There is probably no single historical event in modern times that has had the repercussions that the formation of the State of Israel did in 1948. Proving the adage that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the repeated bungling of the British over the preceding decades led to their ultimate withdrawal from what was then known as Palestine, with the tacet understanding that Jews would be allowed their own homeland after the horrors of the Holocaust. In what must certainly be one of the most cruelly ironic names ever, the city of Jerusalem (which translates as City of Peace) found itself at the nexus of fighting Jews and Arabs, something that hasn't really changed much despite the intervening 60-plus years. O Jerusalem started life as a long and well-researched book detailing (mostly) the epochal years of 1947-48, when everything came to a head and Israel had its struggling birth pangs. The film O Jerusalem takes the time honored technique of injecting fictional characters into otherwise historical events, and manages to give the human side of what too often devolves into religious rants on both sides of the ideological aisle.
The emergence of a Jewish State has been the subject of several well-meaning if overly glossy Hollywood adaptations through the years, everything from the mammoth Exodus to the lesser known but quite compelling Cast a Giant Shadow. O Jerusalem departs a bit from tradition by detailing the personal relationship of an American Jew just back from the war, Bobby Goldman (JJ Feild), and an expatriate Arab, Said (Said Taghmaoui--the recently departed Cesar from this season's Lost), who "meet cute," so to speak, when Goldman isn't watching where he's going and almost gets run over by Said's car in New York City. From such uncertain beginnings a friendship is forged, despite their political and religious differences. Director and co-scenarist Elie Chouraqui detailing this budding friendship, in a well-handled montage sequence, before the brunt of the film's focus shifts to Israel and a conflict that will suck both of these characters into its gaping maw, transforming both of them in sometimes not very pleasant ways.
As both of these characters undergo a certain metamorphosis, becoming darker, more ideologically driven, men, the surrounding violence that often erupts completely unexpectedly seems to almost be a mirror of their inner torments. That's also what sets O Jerusalem apart from the norm--instead of feeling like two characters have been shoehorned into existing events, this film seems more like a potent character study that just happens to be taking place during the Israeli war for independence.
Partisans on both sides of this issue are going to find fault with the film, though I think most objective viewers will find both the Arab and Israeli points of view presented cogently and sympathetically. If the film ultimately comes down just a bit skewed toward the Jewish side of things, I think that's mostly due to the fact that Feild's Goldman is the central focus of the film. For better or worse, the viewer is most likely going to personalize the film in terms of the leading character. The fact is the zealotry from both camps, including the senseless slaughter of innocent civilians, is shown from a clear headed and more or less objective perspective. I guess it's only human nature to discount the good guys' escapades (whomever you define as good), while disparaging the same behavior from the bad guys.
A couple of nice cameos offer some nice insight into characters who later became incredibly important to the State of Israel. Tovah Feldshuh is almost unrecognizable as a middle-aged woman riding a bus that Bobby and Said take to Jerusalem, a woman who turns out to be Golda Meir. Later in the film, an equally unrecognizable Ian Holm does great work as David Ben Gurion, shown here as more of a military organizer than the political stalwart he would soon become.
Though the film was obviously made on less than an epic budget (with Greece and England filling in for New York and Jerusalem), there's a nice visual sweep to O Jerusalem. If some of the mattes and background paintings, not to mention pretty basic CGI (some smoke in battle scenes, for example) are less than completely authentic looking, they don't ultimately rob the film of its human import, which is where it finds its greatest strength after all is said and done. Though there are certainly hackneyed elements to O Jerusalem, by the time Bobby and Said find themselves in a final battle before a cease fire comes into effect (one that would, like so many others after it, be quickly abandoned), there's enough emotional resonance built up that most viewers will have major lumps in their throats, especially in light of a romantically heroic act Bobby performs.
With MGM/UA letting Exodus languish in its vaults (its long ago DVD release is arguably the worst transfer ever for a major motion picture), viewers with an interest in this subject could certainly do a lot worse than O Jerusalem. With an eye for historical detail and accuracy, and two compelling lead performances by Feild and Taghmaoui offering some nice personal anchors to focus the unfolding events, this is a film that deserves to be seen by partisans and interested bystanders alike. It offers a rare, if fleeting, chance that hope and peace can ultimately triumph in this most war torn region of the world.