Editor’s note: Script reviews of upcoming projects have been around for as long as there’s been an Internet. Therefore it’s no secret that a film can evolve into something quite different from its screenplay. Please keep in mind that this article represents a look at a particular script and not the final product.
A few weeks after the Academy Awards, Best Actor nominee and likely winner Colin Firth is scheduled to take up his next role, playing a British officer in a film about the struggle between British authorities in colonial Palestine and the Jewish underground that aimed to dislodge them.
While The King’s Speech brought history to life, Firth’s new movie, The Promised Land, may portray a distorted version of the conflict between Jews and Arabs, as well as the British role in it.
Directed by Michael Winterbottom, (Wonderland, The Road to Guantánamo), and partly backed by British taxpayers via the UK Film Council, The Promised Land presents a revisionist history of Palestine during World War II–one in which the British favor the Jews over the Arabs, the Jews repay British kindness with cruelty, and Arab violence against civilians and support for the Third Reich are airbrushed out of the picture.
The story centers around the real-life romance between two unlikely lovers, Shoshana Borochov and Thomas Wilkin. Borochov was the daughter of Dov Ber Borochov, a left-wing Zionist who saw the creation of Israel as part of the proletarian struggle. Wilkin was a British police officer responsible for tracking down members of the Jewish underground, particularly the infamous “Stern Gang.”
Before he was murdered during his arrest in 1942, Avraham “Yair” Stern had led a sensational and violent campaign to oppose British rule. His organization, “Fighters for the Freedom of Israel” (Lehi, in the Hebrew acronym) broke away from other Zionist groups and targeted British officials and police. He was regarded as an outlaw by many Jewish leaders, including the leaders of other Zionist underground organizations in Palestine.
At the time, the Holocaust was accelerating in Europe, while the British refused to allow the tide of Jewish refugees into Palestine. Though Palestine’s Arab leaders had revolted against British rule in the late 1930s, and soon took an active role in Hitler’s war effort, the British–after crushing the Arab rebellion–attempted (in vain) to appease Arab opinion with the White Paper of 1939, which severely restricted Jewish immigration.
The Promised Land ignores much of that context. Instead, it portrays the Jewish underground as a fascist, even pro-Nazi movement. The screenplay–a draft of which I have read–calls for graphic scenes of Arab suffering at the hands of Jewish terrorists and British officers. Jewish victims are largely off-screen, mentioned in the abstract–if at all. The film even suggests, falsely, that Jews provoked Arabs to commit the Hebron massacre of 1929 by not hiring Arab workers, absolving Palestinian Arab leaders who incited the pogrom.
Though the screenplay makes some effort to show that Stern was not widely supported by Jewish leaders, it often uses his group as a symbol of the Jewish underground as a whole. Similarly, the screenplay draws facile connections between Stern and the Likud governments of Israel in the 1970s and 1980s, ignoring decades of intervening history. It also presents the Arab population as unique victims; they are the only concentration camp inmates portrayed in the story, for example.
The screenplay for The Promised Land was written by Laurence Coriat, who may bring an anti-Israel bias to the project. In 2006, she apparently co-signed an open letter accusing Israel of “violation of all international conventions” and “destruction of all the infrastructures…and the institutions of the Republic of Lebanon.” (No word from Coriat then, or now, about Hezbollah, it would seem.)
There are several glaring mistakes–errors of omission as well as commission, such as the familiar (yet false) claim that Jews were a minority in Jerusalem in the early 20th century. Early online chatter about The Promised Land reported that Winterbottom briefly consulted the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in researching the period. If so, he seems to have used its resources selectively, using key details to garnish a historical narrative that remains deeply flawed.
That is certainly how Israeli actress Mili Avital felt upon reading the screenplay. As she related to an Israeli newspaper last year, she had been approached to participate in the film, but refused after reading the screenplay: “…it was so anti-Zionist that I closed it after 20 pages. I read it and there were tears in my eyes…it pains me to read how [Winterbottom] describes the beginning of Zionism from such an extreme point of view.”
At the moment, The Promised Land seems to have run into funding problems, according to co-star Jim Sturgess, who signed on to play Wilkin (according to IMDB, Firth is cast as officer Robert Chambers, who narrates much of the film’s flawed historical background–not Stern, as originally reported by the San Francisco Sentinel). Production was apparently supposed to have begun last summer–and Firth might have good cause to be grateful that it didn’t, because the film could have overshadowed his outstanding performance in The King’s Speech.
It is not impossible to salvage The Promised Land. A rewritten screenplay–if it has not been rewritten already–could preserve the story and its characters, while correcting the factual errors and bias of the film. The question is whether the director and producers care more about the improbable romance between Wilkins and Borochov, or the false historical argument Winterbottom and Coriat seem to be making: that terror was, and remains, at the core of Zionism and Israel.
If the latter, The Promised Land risks becoming agitprop instead of art. That may be what Winterbottom and the producers at Revolution Films intend: after all, they made The Shock Doctrine in 2009, based on the book by Israel boycott enthusiast Naomi Klein. But fans of Colin Firth–myself among them–should hope that he is able to convince his colleagues to revisit their screenplay, to make a film that is worth of his talent and integrity, and true to the facts.