Hollywood in the Holy Land: Where Movies Were Filmed in Israel

Then there are the movies that are about the Holy Land but were filmed somewhere else.

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The ruins of Beit She’an, which attest to Israel’s history of catastrophic quakes.
The ruins of Beit She’an, which attest to Israel’s history of catastrophic quakes.Credit: Michael Jacobson

Here's a fun trivia game to play at your next family dinner. Name the Hollywood movies that were filmed in Israel. How many can you think of? How about television series? And just to make things interesting, which movies or TV shows were set in Israel, but not in fact filmed here?

Let's start with some of the more obvious entries. "Jesus Christ Superstar" (1973) is practically a travelogue for Israel's national parks, with Beit She'an, Ovdat and Beit Guvrin heavily featured as locations, as well as Nahal Pratzim, down by the Dead Sea.

Incidentally, the tree from which Judas hangs himself was cemented in place by the production crew atop the tel at Beit She'an, and remains there to this day.

The opening scene of the Adam Sandler sendup "You Don't Mess with the Zohan" (2008) was filmed on the Tel Aviv beach in front of the Dan Hotel. A caveat: Although the gorgeous Israeli girls on the beach may be real, fizzy bubblech - Zohan's favorite soda – is definitely not.

Steven Spielberg filmed "Schindler's List" almost entirely on location in Poland, but the final minutes, which transition from black-and-white into color, were shot at the Catholic cemetery on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, where Oskar Schindler was buried in 1974. In the scene, filmed in 1993, the Jews whom he saved – accompanied by the actors who played them - place stones on his grave. The stones are still there.

Perhaps the classic Israel film, certainly for foreign viewers, is Otto Preminger's "Exodus "(1960), adapted from the book by Leon Uris. Locations included Jerusalem (such as the Abyssinian Church on Ethiopia Street, where Sal Mineo, playing Irgun fighter Dov Landau, hides from the British police) and Acre, site of the prison break masterminded by Ari Ben-Canaan (Paul Newman).

Although 250 extras were hired to play the escaping prisoners, 253 appear on film. It seems that three patients from the mental hospital that occupied part of the fortress seized the opportunity to break out.

Another "American" movie filmed in Israel, that has not yet been released, is more Israeli than most of the Hollywood fare. "A Tale of Love and Darkness" stars the Israel-born actress Natalie Portman, who purchased the rights to Amos Oz' bestselling autobiographical novel set in 1940s Israel, in which she portrays Oz' depressed mother. The film was shot on locations throughout the country including Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Anyone who stays at Jerusalem's new Waldorf Astoria is wowed by the early-1930s architecture of what was once the Palace Hotel, complete with soaring atrium ceiling and winding staircases. So was the production designer of "The Big Red One", a WWI epic that had nothing to do with Israel. Starring Lee Marvin, it was filmed in the summer of 1978.

At the time, yours truly was an injured IDF soldier hobbling around on crutches, and the film's casting assistant decided I would make a wonderful wounded soldier to appear in a hospital scene filmed at the Palace, which was then housing the Ministry of Industry and Trade. They would contact me, she assured. But perhaps due to the fact that I had no telephone, I missed the call, and maybe my calling, too.

The earliest entry to this list is almost certainly a short silent film from the 1920s, called "The Good Samaritan", which offers a visualization of the New Testament allegory of the Good Samaritan. The filmmaker went all out, shooting the film at the hard-to-reach Inn of the Good Samaritan along the Jerusalem-Jericho road. Visitors to the Inn, which now houses a fine mosaic museum, are treated to a showing of the clip.

Several American TV series have filmed episodes, at times entire seasons, in Israel. Homeland's second season was filmed here, but the third season of the Showtime series was interrupted by tension from the civil war in Syria and moved production to Morocco. "Dig" is a new NBC series set in Jerusalem that focuses on an FBI agent who is solving an ancient crime.

Even before production began, Dig was already catching flak for its producers’ alleged desire to film in the City of David, the hotly contested site in Jerusalem where Jews and Arabs tussle over historical antecedence.

"The Tyrant," an FX series that builds on the life story of Bashar Assad, has been filmed in Kfar Saba, where the production team built a replica of the Syrian tyrant's palace.

Not made in Israel

A few movies were not filmed in Israel but want you to think they were. "World War Z", in which Israelis and Palestinians find common ground in battling an army of extremist. zombies, was not.

Monty Python's "Life of Brian", although it features the Judean People's Front (or was it the Judean Popular People's Front?), was shot in distinctly non-Judean Scotland. And "Munich" features a Tel Aviv beachfront that was filmed in Malta.

Nor was the television show NCIS filmed in Israel, despite the "Tel Aviv street scenes" that appear in several episodes. In fact, the sharp-eyed viewer will spot shop window signs in a weird mirror-image of Hebrew, evidently the miscued result of the graphic efforts of a studio technician who clearly knew as little Hebrew as the Chilean-American actress who plays Mossad agent Ziva David in the series.

And for dessert, the "Hebrew" in this screen grab from NCIS is a mirror image.



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