Hijacking, Crisis, Rescue – the conventional reading of Flight 139 and the events at Entebbe follow a classic three act story structure that’s been adapted to the screen on numerous occasions.
When the Israelis executed Operation Thunderbolt to rescue hostages from Entebbe Airport in July 1976, Western audiences were ripe for a news story with a happy ending. The memory of Vietnam and Watergate were still fresh. Cinema audiences were treated to The Omen and Taxi Driver in June 1976, with Carrie and A Star Is Born still to come. Joyous summer blockbusters like Star Wars were still a year away. About the only major Western film of 1976 that carried any real sense of optimism was Rocky, and even then, Apollo Creed beats him at the end.
Naturally, when Israel rescued its hostages from Entebbe, there was cause for these events to be adapted into a movie. Western audiences now had a story set against the backdrop `of Middle Eastern conflict, and through the Israelis feel like they too had won a battle against terrorism – even if it was just that once. Within six months of the Raid on Entebbe, the story was retold through three separate movie productions – including one directed by Irvin Kirshner.
That’s right. The guy who directed The Empire Strikes Back made a direct-to-television movie adaptation of the raid titled Raid on Entebbe, although it was screened theatrically in some countries. And he wasn’t alone in this endeavour – at the same time, director Martin Chomsky was at the helm of Victory at Entebbe, also being produced for the smallscreen.
All the while, an Israeli-backed adaptation of the story – Mivtsa Yonatan (Operation Jonathan) – was also being produced.
Victory at Entebbe screened first, airring on ABC television in the United States on 13 December 1976 – just 162 days after the events on which it was based. Raid on Entebbe followed on 9 January 1977, (although it had a theatrical release in Denmark on 26 December 1976), and Mivtsa Yonatan on 27 January 1977.
For a handful of reasons that I’ll explore, these three films have not aged well over the past 40 years. You can watch Kirshner’s Raid on Entebbe and the Israeli Miytsa Yonatan are both available to watch on YouTube. Victory at Entebbe is more elusive, but can be purchased from Amazon. Sadly, I did not have a chance to view it.
If there’s one thing to take away from Raid on Entebbe, it’s Yaphet Kotto as Idi Amin. It’s worthwhile watching on YouTube just to see his perfomance.
The movie follows a fairly linear profile of a hijacking movie, going through the motions of re-telling the story until it reaches Entebbe, when we meet Kotto’s Amin. He’s bizarre, bewildering, and terrifying – everything that you’d expect from reading about Amin in real life, and true to his action during the hostage crisis. Kotto’s Amin wanders through the terminal with a jovial candour, addressing the passengers as though they’re merely waiting on a delayed flight.
His tyrannical edge comes out occaisionally whilst speaking to the hostages, and in the negotiations between Israel and Amin (told with brief albeit accurate detail). Kotto’s role in this movie clearly has the most meat for an actor, as the remainder of the cast in Raid on Entebbe – including James Woods, Peter Finch, Charles Bronson, and Robert Loggia – are locked into playing their roles straight-faced and down the line.
Watching Raid on Entebbe, you can appreciate that Irvin Kirshner was definitely under the pump to get this movie out, as there’s very little done to dress this movie up outside of Amin and the raid at the end. Surprisingly, this hastiness in movie-making has its advantages, with a script that feels like it was taken from newspaper articles and memoirs released in the raid’s immediate aftermath, making it feel reasonably true to the events. The hastiness also means the movie looks like it was shot in spare offices available to the production, and is otherwise lacklustre in presentation – the studio lighting is absent, the editing at a minimum, and the cinematography dull. A lot of scenes feel like they were done in only one take. Add in the video-transfer, and it’s not held up well since its release.
Raid on Entebbe is a broadly accurate summary of what happened over the first two-thirds of the film up until the raid itself. Shot with the assistance of the United States miltiary, planespotters will easily spot out what aircraft do and don’t belong during the finale. Not only that, the hasty film-making means there’s no depth in the detail and staging of how the raid was executed. The audio track is a mix of screaming, gunfire and overly dramatic score that sounds like a soundtrack for exacting a confession from a detained prisoner. The audience is left with a loud, dark, and incomprehensible mess of a raid.
Worth Watching? For Yaphet Kotto, definitely. For a dramatisation of the hijacking and hostage crisis, yes. For the raid itself, watch a documentary or Mivtsa Yonatan.
This is the harder movie to review, considering I haven’t seen it.
What I can say from looking at excepts of the movie online is:
- It’s the most star-studded cast of the adaptations, headlined by Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Elizabeth Taylor, Anthony Hopkins, Linda Blair, and Richard Dreyfus.
- It has a ‘Monday Night Movie’ vibe to it (because, funnily enough, it premiered as an ABC Monday Night Movie in the United States). There’s a heavy element of soap-opera to Victory at Entebbe, with a cast that amping the melodrama stakes up to 11. I got a very Airplane! vibe from watching clips on YouTube.
- I’m not all that convinced the cast-choice was terribly accurate.
