Those who braved the driving rain to attend the opening of the 7th Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival at the Jerusalem Cinematheque last Saturday were rewarded with a particularly moving program. The opening night was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Hill 24 Doesn't Answer, a British/Israeli hybrid, mostly in English, that was the first major Israeli feature, and the first Israeli film to be shown widely outside the country. The film, directed by the late Thorold Dickinson, tells the story of four Israeli soldiers and their commander on the last night of the War of Independence. Ordered to consolidate Israel's power over the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv road by holding onto one of the hills in the Jerusalem Corridor, three of the fighters - one a British intelligence agent who has fallen in love with a Jewish beauty and switched loyalties, one an American here for a lark and the third a native-born Israeli - have flashbacks to important events in their lives.
Most of the surviving cast and crew were on hand for the screening. Speaking in English and Hebrew, 90-year-old producer Jack Padwa cut a charming and witty figure as he quipped: "Yes, I produced the film; it's only one of the many mistakes I've made in my life."
Usually, on evenings like this, those who speak fall over each other describing whatever film has been shown as a timeless masterpiece, but Padwa bucked that trend to give a refreshingly honest assessment. Admitting that he hadn't seen the movie in a few years, he said: "I don't know what the word is in Hebrew, but it's dated. The tempo is off."
Indeed, the movie has been much parodied in Israel, and the plot is old-school melodrama. But its earnestness, as well as the obvious love for Israel and the filmmakers' desire to find hope and transcendence in the sacrifices of war are still touching.
It was moving to see Padwa and his former colleagues meeting up again after so many years. Margalit Oved, who played a Yemenite nurse who joins the three men in defending the hill, couldn't attend but sent a letter from Los Angeles describing how, when the film was first released, she was shopping at the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv when an older woman grabbed her, saying: "How can you be alive? I saw you die last night in Hill 24 Doesn't Answer!"
Yitzhak Michael Shillo got a huge round of applause when he stood up and saluted, introducing himself as Captain Yehuda Berger, the heroic concentration camp survivor who goes on to become an underground fighter. Shillo moved on from Hill 24 to a varied career on stage and screen, with roles in movies such as Music Box, the Costa Gavras film starring Jessica Lange (1989), as well as small parts in such Sixties classics as Rosemary's Baby (he played the Pope) and the original Thomas Crown Affair. He described how, at the time the film was released, he was starring in a production at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv and walked the city unrecognized. But as soon as Hill 24 hit the theaters, "People would point at me and say, 'There goes Captain Yehuda Berger!' "
Michael Wager, the actor who played the American soldier, chatted animatedly to his fellow cast members but seemed a bit overwhelmed when it was his turn in the spotlight.
"I'm 81 and I don't remember a goddamn thing!" he said, then sat down. Wager had a supporting role in the film Exodus, and appeared in the James Ivory comedy, Jane Austen in Manhattan.
Padwa struck a serious note when, in speaking of the value of the film today, he suggested that given the current political discussions on the future of Jerusalem, it would make sense to take a clip of the section in which Wager's character fights in the capital and show it in schools, "so people will know what was happening then." He also praised Lia van Leer, the director and founder of the Cinematheque, calling her "the goddess of Israeli film" and chiding the audience, "You don't know what a treasure you have."
Now that it's been brought back into the limelight, it would seem to be the ideal time to take this film, which is currently available only in a very scratchy film version, and preserve it on DVD.