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Viewer Guide: “Exodus” and “Jasper Jones”

February 23, 2023 | Richard Peña


Exodus (1960).

Tonight’s double feature begins with Exodus, the 1960 historical drama on the post-World War II creation of Israel, directed by Otto Preminger. 

Adapted by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo from Leon Uris’ best-selling novel, Exodus takes place in the weeks leading up to the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan for Palestine to finally establish a separate Israeli state. Paul Newman stars as Ari Ben Canaan, a Palestinian-born Jew and former captain in the British Army’s Jewish Brigade, who is now focusing his steely resolve on the turbulent post-war effort to populate Palestine with Jewish refugees. After Ari surreptitiously makes his way to the overcrowded refugee camps in Cypress, he encounters Kitty Fremont, a widowed American nurse played by Eva Marie Saint. Although attracted to Ari, Kitty disapproves of his uncompromising methods in organizing the transport of 600 refugees on a rusted tramp steamer, hastily rechristened the “Exodus” in reference to the biblical flight from Egypt to Canaan. However, Kitty takes a personal interest in Karen Hansen, an adolescent German refugee on board played by Jill Haworth, who’s searching for her scientist-father. Also attracting shipboard attention with his revolutionary bravado is Dov Landau, an Auschwitz survivor played by Sal Mineo, whose tough exterior masks the trauma of his wartime experience. But for Ari, the fierce debate on how to establish a Jewish homeland hits especially close to home, with his father and uncle—played by Lee J. Cobb and David Opatoshu—embodying the opposing philosophies of diplomacy versus radicalism in the messy process of forging a new nation. 

Although Exodus novelist Leon Uris was initially tapped to adapt his runaway best-seller for the movies, director Otto Preminger rejected Uris’ draft script for being too anti-British and anti-Arab, while also complaining that Uris didn’t know how to write movie dialogue. Preminger eventually hired blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo for a fast rewrite, which in tandem with Trumbo’s work on Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus effectively brought an end to the Hollywood blacklist. Paul Newman accepted the role of Ari as a tribute to his Jewish father, who had died at age 57 in 1950; however, Newman’s relationship with Preminger quickly became strained during location shooting in Cypress and Israel, with Newman’s method acting training clashing with the director’s dictatorial style. Preminger hand-picked the then 15-year-old Jill Haworth for the role of Karen Hansen; six years later, Haworth went on to originate the role of Sally Bowles in the original Broadway production of Cabaret. With the film’s running time becoming as epic as its subject, during a screening with Preminger in attendance, comedian Mort Sahl reportedly rose to his feet in the third hour to exclaim, “Otto, let my people go!” A box office success, the film received mixed critical reaction and just three Oscar nominations, including Best Supporting Actor for Sal Mineo, with Ernest Gold’s stirring theme garnering Best Score and becoming an instrumental hit. However, the true story of the ship rechristened the “Exodus 1947” was more complicated and less satisfying than the film’s fictionalized account; intercepted by British navy ships en route to Haifa, the ship’s refugees were ultimately sent back to displaced persons camps in Germany. 


Jasper Jones (2017).

This week’s double feature continues with Jasper Jones, a 2017 Australian coming-of-age mystery-drama directed by Rachel Perkins.  

Jasper Jones stars Levi Miller as Charlie Bucktin, a 14-year-old living in the fictitious Western Australian town of Corrigan in the mid-1960s. Celebrating the Christmas holidays with his parents Ruth and Wes, played by Toni Collette and Dan Wyllie, Charlie also enjoys debating the merits of DC Comics superheroes with his friend Jeffrey Lu, a Vietnamese immigrant played by Kevin Long, who endures the racist abuse his family encounters with philosophical pragmatism. But Charlie’s world begins to profoundly change when he receives a startling visit from Jasper Jones, a mixed-race Aboriginal teenager played by Aaron L. McGrath, who begs Charlie for his help. Charlie follows Jasper to a secluded pond where he beholds the shocking sight of a teenaged girl hanging from a tree branch. Charlie recognizes her as Jasper’s girlfriend Laura Wishart, whose younger sister Eliza, played by Angourie Rice, has stirred in Charlie his first romantic feelings. With Jasper convinced he’ll be blamed for Laura’s murder due to his outcast status, he persuades Charlie to join him on a search for the real killer, who Jasper is certain must be Mad Jack Lionel, a menacing recluse played by Hugo Weaving. But as the secret murder investigation begins intruding into both Charlie’s family life and his budding feelings for Eliza, the truth about “Mad Jack” reveals a radical new dimension to Jasper’s complicated past.  

Based on the 2009 young adult novel by Craig Silvey, Jasper Jones developed a reputation as something of an Australian “To Kill a Mockingbird” due its similarity as a coming-of-age story set in an era of entrenched systemic racism. Given our own complicated past and present regarding racial and ethnic tensions, it’s always enlightening to see how another nation deals with these dynamics. The daughter of Aboriginal activist Charlie Perkins, director Rachel Perkins has often dramatized stories of the contemporary Aboriginal experience in films and TV series including Bran Nue Dae, Total Control and Mystery Road. For Toni Colette and Dan Wyllie, Jasper Jones provided a reunion, with the duo having played brother and sister in the 1994 film Muriel’s Wedding, which launched Colette’s international career. And given their fascination with superheroes, the story’s fictional characters of Charlie Bucktin and Jeffrey Lu would be thrilled to know that Angourie Rice co-starred with Tom Holland in Spider Man: Homecoming in 2017 and its 2019 sequel, Far From Home.  

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema.  

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