Exodusis a 1960 epic film on the reclamation of Israel made by Alpha and Carlyle Productions and distributed by United Artists. Produced and directed by Otto Preminger, the film was based on the 1958 novel Exodus by Leon Uris. The screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo. The film features an ensemble cast, and its celebrated soundtrack music was written by Ernest Gold.
Widely characterized as a “Zionist epic”, the film has been identified by many commentators as having been enormously influential in stimulating Zionism and support for Israel in the United States. While the Preminger film softened the anti-British and anti-Arab sentiment of the novel, the film remains controversial for its depiction of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and for what some scholars perceive to be its lasting impact on American views of the regional turmoil. It would also become famous for Preminger openly hiring screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted for a decade for being a communist and forced to work under assumed names. Together with Spartacus, also written by Trumbo, Exodus is credited with ending the Hollywood blacklist.
The film is based on events surrounding the ship Exodus in Cyprus in 1947 and then on events in Palestine during the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948.
Nurse Katherine “Kitty” Fremont (Eva Marie Saint) is an American volunteer at the Karaolos internment camp on Cyprus, where thousands of Jews – Holocaust survivors – are being held by the British, who will not let them go to Palestine. They anxiously wait for the day they will be liberated. Ari Ben Canaan (Paul Newman), a Haganah rebel who had been a captain in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army in the Second World War, obtains a cargo ship and smuggles 611 Jewish inmates out of the camp for an illegal voyage to Mandate Palestine before being discovered by military authorities. When the British find out that the refugees are in a ship in the harbor of Famagusta, they blockade it. The refugees stage a hunger strike, during which the camp’s doctor dies, and Ari threatens to blow up the ship and the refugees. The British relent and allow the Exodus safe passage.
Meanwhile, Kitty has grown very fond of Karen Hansen (Jill Haworth), a young Danish-Jewish girl searching for her father, from whom she was separated during the war. She has taken up the Zionist cause, much to the chagrin of Kitty, who had hoped to take young Karen to America so that she can begin a new life there.
During this time, opposition to the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states is heating up, and Karen’s young beau Dov Landau (Sal Mineo) proclaims his desire to join the Irgun, a radical Zionist underground network. Dov goes to an Irgun address, only to get caught in a police trap. After he is freed, he is contacted by members of the Irgun and is interviewed by Ari Ben Canaan’s uncle Akiva (David Opatoshu). Before swearing Dov in, Akiva forces the boy to confess that he was a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz and that he was raped by Nazis. Due to his activities, Akiva has been disowned by Ari’s father, Barak (Lee J. Cobb), who heads the mainstream Jewish Agency trying to create a Jewish state through political and diplomatic means. He fears that the Irgun will damage his efforts, especially since the British have put a price on Akiva’s head.
Karen has gone to live at Gan Dafna, a fictional Jewish kibbutz near Mount Tabor at which Ari was raised. Kitty and Ari have fallen in love, but Kitty pulls back, feeling like an outsider after meeting Ari’s family and learning of his previous love interest, Dafna, a young woman tortured and murdered by Arabs, who is the namesake of the Gan Dafna kibbutz. Leaving Kitty, Ari promises to help find Karen’s father, who is eventually found ill in a hospital in Jerusalem and does not recognize Karen, because of his being shell shocked from the concentration camp experience, where he cannot speak.
When Dov Landau bombs the King David Hotel in an act of terrorism, leading to dozens of fatalities, Akiva is arrested, imprisoned in Acre fortress, and sentenced to hang. Seeking to save Akiva’s life, as well as to free the Haganah and Irgun fighters imprisoned by the British, Ari organizes an escape plan for the prisoners.
Dov, who had managed to elude the arresting soldiers, turns himself in so that he can use his knowledge of explosives to facilitate the Acre Prison break. All goes according to plan; hundreds of prisoners, including Akiva, manage to escape. Akiva is fatally shot by British soldiers while evading a roadblock set up to catch the escaped prisoners. Ari is also badly wounded. He makes his way to Abu Yesha, an Arab village near Gan Dafna, where his lifelong friend, Taha, (John Derek) is the mukhtar. Kitty is brought there and treats his wound and Ari and Kitty’s romance is rekindled. Meanwhile, the doctor at Camp Dafna, is arrested by the British troops when they find that the camp has stored illegal weapons under the surface of the pavement.
An independent Israel is now in plain view, but Arab nationals commanded by Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, plot to attack Gan Dafna and kill its villagers. Ari receives prior warning of this attack from Taha, and he manages to get the younger children of the town out in a mass overnight escape. Karen, ecstatic over the prospect of a new nation, finds Dov (who was out on patrol outside the town) and proclaims her love for him; Dov assures her that they will marry someday. As Karen returns to Gan Dafna, she is ambushed and killed by a gang of Arab militiamen. Dov discovers her lifeless body the following morning. That same day, the body of Taha is found hanging in his village, killed by Arab extremists with a Star of David symbol carved on his body. A swastika and the sign saying “Jude” is written on the walls of the village, indicating the Arabic hate of the Jews. Karen and Taha are buried together in one grave. At the Jewish burial ceremony, Ari swears on their bodies that someday, Jews and Arabs will live together and share the land in peace, not only in death, but also in life. While the other people shovel in dirt at the grave site, Dov angrily just steps on the shovel and leaves, refusing to accept Karen’s death. The movie then ends with Ari, Kitty, and a Palmach contingent entering trucks and heading toward battle.