This Day in Jewish History

1955: Israel's First Full-length Feature Film Premieres, in New York

The iconic 'Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer', a big-budget movie about early Israel, was acknowledged to be biased but won accolades for its 'restraint and conviction'.

Hill 24 Doesn't Answer
Wikimedia Commons

On November 2, 1955, “Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer,” the first full-length feature film made in Israel, had its international theatrical premiere, at New York’s World Theater. The movie had had a one-time festive screening in Jerusalem the preceding March, but its opening at New York’s World Theater marked its commercial release.

“Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer,” written by Zvi Kolitz and Peter Frye, and directed by Englishman Thorold Dickinson, tells a story of Israel’s founding and its War of Independence through the narratives of three recruits to the Israel Defense Forces, who are preparing to head out to a hilltop outside Jerusalem on the night before a United Nations cease-fire is to go into effect, in 1948.

It is deemed essential for the position to be in Israeli hands when UN inspectors inspect the front line the following day and draw the line that will mark the new, if unofficial, border.

Microcosm of the new society

The three men whose stories are told offer a tiny microcosm of the vibrant and diverse young society coming into existence in Israel. They include a comfortable American Jew (Michael Wager) who came from New York to Palestine as a tourist and ended up fighting with the Haganah in the battle for Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter; a Sabra (Arik Lavie) who demonstrated Jewish humanity in a mano-a-mano showdown in the desert, where he encountered an ex-Nazi recruit fighting for the Egyptians; and an Irishman (Edward Mulhare), a non-Jew who served with the Mandatory forces in Palestine and was won over to the Zionist cause when he falls in love with a woman in the underground whom he had been assigned to track.

They are joined by a young woman of Yemenite descent (Margarit Oved) who had met the American while nursing him after he was wounded in Jerusalem.

As the movie begins, the dead bodies of the four are discovered on what turns out to be Hill 24. They have held the point for Israel, and sacrificed their lives in the process. Most of “Hill 24” consists of flashbacks, as the story of what brought each to be on the strategic hill on the night of July 18, 1948, is recounted.

Hill 24 Doesn't Answer, full movie YouTube

Big budget in austere Israel

The film, which represented Israel at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival, was a big-budget affair for austerity-era Israel, having been made at a cost of some $400,000. And although all production took place here, with a largely local crew, it was filmed in English, with an eye to the global market.

The director, Thorold Dickinson (1903-1984), was an independent-minded, well-regarded filmmaker who went on to be a pioneer in the field of academic film studies in the U.K. His earlier credits included the first film version, in 1940, of the play “Gaslight,” which preceded the far better-known MGM version of 1944, directed by George Cukor. “Hill 24” was Dickinson’s final feature film.

Zvi Kolitz, whose stories formed the basis of the movie and who shared the screenwriting credit with Canadian Peter Frye, was a Lithuanian-born Jew best known for having written the short story “Yosl Rakover Talks to God” in 1946, a first-person final testament of a man in the Warsaw Ghetto on the eve of its destruction, which, because he originally published it anonymously, had long been thought to be an authentic text from a Holocaust victim.

The movie’s young cast was also bound for distinction: Edward Mulhare had a long career on stage and screen (1960s TV viewers will remember him as the captain in series “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir”), Arik Lavie was a notable singer and actor in Israel, Margalit Oved was a successful dancer and choreographer, and Haya Hararit, who played Mulhare’s love interest, went on to have a starring role opposite Charlton Heston in “Ben-Hur.” The score of “Hill 24” was by prominent composer Paul Ben-Haim.

In a review the day following the premiere, The New York Times praised “Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer” for its performances, and while acknowledging that its story was told very much from the Israeli point of view, it saluted its “restraint and conviction,” adding that “the courage and dedication displayed in ‘Hill 24’ is not only plausible but also often moving.”