As the first Israeli production to receive a wide international release, “Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer” was not entirely representative of that nation’s film industry: it was an English-language film that was directed, edited and filmed by British talent, co-written and co-produced by a Canadian, and cast with Irish and American actors in two major roles. And while the film is occasionally betrayed by an erratic screenplay, it is an invigorating endeavor that offers a stirring tribute to those that risked and lost their lives during the Israeli War of Independence.
The title refers to a hill outside of Jerusalem that was claimed by both Israeli and Arab forces when the ceasefire for the 1948 war went into effect. In the film’s only genuine mistake, the audience knows at the beginning that four members of the Israeli forces were killed at the top of the hill during the pre-ceasefire hostilities – this early tip-off blunts the tragedy of their deaths when their lives are detailed in extensive flashback segments.
The most unlikely defender was neither Israeli nor Jewish: an Irish-born former police officer in the British occupation force (played by Edward Mulhare), he joined the Israeli side due to his admiration of the Zionist determination and to his admiration of a lovely young lady fighting for this side (Haya Harareet). Another foreigner in the mix is a Jewish-American tourist (Broadway actor Michael Wager), who initially arrived in the Holy Land for a sightseeing tour and wound up fighting for the establishment of a Jewish state. The Hill 24 squad also included a native Israeli (folk singer Arik Lavie), who fought against Egyptian troops in the Sinai, and an Israeli woman of Yemenite descent (Margalit Oved) who was a nurse to the American when he was injured during the battle for the control of Jerusalem.
The flashbacks run a considerable gamut, with different hues of emotional passion on display. The American’s story is the most powerful, with a harrowing sequence involving badly injured Israeli fighters being abruptly forced to exit their Jerusalem hospital once the city fell to Arab troops. The Irishman’s flashback contains a stylish film noir chase through Tel Aviv’s back streets as the British occupation police attempt to track down a Haganah fighter that repeatedly slips out of their view through the city’s maze of dark street and winding alleys. Director Thorold Dickinson and cinematographer Gerald Gibbs worked best with location shooting in Israel’s idiosyncratic municipal thoroughfares and rugged desert terrain and not with the film’s internal scenes, many of which were shot on visibly shabby sets.
Perhaps the most jolting moment involved the Israeli fighter who encounters a mortally wounded foe in the Sinai who turns out to be a former Nazi official – in a completely unexpected moment, the film looks at the world through the Nazi’s point of view, with the Israeli warrior briefly transformed (in the German’s eyes) from a formidable military figure into the horrid stereotype of a pre-Holocaust European Jew, complete with a yellow star sewn to a heavy black overcoat.
Alas, the film loses steam in the romantic aspect of the Irishman’s flashback – Mulhare and Harareet generate so little chemistry that it often feels they are not in the same space, even when they are in an emotional clench. And the failure to offer any significant back story to the nurse’s experiences – coupled with the unflattering make-up given to actress Margalit Oved – could easily be blamed on the prejudice that many Sephardic Jews complained about in the early years of Israel’s existence.
But even with its flaws, “Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer” provides an intelligent and passionate advocacy of the courageous men and women that forced Israel onto the Middle Eastern map.