Let My People Go: Exodus the Movie!

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Otto Preminger (in straw hat) talking to Eva Marie Saint and Paul Newman during the filming of Exodus

There is a story that one Jewish critic stumbled out of the premier of this movie and pointing to the audience demanded of Preminger, the director, “Let my people go!”

Having watched Exodus its easy to understand his reaction to being stuck in a cinema with little option but to endure watching this to the end. This is a film that takes its worthiness seriously and the result is a desperately boring affair. This is not helped by what seems to have been an artistic decision to keep almost all the action off screen. This helps from a propaganda perspective of not depicting the civilian carnage, as well as British military deaths, wrought by the Israeli Irgun bombing of the King David Hotel. But it doesn’t add to the entertainment value of the film. Only the prison break sequence does much to get the pulse racing.

The disputes on methods between Hagannah and Irgun are touched upon, but then skated over: the Irgun are portrayed as serene and thoroughly humane despite their adherence to terrorism. Strangely though the character based on Menachem Begin is shown as wholly untroubled by the King David bombing, which he ordered, while accounts suggest that Begin was in fact deeply affected by the unintended civilian casulties. Though this does not appear to have dimmed his ruthlessness in the course of his subsequent career it does indicate a deeper human conflict that would have been artistically interesting to explore.

Politically the film makes some interesting points, expressing hope for a sharing of the land amongst Jews and Arabs, though the reasons why this hasn’t happened are barely touched upon.

The acting in the film is a mixed bag: Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint and Lee J Cobb are of course consummate professionals. Sal Mineo and Jill Haworth as young refugees and lovers are pretty woeful, not helped by the fact that their characters are stereotypes. The cinematography is exquisite. The score is justifiably legendary and promises something much more than the director managed to deliver. In fact it is the score rather than the director that gives the film any emotion it has.

A film to watch perhaps from an interest in cinema history, perhaps from an interest in the portrayal of Israel in contemporary cinema, perhaps for an understanding of how Americans understand Israel. Not something to watch, I think, if you want to be entertained or moved.

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An international perspective on an American tragedy: Amanda Foreman’s A World on Fire

A World on Fire is a remarkable achievement. It is a history of the American Civil War taken from the novel perspective of the relationship between Britain and the US during the war. Hence the principal characters are Lord Lyons, the British representative to the US, Charles Francis Adams, the US minister to London, and Seward the US Secretary of State with a host of other political and diplomatic figures in support.

This approach illuminates aspects of the war little touched upon by more conventional US histories, notably the real risk to Union victory posed by recognition of the South by the European powers, and the closeness to war between the US and Britain on a number of occasions. Consequently this book provides a more critical portrayal of Seward than, say, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s masterful biography of Lincoln, Team of Rivals.

css_alabama_vs_hatteras_ptgby Patrick O'brienThis diplomatic history of the war is told within the framework of a more conventional political and military narrative of the course of the war. Here a perspective on the fighting is offered by, principally, the letters and memoirs of the British and Irish volunteers who fought for both North and South.

At times it is difficult to keep up with the astonishing cast of characters that Foreman has assembled, but it is well worth the effort for the startlingly fresh perspective that this book puts on the American Civil War.

My review of Siddarth Kara’s book Bonded Labor

Child bonded labourers turning bricks to dry in Indian kiln

Child bonded labourers turning bricks to dry in Indian kiln

Bonded labour is the most common form of slavery in the world and Siddarth Kara’s book provides a useful survey, drawn from years of research and interviews with bonded labourers, of bonded labour as it is practiced today across a range of industries in South Asia.

It is in these descriptions and in some of the economic analysis of the bonded labour economy that the book is at its strongest. It is considerably weaker in proposing solutions to bonded labour. Some of his proposals, such as having a transnational police force in South Asia to deal with slavery are, to put it mildly, utopian, particularly given the current political tensions in the region, and problematic from the perspective of rule of law. For example how could the democratic accountability of such a force be assured? The governance structure that Kara proposes, of an oversight board composed of people from the Human Rights Commissions of the participating countries and some NGOs, is far from convincing.

Other of his ideas, such as fast tracking of slavery cases through the courts display a limited understanding of the relationship between continuing slavery practices and poor standards of rule of law: many of the effective solutions to slavery in India for example, are dependent on raising the standards of rule of law across a range of issues, many of which, such as the Indian compulsory education law, are not, ostensibly, about slavery.

So while Kara is good on the economics of bonded labour and its practice in particular industries, he shows much more limited appreciation of the political, institutional and cultural factors necessary in slavery eradication. It is a pity that he did not work with co-authors on this book, to strengthen his talents and idealism with some hard headed appreciation of how political and social change actually occur.

Heroism, resistance and its consequences: HHhH by Laurent Binet

HHhH is the story of Operation Anthropoid: the plot to assassinate the truly vile Reinhard Heydrich, the architect of the genocide of the Jews and Roma, by the Czechoslovak government in exile in collaboration with the in-country resistance.

In spite of being very familiar with the story from other books and movies, I found this one of the most exciting books that I have read in a long time: truly gripping, action packed and ultimately a story of devastating tragedy.

In homage to this Czechoslovakian epic the French author, Laurent Binet, has

Memorial to Czech parachutists, Including Gabcik and Kubis, killed in battle with SS

Memorial to Czech parachutists, Including Gabcik and Kubis, killed in battle with SS

adopted a very “Kunderian” style, weaving in and out of the story himself, as the Czech writer Milan Kundera often does, with his personal reflections upon it and concerns on how he can do the story and his heroes, Kubis and Gabcik (along with the hordes of other resistants and Czech civilians who made the operation possible and paid with their lives), justice.

Many readers may find this approach irritating and something of a turn-off (I didn’t, finding it engaging and interesting in and of itself), but the substance of the story is still compelling. Binet calls this the story of the single greatest act of resistance in the course of the Second World War. It is hard to argue with that and this book is a fine tribute.

A Road to Damascus during a very Dirty War: my review of Paul Vallely’s Untying the Knots

Jorge BergoglioUntying the Knots is an exemplary work of biography and journalism. Shortly after Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election as pope Paul Vallely, the author, spent some time travelling to Rome and Buenos Aires to meet friends and enemies of the new pope. The result of this research is this book.

Despite being relatively short it is teeming with detail, including sketches of Argentinian politics, the origins and conduct of the “Dirty War”, and the machinations of two papal elections, as well as the origins and career of the new pope, Francis.

The central issues of the book relate to Bergoglio’s personal conduct during the Dirty War and what sort of a pope he will be. In relation to the first question Vallely explores in some depth the key question relating to Bergoglio’s role in the kidnapping and torture of two Jesuit priests by the military junta when he was Provincial of that order.

The answer to that first question is fundamental in Vallely’s assessment of the second. In the end Vallely paints a convincing picture of a man who was politically conservative and personally authoritarian in his youth, making some dreadful mistakes as a result of which some innocent people were killed, imprisoned and tortured. But while remaining quite conservative Bergoglio appears to be someone who, as a result of deep shame at past misconduct and misjudgement, has grown into a generous and courageous figure.

It will be interesting to see the sort of pope that Bergoglio becomes as Francis but Vallely presents considerable evidence to suggest a hopeful prospect based on his radical conduct in the first months of his pontificate.