SWORD IN THE DESERT. Universal Pictures, 1949. Dana Andrews, Märta Torén, Stephen McNally, Jeff Chandler. Director: George Sherman.

   Sword in the Desert marked Jeff Chandler’s first appearance in a war movie, a film about Jewish resistance fighters during the final days of British rule in Mandatory Palestine. The movie premiered in New York City on April 23, 1949. It remains a milestone both in Chandler’s then still burgeoning screen career and in representations of Israeli national identity, with one observer going so far as to label Sword in the Desert the first within a new American film genre, “the Israeli Film.” The latter would be replicated in American cinema with Edward Dymytrk’s The Juggler (1953) and with the formidable screen presence of Paul Newman as Ari Ben Canaan in Otto Preminger’s commercially and critically successful Exodus (1960).

   Although Chandler was not top billed in Sword in the Desert, the film nevertheless demonstrated his natural ability in portraying gruff and laconic men toughened by war and by circumstance, characters faced with numerous obstacles and constrained by difficult choices.

   Directed by George Sherman (1908-1991), who later worked with Chandler in two competently directed, but altogether undistinguished, Westerns, The Battle at Apache Pass (1952) and War Arrow (1953), Sword in the Desert is a quixotic and unevenly constructed war film set both chronologically and geographically on the margins of the Second World War. Although most definitely a war film, Sword in the Desert is as much a character study and a compelling drama as an action-packed epic about two opposing factions fighting over the same land.

   With a script and production by Robert Buckner, known primarily for his work at Warner Brothers in the 1930s and early 1940s, the movie follows the path, both literally and metaphorically, of Irish-American freighter captain, Mike Dillon (Dana Andrews), the nominal protagonist.

   As a smuggler of desperate and impoverished refugees, many of them Holocaust survivors attempting to gain entrance to Palestine, Dillon inadvertently gets mixed up with the Jewish struggle for political sovereignty in the late 1940s Middle East. The British authorities, however, are adamant at stopping the flow of illegal Jewish immigration. So Dillon is able to charge a sizeable fee for his efforts, something he won’t let his initial contact in the Jewish underground, David Vogel (Stephen McNally) forget.

   Initially skeptical about any cause larger than his own financial well-being, Dillon ultimately ends up sympathetic to, or at least more understanding of, the Jewish cause in Palestine. It is Chandler’s character, the Israel underground leader, Kurta, who serves as the catalyst for change in Dillon’s personal, political, and spiritual transformation.

   This occurs toward the end of the movie, when Dillon refuses to divulge Kurta’s secret identity to the British military authorities. For Andrews, this role, much like the role of a ship’s captain in Sealed Cargo (1951), made him “one of the silver screen’s most decent and desirable leading men.” Indeed, Andrews’s performance in Sword in the Desert, while certainly less known than his work in such films as Laura (1944) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), is nevertheless an exceptional one, one that demonstrates skill in conveying both gravitas and world-weariness.

   Although Andrews, well into his prime acting years, is a formidable screen presence, it is Chandler’s portrayal of Kurta that remains the highlight of the movie. The viewer first encounters the bronzed, tall, and proudly Jewish fighter some twenty-three minutes into the story. He is taking notes with a pencil while a fellow resistance leader, Sabra, delivers anti-British propaganda over the local airwaves.

   Sabra is portayed by Swedish actress Märta Torén, who would go on to co-star with Dana Andrews in the spy film, Assignment – Paris! (1952). After listening intently to Sabra, Kurta speaks. He delivers an impassioned speech about how freedom will come soon to the Jewish people of Mandatory Palestine, ending his broadcast with three poignant words: “God Save Israel.”

   Throughout the film, Kurta proves himself to be both tough and sensitive, determined in his goal to drive the British from Palestine. Although the viewer does not learn whether Kurta was born in Palestine, he does demonstrate all of the characteristics of a Sabra, a euphemism for a native-born Israeli taken from the name of a prickly pear characterized by a tough exterior and soft interior. But Kurta does not allow his idealism to get in the way of his pragmatism. He realizes that he needs Dillon’s assistance in bringing more Jewish refugees past the British naval blockade, and he is willing to overlook the freighter captain’s initial mercenary, if not borderline hostile, attitude toward the Jewish people’s struggle for independence from British control.

   On his lapel, Kurta wears a pin in the shape of a sword. It is meant to symbolize Kurta’s status as a leader in the Jewish underground. The film’s title is derived from a poignant scene in which Kurta, surrounded by troops outside Beersheba, drops the sword pin in the desert sand in an attempt to shield his identity from the British forces.

   Chandler’s final scene in the movie is both a noble and a tragic one for his character. Wounded badly by gunfire after a controversial and over-the-top sequence in which Jewish commandos raid a British military installation on Christmas Eve, Kurta thanks Dillon for not betraying him to the British authorities. He apologizes to the Irish-American captain for not being able to fulfill his earlier promise to escort him to Beirut so he could get back to his ship. With his final breath, Kurta instructs his subordinate David to ensure that Dillon, now squarely in the pro-Zionist camp, safely gets to Lebanon.

   As the first Hollywood film to depict the paramilitary struggle for the contemporary State of Israel, Sword in the Desert is also notable for being one of two movies in which Chandler portrayed an overtly Jewish character, the other the made-for-TV Biblical epic, A Story of David (1960). Although the film barely alludes to the nascent ethno-political conflict between the Zionist movement and Arab nationalism, its political sympathies could not be clearer. One could hardly imagine a major studio today wading into the Middle East conflict with such alacrity and daring.

   On the other hand, the film took perhaps one too many liberties with the historical record. This may have inadvertently weakened its chance at getting a wider reception. For instance, the film’s strident depiction of the British military forces in Mandatory Palestine as fundamentally unjust, as opposed to a more nuanced approach, actually weakens the story. Likewise, the historically inaccurate scene in which Jewish commandos attack a British military base does little to move the story forward and may have aided in sinking the movie into obscurity. Not surprisingly, the film’s release was controversial in the United Kingdom, leading at least one London movie theater to shut down a screening due to protests.

   While overtly sympathetic to the cause of Israeli national independence, Sword in the Desert was nevertheless geared toward the largely Christian-American movie-going public. This may help explain why Christian symbolism plays such an important role in the movie, such as when Dillon refuses to reveal Kurta’s identity to the British lest he become a “Judas,” the Christmas Eve celebration at the British military compound, and a brief visual reference to the City of Bethlehem at the very end of the film which bolsters the movie’s place within the “Judeo-Christian” tradition.

   It might also perhaps explain why Andrews’s character, Dillon, is of Irish heritage, as well as the character, Jerry McCarthy (Liam Redmond), an Irish nationalist who joined the Jewish cause in Palestine primarily as a means of fighting British soldiers. By way of contrast, Kurta never appears to be animated by any particular animus toward the British, so much as by a deep love for the Land of Israel. This helps make his character the most compelling and sympathetic one in the film.