Cast & Crew
In late Dec 1947, American sea captain Mike Francis Dillon steers his boat toward the Palestinian shoreline, where he is to unload a group of illegal Jewish immigrants. To ensure that the immigrants' leader, Israeli David Vogel, pays the $8,000 owed to him, the cynical Mike insists on going on shore with David and the others. Once all of the immigrants have safely disembarked on the deserted beach and boarded waiting trucks, David pays Mike, then asks him to make additional trips. Mike declines, reminding David that he agreed to the blockade run only because he had lost his scheduled cargo in Italy. Just as Mike and his boatswain are about to return to their vessel, a British patrol boat approaches. Mike, his boatswain, David and Jerry McCarthy, an Irishman fighting with the Jews, hide among some reeds, but are soon discovered by the British troops. The boatswain is shot while fleeing, but the others make it to a truck. Later, David, Jerry and Mike join the immigrants in a Jewish settlement and are warmly greeted by Kurta, the leader of the Jewish defense group Haganah, and Sabra, a Polish immigrant known for her illicit, pro-Israeli radio broadcasts. Kurta advises Mike not to attempt to return to his ship for three days, and Sabra and David warn him not to use their transmitter to contact his boat, as the British monitor every broadcast and will deduce the immigrants' location. Worried that the British will confiscate his property and rescind his license if his boat is caught in illegal waters, Mike nevertheless sends a warning to his crew. As predicted, the English eavesdrop on the transmission and send troops to the settlement. During the scramble to flee the village, Sabra inadvertently is left behind, and when Capt. Beaumont recognizes her voice, she is arrested. Beaumont then orders Lt. Ellerton to track down the immigrants, who are now camped out in a remote area. There, David, who is in love with Sabra, rails against Mike for selfishly endangering her, but Kurta volunteers to take Mike to Beirut on condition that he run one more group of illegal immigrants to Palestine. After Mike agrees to Kurta's deal, Ellerton and his men surround the camp. Not wanting to be identified, Kurta tosses his distinctive Haganah pin into the campfire, but the pin is found and he, Mike, Jerry and the immigrants are captured. At British headquarters, meanwhile, Beaumont uses a recording device to trick Sabra into implicating herself as the "Voice of Israel" in front of Major Stephens and Col. Bruce Evans. Evans then allows Major Sorrell to take Sabra to British headquarters in Jerusalem, unaware that Sorrell is actually an Israeli using his World War II British Army uniform as a disguise. Spotting the British convoy carrying the immigrants, Sorrell tries to fool Ellerton into releasing Kurta, Jerry and Mike. Ellerton senses trouble, but before he can act, Sorrell quietly takes him hostage and flees with him to an Israeli outpost, where David and Sabra are hiding. David finds a calling card from fortune-teller "Ahmed the Great" in Ellerton's wallet and surmises that Ellerton hired the Arab to entertain British troops at headquarters during that night's Christmas Eve celebration. On the road outside Jerusalem, David and some other rebels, dressed as Arabs, intercept Ahmed's truck and steal his headquarters pass. At headquarters, meanwhile, Evans and Stephens, who know from the Haganah pin that Kurta is one of the prisoners, drill Mike, hoping he will identify the rebel leader. At first, Mike resists, but when the officers offer to free him in exchange for identifying Kurta, he agrees. As the colonel is leading Mike to the prisoners' compound, however, he shows him the Judas tree that his troops have decorated for Christmas, and Mike suddenly realizes what he has become. Mike does not identify Kurta, and soon after, David and a group of armed rebels enter headquarters and launch an attack. During the battle, Jerry is killed and Kurta is wounded. After Kurta entrusts David to take Mike to Beirut, David and Mike escape headquarters and drive off with Sabra in a waiting truck. Outside Bethlehem, the truck runs out of gas, and the three fugitives hide when British troops led by Beaumont stop to hunt for them. As his men search, Beaumont contemplates the ringing bells of Bethlehem, noting that "this is where our fate began." After the troops leave, David says a heartfelt goodbye to Sabra, then slips into the night with Mike, who vows, "I'll be back."
Glenn E. Anderson
Leslie I. Carey
A. Roland Fields
Russell A. Gausman
David S. Horsley
Joan St. Oegger
Sword in the Desert
Dana Andrews stars as a ship's captain making $100 a head to smuggle Jews into Palestine. When the British close in on his ship, he's forced to flee into the new homeland with his human cargo. Originally all he wants is to get back to his ship and back into business, but as he moves through the land, sees the Haganah (the Jewish paramilitary group) at work to help the refugees and falls for a beautiful Jew (Marta Toren), he joins the many non-Jews who were helping to create the State of Israel.
