'The Stronghold': A gripping story of the Yom Kippur War - review

This movie, which is based on the memories of soldiers who were there and uses their real names, focuses on the human cost of the war, although the politics of how it was handled are never far away.

 A SCENE from the film ‘Stronghold.’ (photo credit: Danny Schwartzman/United King Films)
A SCENE from the film ‘Stronghold.’
(photo credit: Danny Schwartzman/United King Films)

The Stronghold, which opens throughout Israel on August 3, is a gripping movie that dramatizes a true story of an IDF outpost that suffered heavy losses in the Yom Kippur War

This fall will mark the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, in which the Israeli military had to defend against attacks on two fronts starting on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, provoking controversy over charges that -prime minister Golda Meir and defense minister Moshe Dayan ignored warnings of war. 

An inquiry into the government’s behavior followed the war and it marked the first time that a large number of Israelis publicly questioned the government. For years, the war was rarely depicted on screen, and even then was usually shown in a scene or two in films focused on veterans’ recovery from shell shock. 

Valley of Tears, the 2020 miniseries about a wide range of Israelis caught up in the war in the North, marked the first time that a major production focused on it. The series sparked an outpouring of reminiscences about the war from veterans, some of whom opened up about their trauma for the first time, and The Stronghold may further that conversation. Golda, the movie starring Helen Mirren as the former prime minister – which will open at the end of August – looks closely at how Meir handled the war, particularly in the south, where greatly outnumbered regular army units had to hold the line for days until reservists could be mobilized. The Stronghold tells the story of one such outpost, on the banks of the Suez Canal. 

This movie, which is based on the memories of soldiers who were there and uses their real names, focuses on the human cost of the war, although the politics of how it was handled are never far away. In an unusual move, an expanded version of The Stronghold will be broadcast on KAN 11 as a series in the fall, and the movie will also be shown on the YES Israeli movie channel to mark the war’s anniversary, but I recommend people see it in theaters, where it will have the strongest impact. 

 MICHAEL ALONI as Dr. Nahum Werbin.  (credit: Danny Schwartzman/United King Films)
MICHAEL ALONI as Dr. Nahum Werbin. (credit: Danny Schwartzman/United King Films)

Like Golda, it opens with the interrogation of one of the main characters about his conduct during that conflict. The movie then flashes back to October 5, 1973, the day before the war broke out, when the hippy-ish Dr. Nahum Werbin (Michael Aloni) arrives at the remote Sinai outpost to the sound of blaring rock music, wearing white sneakers and pukka shell necklaces, and expecting nothing more taxing than giving out aspirin and blister cream. The outpost is commanded by Shlomo (Daniel Gad), a soldier from a hesder yeshiva, who is expecting that Yom Kippur deep in the Sinai will be as quiet as every other day, marked only by prayers and fasting.

But when the Egyptian army launches an all-out attack by air, land, and sea on October 6, Shlomo is forced to try to defend the 42 soldiers under his command with the scant resources he has at hand. Nahum, who at 29 is the oldest and most experienced soldier in the outpost, and who served in an elite unit before going to medical school, tries frantically to save critically wounded soldiers with very limited medical supplies, and is even forced to operate with no anesthesia. Outmanned and outgunned, the unit tries its best, but the casualties and deaths mount. 

Still able to communicate with their commanders behind the lines, the soldiers beg for reinforcements, supplies, and, eventually, to be evacuated, but rescue attempts fail, and they are simply told, again and again, to hang on. As conditions become more desperate, a debate arises between Nahum, the more mature doctor concerned with preserving the lives of the wounded and wracked with guilt over those he couldn’t save, and Shlomo, young and religious, who wants to prove his bravery – over whether surrender is a valid option. Nahum argues passionately that it is, while Shlomo is ready to fight to the death. It’s a debate that is a microcosm of so much Israeli policy to this day, and it plays almost like a snapshot of Israel’s soul. 

A thrilling and terrifying movie about the Yom Kippur War

If you are interested in seeing this film, I recommend that you go without looking up details of the real-life story, which will heighten the suspense. Afterward, by all means, read everything you can about the events, but experience the movie first as a drama, without knowing the ending. 

THOSE WHO want to see this mainly because they have a crush on Michael Aloni from Shtisel, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, or any of his other roles, should be forewarned that this is a realistically filmed war movie, with all the blood, guts, and gore that come with that territory. Aloni, who has previously had higher-profile roles on television than in movies, proves that he can shine on the big screen as well, and is particularly good in the moments when he comforts the injured soldiers he treats. 

Daniel Gad is proving to be one of Israel’s most versatile and talented younger actors. He is currently starring in Line in the Sand in a key role and has appeared in the series Shababnikim and Galis, as well as the movie, The Dove Flyer. He has a challenging role in The Stronghold, because his character changes the most during the story’s running time, and Gad makes this transformation credible. 

The rest of the cast is wonderful, with Uri Blufarb, Daniel Moreshet, Amir Tessler, and Tom Amsellem all standing out as soldiers reacting to the peril they face in different ways. 

Writer and director Lior Chefetz has pulled off a major accomplishment in telling this story of grace under fire. He has written for several television series, among them Line in the Sand, but his only previous feature-film directing credit is the teen aviation drama, Sky Raiders, from 2019. Kudos should go as well to cinematographer Ram Shweky for amazing work in both the action scenes and the calmer moments. 

The Stronghold is both thrilling and terrifying, and what it lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in the intensity of its fact-based drama. It has its share of cliched war-movie moments although, fortunately, it doesn’t fall into the trap of introducing details about a character just before he is killed. The storyline with Nahum’s pregnant wife (Aviv Pinkas) constantly clutching her belly and discussing baby names with him, makes the point that he may never see his child all too clearly. But what is really important here is the sympathy with which the script outlines the case for surrender, an action still seen by many Israelis as treason – rather than making the best of a bad situation. 

I hope that many who are judgmental about decisions made on the battlefield see this film, which might change their perspective – and that is one of the greatest compliments it is possible to bestow upon a movie.