Many of the sites that discuss this List gently suggest that this film was probably included more for its historic merits than for its artistic ones; it was the first feature film ever produced in the (then new) nation of Israel. To be frank, it does have a bit of propagandizing going on, but it’s not quite as blatant as I was fearing.
It does spoil its own ending right at the start – we are introduced to each of our four leads by showing them all lying dead atop the aforementioned “Hill 24” before jumping back to the night before, where each is reporting for duty with the Israeli Army. It is five hours before a United Nations-mandated cease fire takes effect in the first Israeli War of Independence, and they’ve been assigned the task of holding a claim on one of the strategic hills overlooking a highway leading towards Jerusalem. If the hill is theirs at the time of the cease-fire, Israel gets dibs on the hill.
As they’re in the truck heading to their station, they get acquainted, sharing how they each came to support the cause of Israeli independence. James Finnegan (Edward Mulhare) is a former British soldier, part of the occupying force when Palestine was under British control; he was charged with rounding up the Jewish refugees sneaking into Palestine from Europe. One night he takes pity on a Jewish couple who’s just sneaked in – the man is half-drowned, and the woman tending to him is pretty, so instead of turning them in, he lets them rest while he goes to get a doctor. But they’ve vanished by the time he returns. Finnegan runs into the man at a checkpoint two years later, and discovers he is Yehuda Berger (Michael Shilo), part of the Jewish Brigade smuggling Eastern European Jews to safety in Palestine. Berger evades police again, so they track down the woman, Miriam Miszrahi (Haya Harareet), who occasionally lets Berger use her place as a safe house. Finnegan is ordered to keep an eye on Miriam, hopefully to catch Berger, but instead he falls head over heels in love with Miriam and converts to the Zionist cause instead.
Next we meet Alan Goodman (Michael Wager), a largely agnostic New Yorker who’d come to Palestine for a vacation in 1948. He had the bad timing of trying to visit during the Battle For Jerusalem, but initially was only miffed that he wouldn’t get to see any of the landmarks that he’d paid for special on his package tour. However, he gets swept up in the fighting and ends up in a makeshift hospital, being tended to by another member of our team – Esther Hadassi (Margalit Oved), a Yemeni Jew who was then working in the hospital as a nurse. Several conversations with a rabbi at the hospital (Zalman Lebiush) lead to Goodman renewing his faith, and conversations with Hadassi lead to Goodman dedicating himself to the cause.
The person whose story comes last, David Airam (Arik Lavie), has the shortest story – but the one I found most intriguing. Airam is from Palestine, born to refugee parents – one from Poland, one from Russia – and starts his tale by boasting to the others that he speaks six different languages, but “this is a story about how I said the most by just staying silent.” Airam has been fighting for the cause for some time, he says, and during a recent battle against the Egyptian army had an encounter with a wounded soldier, a mercenary for the Egyptian side (Azaria Rapaport). After the pair grapple some – Airam wrestling first a gun and then a grenade out of the other man’s grasp – the mercenary starts succumbing to his wounds, and Airam opts for mercy – dragging him into a nearby cave to patch him up. But as Airam undresses him to see the damage, he spots a Nazi tattoo on the man’s chest.
The monologue that follows, during which the Nazi swings from begging for mercy to attacking Airam, from to defensiveness to delirium, was fascinating. Part of it is in German, but you get a good enough sense of what the soldier might be saying anyway; it’s best if I just let you watch.
The film ends very soon after Airam finishes his tale, with the troop transport dropping them off at the base of Hill 24 to defend their post, followed by the following morning when a U.N. patrol discovers them all dead. But Esther is clutching an Israeli flag, which is apparently sufficient grounds to claim the hill for Israel. As the camera pulls back into a sweeping landscape shot and the music swells, the film ends, with a title coming up saying “The Beginning” (in a nod to the birth of Israel).
Honestly, I was fighting off sleep for much of the film – a combination of my watching late, and the rest of the film being a bit meh. Not terrible, but very clearly directed at a particular audience. That scene in the cave made me sit up, though, and I’ve been trying to find a full transcript of that monologue ever since just to know what he’s saying. Yes, some of the camera tricks meant to show the Nazi’s delirium are a little cheesy, but…that line about “I didn’t come here to fight Jews, I just came to fight” was chilling.