The film is set in 1947, before the United Nations voted to split Palestine into separate states with Arab and Jewish governments. At that time, the region was still controlled by the British, a position that started at the end of World War I. Originally 1,500 Jews a month were allowed to emigrate to what they viewed as their Homeland, but in 1944, with the opening of the camps in Europe, all Jewish emigration was forbidden. That had led to the smuggling of Jews into the region, much of it under the auspices of Haganah, which also led resistance efforts against the Arabs and the British.
Writer-producer Robert Buckner had started out at Warner Bros., where he quickly became one of the studio's most successful writers with work on such hits as Dodge City (1939) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). They valued his work so much that he was promoted to producing in 1942 with Gentleman Jim (1942). In 1948, he moved to Universal, where Sword in the Desert would be his second film.
Buckner had originally been a newspaperman, which had led to several visits to Palestine in the '30s. In 1934, he had written a short story, "How Still We See," about an atheist converted when he experiences Christmas Eve in Jerusalem. He would later call that story the inspiration for the film, first titled The Night Watch. With newspapers reporting on the Jewish resistance to the Palestinian Mandate, three different producers, including Walter Wanger and actor Robert Montgomery, tried to buy the rights, only to discover that none of the studios would finance the film. Eventually, Buckner pitched the project to Universal, which bought the story's rights for him, then immediately postponed production when members of the Zionist group Lehi assassinated UN mediator Folke Bernadotte, who was trying to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. In addition, the studio had received protests from their British associate, J. Arthur Rank, who felt that any film taking the Jewish side at that time would inevitably be anti-British. Within months, however, the film was put back in production.
Originally, the studio talked about casting contract player Ann Blyth as the love interest, a Jewish woman broadcasting anti-English statements as the "Voice of Israel." Dick Powell, the former crooner who had re-branded himself as a gritty film noir hero, was considered to play the American ship's captain. Those roles eventually went to Toren -- a Swedish actress who had appeared in Buckner's first Universal picture, Rogue's Regiment (1948) -- and Stephen McNally. When the actor cast as head of the refugees being smuggled into the country had to leave for health problems, Buckner moved McNally into that role and borrowed Andrews from independent producer Samuel Goldwyn. Early talk also indicated the film would be shot on location in Italy, but location-shooting was still new to Hollywood, so it was shot instead in California, with Monterey standing in for the Mediterranean beach and Victorville for the desert. The art department also refurbished a dude ranch in the San Fernando Valley to make it look like a kibbutz.
Of the actors cast in principal roles as members of the Haganah, only one, Jeff Chandler, was actually Jewish. Chandler, born Ira Grossel in Brooklyn, had been playing minor roles since signing with Universal shortly after the end of the war. His fourth-billed role as the Haganah leader would be his most prominent at the studio to date and would lead to better things, including his Oscar®-nominated performance as Cochise in Broken Arrow (1950). Because of its connection to his Jewish heritage, he would always call Sword in the Desert one of his favorite films.
As the film was nearing completion, members of the British press started writing about Hollywood slandering their country with the picture. Initially, Universal responded by barring all press from the film's sets. Buckner countered their claims by pointing out the British military had helped with research on the film, including providing photographs of the region for the studio's art direction department. Despite his assertions of fairness, the film opened in Great Britain to protests and even a bomb threat at one theatre. Five days after the opening, the London County Council had the film pulled from distribution in that city to prevent further disturbances. Even some U.S. critics complained that the picture was one-sided, with Bosley Crowther of The New York Times praising the picture as an effective melodrama while complaining that it made the sole enemy the British, while barely depicting any Arab resistance to Jewish settlers and ignoring dissension within the Jewish community.
Producer: Robert Buckner
Director: George Sherman
Cinematography: Irving Glassberg
Score: Frank Skinner
Cast: Dana Andrews (Mike Dillon), Marta Toren (Sabra), Stephen McNally (David Vogel), Jeff Chandler (Kurta), Philip Friend (Lt. Ellerton), Liam Redmond (Jerry McCarthy), Hayden Rorke (Capt. Beaumont), Jerry Paris (Levitan), Joe Turkel (Haganah Soldier), Jack Webb (Hoffman).
