For Zionists of a certain age and temperament, no home was complete without a prominently placed copy of Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre’s “O Jerusalem!” A secular Bible of sorts, Collins and Lapierre’s popular-historical chronicle of the founding of the State of Israel testified to the essential rightness of the Jewish cause, even as it gestured toward a fuller-bodied understanding of both sides of the struggle. Some 35 years later, after Collins’s death in 2005, that most logical of next steps — the big-screen adaptation — has been granted to “O Jerusalem!” and the results are both disappointing and illuminating.
“O Jerusalem” — the exclamation mark has bitten the dust somewhere between script and screen — begins sequences by slowly fading into color from black and white, as if newsreel footage were coming to life. After a short introduction, in which Jewish soldier Bobby Goldman (played by J.J. Feild, a bargain-basement Jude Law) and Palestinian cab driver Saïd Chahine (Saïd Taghmaoui) meet-cute in New York, it’s off to the Middle East. There, the two rapidly take up leadership positions in the Haganah and the Palestinian resistance, respectively. They are joined by Jacob (Mel Raido), a hotheaded American transplant who represents the rash, violent impulses Bobby so nobly resists.
The trio, along with the women who emerge from left field as their love interests, stumble through the turbulent and often tragic times immediately before and after the founding of the State of Israel, serving as fictional stand-ins for the events of Collins and Lapierre’s nonfictional narrative. For the most part, though, this is a cleaned-up, polite version of history, one in which Jordanian and Jewish leaders clasp hands immediately after ceasing hostilities, and where Palestinian military officers are warmly welcomed at Jewish headquarters in the middle of a war. Everyone holds his weapons as if auditioning for the next John Woo film, and moments of high emotion are rapidly followed by clumsy dialogue and heavy-handed exposition.
Logical improbabilities aside, “O Jerusalem” crafts ham-fisted parallels between the Jewish and Arab experiences in the immediate post-British era, with good-hearted individuals falling prey to poor leadership (on the Arab side) or to vicious, semi-criminal gangs intent on wrecking their good name (on the Jewish side). Bobby, an amalgam of the book’s Bobby Reisman and Mickey Marcus, leads the Jewish warriors through the Cliffs Notes version of the War of Independence, from the siege of Jerusalem to the battle of Castel, while striving to preserve the moral values of the yet-to-emerge state.
For all its intent to depict Jews and Arabs scrupulously, the latter mostly fall away as the film progresses, replaced by the comic-book versions of David Ben-Gurion (Ian Holm) and Golda Meir (Tovah Feldshuh). Feldshuh, reprising her role from the acclaimed theatrical production “Golda’s Balcony,” gives Meir a steely assurance even in ludicrous situations, like when, on a crowded Jerusalem bus, she makes a speech asserting the rights of women. The role of villain is filled by the leader of the Irgun, exclusively blamed for the bombing of the King David Hotel and seen, rifles still smoking, after the horrific massacres at Deir Yassin. Afraid to offend its likely constituency, “O Jerusalem” never names him as Menachem Begin.
Based on a book published in 1972, “O Jerusalem” acts as if it had been made that same year. Absent from the proceedings are any of the revolutions that has rocked Israel’s thinking about its own past, whether Begin’s rightist challenge to the patriotic superiority of Ben-Gurion’s ruling elite, the scholarship of Benny Morris and the other revisionist historians, or the assertive nationalism of the Palestinians. There are times when “O Jerusalem” feels more like a Mapai recruiting effort than like anything else, and the oft-blinkered vision of Israel’s founding fathers guides Elie Chouraqui’s film.
“O Jerusalem” can occasionally be moving despite itself, as with the image of a convoy of aged men carrying supplies for the besieged inhabitants of Jerusalem on their backs. But above all, it is a tribute to the now-smudged ideals of the past — the fighter who recites poetry as evidence of his passion, the iron-willed leaders with a tendency to break into impromptu speeches. It is a reminder not necessarily of what once was, but of the way we once thought we were.
Saul Austerlitz is a regular contributor to the Forward.