Kirk Douglas redux, Part III: Integrating American and Jewish identities

By Bill Simons

The quest to integrate American and Jewish identities pervaded the personal and professional life of Kirk Douglas. “Cast a Giant Shadow” (1966) represents Douglas’ most ambitious cinematic exploration of the relationship between this dualism. In the film, Douglas portrays the real-life David (Mickey) Marcus (1901-48), the American Jew who provided critical leadership to the fledging Israel Defense Forces during the War of Independence. 

The Douglas movie, based on author Ted Berkman’s largely uncritical Marcus biography, took some dramatic liberties under the influence of Melville Shavelson, the film’s producer and director. “Cast a Giant Shadow” remains the only feature-film biography of Marcus and, unlike the 1960 movie “Exodus,” examines the Israeli War of Independence from the perspective of an American Jew. 

In “Cast a Giant Shadow,” the movie audience first meets Douglas’ Marcus enjoying the festive 1947 Christmas display at Macy’s department store, an ironic but telling venue for a Jewish hero. During the celebratory Christmas vignette, Douglas’ Marcus initially appears to have shown up in the wrong movie. Then, the tone of the film changes abruptly. A mysterious stranger confronts Marcus. 

Direct and intense, the interloper identifies himself as Safir, a representative of Haganah, the primary Jewish military unit in British Palestine, and addresses Mickey by his U.S. Army rank, “Colonel Marcus.” Referencing the approaching end of the British Mandate and the determination of Palestinian Jews to establish an independent Israel, Safir asserts that the citizens of the new Jewish state will confront 50 million Arabs intent on annihilating them. 

The emergent Israel, Safir declares, needs an experienced military officer to organize and integrate their disparate militias. Marcus, insists Safir, has the expertise to mold the Jewish militias into an effective fighting force. Noting that he has not stepped foot in a synagogue since his bar mitzvah and that America is his religion, Marcus is adamant that his wife, who endured emotional duress during his World War II absence, deserves better than his desertion to an enterprise doomed to failure and to which he feels no affinity. Safir retorts that Marcus will thus abandon a million of his fellow Jews to suffer the same end as the six million victims of the Holocaust. 

Prior to the Macy’s scene, “Cast a Giant Shadow” featured documentary montage, sans narration, of epic events. Even with flashbacks to Marcus’ World War II service, which include his parachute jump on D-Day, the connection of the documentary footage to Marcus’ pre-1947 life remains incomplete. Perhaps cinematic text scroll might have stated some of Marcus’ prior experiences, including childhood poverty in Brooklyn, West Point boxing championship, law degree, prosecution of gangsters, leading the posse that put down the Blackwell’s Island prison riot, New York City Department of Correction commissioner, training Army Rangers, and planning military organization of civil affairs and war crimes trials. 

British Palestine 1948, soon morphed into the independent Jewish state of Israel, provides the setting for most of “Cast of Giant Shadow.” Douglas’ portrayal invests Marcus with a compelling combination of ambivalence about his identity, charismatic charm, natural leadership ability and courage. On screen, Douglas’ Marcus is largely successful in training and integrating Haganah and other Jewish military groups under a unified Israel Defense Forces command structure. Named aluf (commander), Marcus, on film as in history, becomes the first Israeli general since biblical times. His strategy and tactics win battles against numerically larger forces. Marcus’ singular achievement was ramrodding the building, across steep and challenging terrain, of a road to Jerusalem, which gave Israel claim to West Jerusalem prior to the cease-fire’s freezing of boundary lines.

Despite his contributions to Israel independence, the cinematic and the historical Marcus faced resentment from sabras that an American, not an Israeli, commanded the military. To underline the tension Marcus felt between Israeli and American identities, Douglas depicts Mickey torn between a fictional Israeli lover, Magda Simon, and his wife, Emma. In the end, Douglas’ Marcus resolves to return to America and to Emma. 

Marcus was the last casualty of the War of Independence. In the Douglas film, Marcus, who knew little Hebrew, was shot by an inexperienced Israeli sentry when he failed to respond to the sentry’s Hebrew command to provide the security password. The Douglas film does not confront charges that Marcus was assassinated by dissident Israeli militia. Indeed, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion established a commission to investigate those charges, but its report was never made public. 

Although the Star of David is etched on Marcus’ gravestone, he was buried neither in Israel nor at a Jewish cemetery in his native Brooklyn. U.S. Army Colonel David Marcus’ grave is the only one at West Point of a soldier who fell fighting under a foreign flag. 

Kirk Douglas invested a good deal of himself in “Cast a Giant Shadow.” Beyond his robust on-screen portrayal of Marcus as a hero, Douglas served as co-executive producer of the film and recruited big-name Hollywood colleagues – John Wayne, Frank Sinatra and Yul Brynner – to appear in supporting roles. 

Most of the filming of “Cast a Giant Shadow” took place in Israel, and several of the film’s extras, within a year after the movie’s release, would find themselves fighting for Israel’s survival in the 1967 Six-Day War. “Cast a Giant Shadow” contributed to widespread American support for Israel during the Six-Day War. 

For Douglas and Marcus’ widow, Emma, “Cast a Giant Shadow” provided a tribute to Mickey and the Jewish state Marcus helped create. There is a photograph of Douglas applauding a smiling Emma at a promotional event for the film. A New York City elementary school teacher, who bore no children of her own, Emma never remarried and battled health problems, including encroaching blindness, as well as financial travail, partially offset by a monthly pension from the Israeli government. 

Through his acting, family life, funding a series of parks in Israel and Torah study, Kirk Douglas, until his death at 103, continued the quest to synthesize his American and Jewish identities.

Bill Simons is a professor of history at SUNY Oneonta, whose course offerings include sport and ethnic history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.