Adapted, Produced and Directed by Melville Shavelson
This is a fictionalized account of real-life Jewish-American military officer Colonel David “Mickey” Marcus (Kirk Douglas) and his experiences while commanding the fledgling Israel Defense Forces during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
Douglas is charming as the lead. He was so easy and effortless on screen and this is no different. And he had an undeniable charm and a twinkle in his eye. As Mickey he is person looking for something. Even Mickey is not sure what he is searching for and part of him thinks he will find it helping Israel.
Mickey finds himself paired with Magda Simon (Senta Berger), a Haganah member stuck in a loveless marriage. Sparks fly immediately and Mickey finds himself emotionally torn between his wife Emma (Angie Dickinson) and the vulnerable Magda. And this is something I have an issue with.
Apparently this romantic subplot never happened. There is no real life equivalent. Even after some digging I am not sure Mickey was even married. I am not expecting a one to one equivalency when it comes to a biographical film since Hollywood exists to entertain and not educate, but I am expecting real people and real events be depicted and this part of the story has none of that. If he was married, then remove the parts of this film involving Magda since that is a complete fiction. If he was not even married, then Angie Dickinson goes too. You could even make an argument to cut Dickinson regardless as her character really becomes important only in the closing minutes of the film. She could exist largely offscreen.
I can forgive (a little) combining real people into one character but tossing in people and events that never were makes one think the true story was not that good. Focus on the what really happened and the people that were really there. If they cannot carry the story, then you should pass. It is an insult and disservice to those involved in what really happened.
Yul Brynner is surprisingly light as the character of Asher. He is not chipper guy in a sweater at the Christmas party light, but he is not nearly as intimidating as he normally was in other roles. Brynner was a steely eyed tough guy usually but not so much here. The character is serious about what he needs to do but he is not a tough guy. He is just trying to get the job done and sees Mickey as a hindrance to that. This is another character whose existence in real life is in doubt. I do not believe Brynner was credited in the film.
Frank Sinatra makes an uncredited appearance as expatriate American pilot Vince Talmadge. Sinatra for me was always a bit hit or miss and that was even during the course of a single film. He was good here but his character felt a bit forced into the narrative. Did Talmadge exist? Probably not given how disposable the character was.
It was rather surprising to find John Wayne in what amounted to a cameo as an unnamed general. John Wayne, despite not being the box office draw he had been, was still a big star at this time and to find him turn in what amounted to a bit part is a bit of a surprise. Then again the man had made brief appearances elsewhere in projects he believed in prior to this.
The story is treated in parts like a serious drama and in others like a fun adventure. Individually each worked but it does create an uneven tone in the film. Is the movie a drama about Marcus’s personal highs and lows during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and how he was emotionally torn between his wife and this new nation and his growing feels for Magda? Or is it a fun romp about a cocky s.o.b. that takes up a new challenge in the Middle East and finds fun and creative ways to get it done?
Much like in real life, Mickey dies rather unceremoniously. He gets shot by a sentry that does not speak English. Melville Shavelson tries to frame the ending in such a way as to make it feel tragic and senseless. The events are triggered in part by a rendezvous Mickey is having with Magda to inform her he is returning to his wife. As he is leaving the relief guard who knows little English shoots him dead.
This is not too different from how it really happened. The difference is that there was no known meeting with a paramour and whether or not it was truly accidental has never been too clear. That might have made for a better ending but to get to that point would have required a complete change in the film’s narrative. This ending makes the Mickey/Magda story look as if it was just a set up to kill him in the closing moments of the film.
As a work of fiction, Cast A Giant Shadow is a good film. It is an enjoyable story with plenty of drama, excitement, good dialogue, and charm. Where it suffers is as a biographical film. So much is just made up and that is sad. There is a good story in what actually happened and much is ignored and replaced with fiction.
In the end Cast A Giant Shadow is a good work of fiction. If you take it like that you will be fine. Go in to enjoy the story but not to actually learn.