By Frank Miller
Sword in the Desert
You haven't much faith in mankind, have you?- David Vogel
Why should I have? What's it ever done for me?- Mike Dillon
The working titles of this film were The Night Watch and Desert Legion. Robert Buckner's onscreen credit reads: "Written and produced by Robert Buckner." Sword in the Desert was the first Hollywood film about the birth of the modern state of Israel. As noted in the film, Great Britain, which invaded Palestine in December 1917, was mandated in 1922 by the League of Nations to oversee the country. Despite British attempts to resolve conflicts between Jewish and Arab residents, both groups fought bitterly for control of the land. During the 1930s, the Jews formed a paramilitary organization, the Haganah (Defense), to combat the Arabs, while the Arabs, under the leadership of the grand mufti Haff Amin al-Husayni, formed the Arab Higher Committee to challenge Jewish claims. As a result of the 1939 London Round Table Conference and a White Paper, Jewish immigration was limited to 1,500 per month until 1944, when all Jewish immigration was halted. In 1947, after more than two decades of violent unrest, Britain deferred to the United Nations, which voted in November 1947 to split Palestine into Arab and Jewish states. Jews proclaimed Israel their new homeland on May 14, 1948, the day before Britain's evacuation from the region.
Contemporary news items add the following information about the production: In the 1930s, Buckner went to Palestine many times while working as a correspondent, and in 1934, wrote a short story, "How Still We See," based on his observations. In the short story, the protagonist, a cynical, areligious man visiting Palestine, is transformed, partly as a result of a Christmas Eve celebration in Jerusalem. In an October 1948 New York Times article, Buckner claimed that "How Still We See" provided the 'seed' for his screenplay The Night Watch. Buckner spent months interviewing English, Arab and Jewish authorities before writing The Night Watch. In November 1947, three producers-Elliott Nugent and his newly formed company Niagara Enterprises, Inc., Walter Wanger and George Markow-expressed interest in making a film based on Buckner's story. Robert Montgomery reportedly optioned the story with Nugent, and Paulette Goddard and Burgess Meredith were also interested in it, but became discouraged after several studios passed on the project. Brian Donlevy was announced as a possible star, as was Van Heflin, who tried to sell the story to United Artists. Markow proposed doing the picture in Italy, and two Italian companies inquired about the project.
In July 1948, Universal-International bought the screen rights to "The Night Watch," a novel version of which was to be published in the fall of that year. In early October 1948, however, Hollywood Reporter announced that production on the film, as well as publication of the novel, would be postponed indefinitely due to the assassination of Count Folke Bernadotte, a Swedish United Nations mediator who was shot by Israeli extremists on September 17, 1948. Protests from English production head J. Arthur Rank, who feared the picture would be too anti-British, also held up the project, according to Hollywood Reporter, but by late October 1948, the film was back on Universal's schedule. No evidence that the novel was ever published has been found.
On November 1, 1948, Hollywood Reporter reported that Swiss actor Paul Christian would be making his American screen debut in the picture. Christian was to co-star with Ann Blyth; Dick Powell was also mentioned as a possible star. Stephen McNally replaced Christian in the role of "David" in early March 1949 after Christian developed an eye infection, while Dana Andrews took over the role originally assigned to McNally. Irish actor Liam Redmond made his American film debut in the picture. Buckner originally intended to direct the picture himself, according to the October 1948 New York Times article. Beach scenes for the million-dollar production were shot in Monterey, CA. Other scenes were shot in the desert town of Victorville, CA, and in the San Fernando Valley, where a dude ranch was altered to look like a kibbutz. In Monterey, local residents acted as immigrant extras. In late April 1949, production was halted for ten days due to a "mysterious fever" contracted by Andrews. Composer Frank Skinner reportedly recorded Christmas music at the Carillon of the Church of Nativity in Jerusalem.
Just prior to the film's completion, Hollywood Reporter reported that "certain elements of the British press" had already "openly railed against the picture, terming it anti-British propaganda." Buckner, who was not Jewish, defended the fairness of his story, remarking in the October 1948 New York Times article that he had presented "the most enlightened and the most general British attitude." He added that Army sources in England had approved the script and had "supplied many helpful photographs and much technical data." Despite Buckner's claims of fairness, in February 1950, the London City Council demanded that the picture be withdrawn from distribution after two days of violent incidents. According to a Variety news item, police interceded several times during the run when audience members "got out of hand," throwing smoke bombs and firecrackers. In addition, some American critics complained about the picture's inattention to the Arab side of the conflict. Bosley Crowther noted in his New York Times review that "the Arab peoples are almost completely overlooked and factions within the Jewish forces are not even hinted at." Crowther added that as "the first Hollywood film on a hot topic," Sword in the Desert May "agitate resentment among those more objectively inclined and spread a damaging impression of a tragic chapter in recent history."