their living rooms (and the footage being used as a blunt instrument of propaganda by their governments), while Israelis were relying on radio, print and gossip, it became inevitable that even the most old-fashioned of Israeli leaders would have to bow to the inevitable technological change. With the war creating a hunger around the world for footage of the Middle East, independent production companies sprang up in Israel to fulfill that desire; the result was that Israelis were rapidly dragged into the last third of the 20th century.

Inevitably, for better and worse, television has become both a training ground for young talent and a source of employment for the veterans. If you look at the list of actors, directors, writers and technicians working on any major Israeli TV series, you will find the very top of the industry on display, more so than in most of the major film and television industries around the world. That is a function of the relative smallness of the Israeli industry compared to, for example, Italy’s or France’s, rather than a reflection of the comparative quality of Israel’s film and television productions.

Regardless of the cause, however, it is not at all farfetched to say that without the changes brought about by the Six-Day War, the glorious explosion of Israeli film in the past decade would not have happened. The winds of political change blow constantly, especially, it seems, in the Middle East, but there is no substitute for building an infrastructure, as Israeli filmmakers have found.