November 20, 2018

Israeli Air Force, front and center on film

The vaunted Israeli Air Force is flying high with two documentaries screening on television and at film festivals, while a feature movie waits in the wings.

However, the focus is not on today’s highly professional air force, 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 less than a handful of trained pilots, no combat planes, and 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 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 Trans World Airlines 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 FBI 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.

American volunteers Lou Lenart (left) and Gideon Lichtman (center), together with Israeli pilot Modi Alon, in front of an Avia S-199, flew the first combat mission in the Israel War of Independence, as shown in the documentaries “A Wing and a Prayer” and “Above and Beyond.” Photo courtesy of the International Film Circuit

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, including an extended director’s cut, are available by calling (800) 222-9728.

“Above and Beyond: The Birth of the Israeli Air Force” picks up where “A Wing and a Prayer” leaves off. Archival footage and interviews re-create 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 homes 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 and Google Play. 

The third entry in the air force film derby comes from 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.

Mike Flint lists his background as a former executive at Paramount Pictures’ story department, his participation in the development of such films as “Top Gun” and Forrest Gump,” and founder of Producer and Management Entertainment Group.

His project, “Angels in the Sky,” started 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, focusing on the stories of four pilots hailing from California, Brooklyn, England and Canada.

Flint said he’s pegging the film’s budget at $60 million and that retired Los Angeles businessman and financial adviser 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. 

In an earlier interview, Lansky emphasized repeatedly that he is backing Flint’s project in the belief that “those who support Israel are blessed.”

Lanksy mentioned another film he’s producing, 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.