As much as I want to feel like a completist in these reviews, I don’t know if I could bring myself to pay the $30 to get a copy of this on DVD.
Worth Watching? If I had $30 to spend at Amazon, I could still probably find other things I’d rather spend my money on – it just doesn’t look that good. If it was in a $10 bin, I’d consider it.
With Israeli Government backing, there’s not many places you can go wrong with accurately recreating the raid. To its credit, Mivtsa Yonatan is probably the strongest of the three Entebbe films. The movie’s poster alone is perhaps the most literal in its metaphors.
There’s good use of real locations (except for Entebbe itself, of course), and all of the military hardware is true to what was used during the raid. I don’t know if the Mercedes Limousine featured in this film is the same one used during the raid, but several of the C-130 Hercules transports featured in Mivtsa Yonatan are.
Mivtsa Yonatan also looks much better than the other two films, shot on film instead of video, even going to the effort of lighting the night-time scenes properly so the viewer can understand what’s going on (as opposed to the ‘filmed in a cupboard’ appearance of Raid on Entebbe). The cast lacks any big-name actors, meaning they can get down to the task of re-telling the story in the Hebrew, English, Arabic and German. All of this means that when Mivtsa Yonatan reaches the rescue mission, everything is pretty coherent and accurate.
So, what’s not to like?
Well, the cast doesn’t really give much by way of stand out performances, and the Israeli backing does give you a very one-sided view of events. A handful of scenes depicting Arab military units are hilariously politically incorrect in a funny way. Apparently, they all get around in the same pattern of shemagh, and wear their sunglasses indoors.
And it does have some errors in accuracy – that’s definitely the interior of a single-aisle Boeing 707 substituting for a widebody Airbus A300. Why does that matter? Imagine a single-deck bus playing the role of a double-decker.
And the disco-era soundtrack in Mivtsa Yonatan has aged terribly. It’s bad enough when it’s playing over scenes of passengers boarding their Air France Flight. But when the Israeli Special Forces team rescue the hostages, you’ll be on your seat – not from suspense, but because the music is so jive.
Worth Watching? Actually yeah, for the combination of accuracy and to see 1970s Israeli film-making than anything else. Just don’t expect a terribly balanced view.
Entebbe has found its way onto the screen a number of times as part of a broader story. In 1981’s The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin, the Raid is featured as part of a montage where Amin is in bed with his mistresses (NSFW). I am legitimately not kidding.
Less salacious is 2006’s Last King of Scotland, which recounts a relationship between Amin and a fictional Scottish doctor (played by Forrest Whitakker and James McAvoy respectively), where the doctor uses the release of non-Israeli hostages at Entebbe as his means of escaping Uganda.
There’s a host of documentaries about Entebbe, too, ranging from segments on hijacking and air safety serials through to feature-length stories that speak to the survivors of Entebbe and their relatives. After 40 years, there’s a fairly wide depth in our understanding of what happened during that week in 1976.
The Untold Story
Adapting the Entebbe story is a natural fit for the screen, as these stories have shown. At the risk of trivialising the events of Entebbe as entertainment, there’s still dimensions to this story that we haven’t seen. The background of the hijackers – not to mention the insight into Amin’s motivations – are all lacking from most adaptations and documentaries. I don’t believe they should be lionised, however I do think there’s an interesting story to be told.
The week in Entebbe illustrated some nuanced motivations and complicated relationships that would do well in a film. The German hijackers were desperate not to be seen as Nazis, and several hostages had survived the Holocaust. Most adaptations conclude with a ‘happily ever after’ as the raid returns to Israel, but there was still more tragedy and death to come in the days following the raid, with further reprisals in Uganda and Kenya in the months and years to follow. The story of the Entebbe Raid did not end with hostages walking off of C-130s at Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv.
The best compromise for a movie adaptation might be to mash-up the best elements of the existing films and documentaries, combining the Israeli military hardware used in Miytsa Yonatan with some of the performances from Raid on Entebbe, with documentary interview asides. Audiences can expect yet another film about Entebbe in the near future.
Saul David’s written recount ohas been optioned by Working Title/Canal Studio for film adaptation, and has reportedly cast several roles. If the book is anything to go by – and I’ll review it in the next Entebbe Post – then it’s likely the film will tell much the same story of the existing movie adaptations, albeit with some fresh information. The benefit of making such a film 40 years after the fact is that the source material for has become considerably better. There’s still a risk in achieving accuracy, given this is now a period film, not to mention the artistic licencing being for the 21st Century audience – for example, a number of Israeli Special Forces in the assault wore blackface so as to confuse the Ugandans.
We’ve also got a different take on the issue of the Israeli/Palestinian relationship and Middle Eastern conflict, much less airline safety, power projection, and the sovereign rights of territory. Western cinema tends to treat terrorism with little-to-no nuance or depth, although there are noted exceptions (2005’s Syriana, for a start; 2008’s The Baader Meinhof Complex too, dealing with West German left-wing factions). As an audience, are we ready to see the Entebbe story told again?
We’ll find out in around 2018.