Main image
17th March
2006

First Published in The New York Sun, March 17, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

Channel surfing the other night, I stumbled on a film I hadn’t seen in at least 30 years, “Cast A Giant Shadow.” The film stars Kirk Douglas, portraying a fascinating historical figure, Colonel David “Mickey” Marcus.

This is the kind of film that couldn’t be made today, at least in Hollywood. It is nothing less than a celebration of the founding of the State of Israel, without any pretense of balance.The Jews are portrayed as heroic, the Arabs as savages.
Yet the film boasts an incredible cast of the biggest stars of the day. Aside from Mr. Douglas, the cast includes Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Angie Dickinson, Yul Brynner, and Senta Berger. The involvement of Sinatra and Wayne, in cameo roles, can only be seen as personal endorsements of the Jewish state, the prevailing feeling 40 years ago.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Marcus was born on the Lower East Side, graduated from West Point in 1924,and was stationed for six years at Governors Island. This permitted him to attend Brooklyn Law School at night. Upon leaving the service, he became an assistant united states attorney, and then joined the La Guardia administration,rising to commissioner of the Corrections Department. As war clouds formed,Marcus returned to the Army.Although he hungered for combat,he mainly served as a lawyer and a key planner in the military’s Civil Affairs Division. But he managed to convince his superiors to allow him to parachute into Normandy on DDay. He helped draft the terms of the Italian and then German surrenders, and served as an adviser to President Roosevelt at Yalta and President Truman at Potsdam. In 1947, he retired from the Army.
Marcus was Jewish, a particularly secular Jew. But his distinguished military career did not escape the notice of the Provisional Jewish Government in the soon-to-be-partitioned Palestine. He was recruited to help train and create an army from the various Jewish militias such as the Hagannah and the Palmach. Reluctantly, he agreed.

It was clear to David Ben-Gurion, the leader of the provisional government, that he had found the right man to bring professionalism to the rag-tag Jewish army. Ben-Gurion appointed Marcus as “aluf,” the first general to lead a Jewish army in two millennia.

Marcus’ main contribution in the War of Independence was to develop the plan to bypass the main road to Jerusalem, skirting the impenetrable Arab blockade.The gambit worked,which enabled Jerusalem to become part of Israel’s configuration after the truce ending the war took hold. Ben-Gurion credited him with “saving” Jerusalem.

But, tragically, just hours before the cease-fire went into effect, Marcus was mistakenly gunned down during a late night walk by an Israeli sentry. Marcus spoke no Hebrew, the sentry no English.

While I love the film’s subject matter, both for its unabashedly pro-Israel outlook and my fascination with Marcus, this is an awful film, at least on a technical basis. In order to juice up the story for the big screen, the married Marcus (whose wife is played by Angie Dickinson) is given a fictitious Israeli love interest, Magda Simon, portrayed by the Austrian actress, Senta Berger. Magda, whose soldier-husband is conveniently killed in action early in the film, becomes a sort of Kay Summersby to Marcus.

I’m not sure how all this was taken by the real Emma Marcus, very much alive when the film was released in 1966. Inexplicably, more concern was given to other historical figures, sometimes in ridiculous ways. Luther Adler plays the role of “Jacob Zion,” who is the head of the pre-independence authority and declares the State of Israel in a public ceremony as the British leave.Any further resemblance to David Ben-Gurion, who celebrated his 80th birthday the year the film was released, is completely intentional, right down to the familiar white hair projecting from the sides of his head. Since no one is fooled, why couldn’t he simply be identified as Ben-Gurion? Similarly, Yul Brynner plays the role of Asher Gonen, almost assuredly based on Moshe Dayan, sans eyepatch.

But for all its faults, “Cast a Giant Shadow” still portrays the heroism of the Jewish people, putting together their state with little more than strong will and unlimited creativity. In a day when even a film portraying the Israeli response to the barbaric Munich Olympic massacre is presented by the preeminent Jewish filmmaker of our time, Steven Spielberg,in terms of inner conflicts that imply the possibility of a morally justifiable position for the Munich murderers, “Cast a Giant Shadow” is refreshing, indeed. As for Marcus, he is a figure largely forgotten in New York. There is a playgroundin Brooklyn that bears his name, and in the Bronx there was once a David Marcus movie theater. As a young boy, I had no idea who the theater was named after. I assumed it must be a poor cousin to Mr. Loews, whose Paradise Theater on the Grand Concourse was far more impressive.

It is interesting speculation as to what Marcus’s future might have been if he returned to New York alive, the hero of the Israeli War of Independence. Almost as much as combat, Marcus coveted a political career. It is entirely conceivable that he could have gone to Congress or even become mayor of New York. But David Marcus was brought home in a casket, escorted to New York by Moshe Dayan and Yosef Hamburger, the captain of the Exodus. His funeral was attended by Governor Thomas E. Dewey and General Maxwell B.Taylor.
Col. David Marcus is buried at West Point, the only soldier buried there who died in combat under a flag other than that of America. His grave has been visited by Prime Ministers Ben-Gurion,Peres, and Rabin. Emma Marcus, so unfeelingly dealt with in the film, is buried next to her husband.

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply