Cast a Gi­ant Siphon

The Im­prob­a­ble Mil­i­tary His­tory o¡ Seltzer

Forward Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Barry Joseph

It was like “Schindler’s List” with a laugh track, a Borscht Belt “Ex­o­dus.” Here was Frank Si­na­tra, pre­tend­ing to fly an Is­raeli Piper Cub, fight­ing o an in­vad­ing Arab army, with seltzer siphons. This was the source of the meshuggener no­tion, com­monly held among Jews of a cer­tain age, that seltzer played a role in the cre­ation of the new Jew­ish state. But was this true or just Hol­ly­wood myth­mak­ing?

“Cast a Gi­ant Shadow” was writ­ten and di­rected by Mel Shavel­son, whose rise to fame be­gan in the ‹ŒŽ‘s when he wrote such Bob Hope movies as “The Princess and the Pi­rate” and “Sor­row­ful Jones.” In the ‹Œ’‘s he de­cided to try his hand at di­rect­ing. Cast­ing around he found a dra­matic sub­ject that caught his in­ter­est: the story of David “Mickey” Mar­cus.

After World War II, Mar­cus, an Amer­i­can, went to Is­rael to help unite and train the var­i­ous fac­tions of the coun­try’s fledg­ling mil­i­tary. Mar­cus is played by Kirk Dou­glas, and the movie traces not only Mar­cus’s strug­gles to mod­ern­ize the army but also his made-for-Hol­ly­wood jour­ney to claim his iden­tity as a Jew. By the end, with seltzer as a tal­is­man, he com­pletes his trans­for­ma­tion.

Seltzer first en­ters the film dur­ing a drive through the Negev. Is­raeli jeeps are head­ing into bat­tle. Dou­glas learns there are only three planes in the Is­raeli Air Force, one be­ing flown by his friend Vince, played by Si­na­tra. Dou­glas tells the com­man­der: “Tell them to drop any­thing they can find. Any­thing that makes a noise.”

Dou­glas laughs and says: “Vince once told me of a run he made over New Guinea with half-empty pop bot­tles. They burst on im­pact. Make a hell of an ex­plo­sion.” When the com­man­der gives him a funny look, Dou­glas says, “Now don’t tell me they don’t have seltzer in Tel Aviv.”

Be­fore the bat­tle is about to com­mence, the in­ex­pe­ri­enced com­man­der turns to Dou­glas. “I’ve never faced tanks be­fore,” he ad­mits sheep­ishly. “Nei­ther have my men.”

“That’s all right,” Dou­glas re­as­sures him. “The Egyp­tians have never faced seltzer.”

As a Piper Cub warms up on an air strip in Tel Aviv, a cater­ing truck pulls up. Two wait­ers climb out and haul a case of seltzer siphons to Si­na­tra.

As Dou­glas and crew at­tack the tanks, the Piper Cub ap­pears over­head and dives for the lead tank. We hear the shriek of a fall­ing ob­ject. A seltzer bot­tle hits the tank and burst with a tremen­dous ex­plo­sion. Then, Si­na­tra hurls an­other seltzer bot­tle from the win­dow of his plane.

“Bombs away!” he shouts.

I knew this film wasn’t a doc­u­men­tary,

When I watched the movie ‘Cast a Gi­ant Shadow,’ it was hard to know if I was sup­posed to laugh or cry.

but I couldn’t be­lieve, after hav­ing it de­scribed to me so many times, by so many peo­ple, in so many di er­ent ways, that I was ac­tu­ally see­ing it with my own eyes: seltzer bot­tles be­ing used as bombs in the Is­raeli War of In­de­pen­dence, in a film made less than two decades after the real war it de­picted. See­ing Si­na­tra, who later squirts a seltzer bot­tle at an en­emy jet fighter only made the en­tire ex­pe­ri­ence that much more sur­real.

Ul­ti­mately, Si­na­tra finds that he can not be saved by his seltzer bombs, but we soon learn that, on a deeper, more spir­i­tual level, Dou­glas’s char­ac­ter can, in fact, be saved. He says that he never un­der­stood why the Is­raelis gave such im­por­tance to Jerusalem. Why waste so many lives for some­thing of such lit­tle strate­gic value? But after ar­gu­ing with Yul Bryn­ner who, play­ing Moshe Dayan, ex­presses doubts they can ever break through, Dou­glas coun­ters this de­featist at­ti­tude. “We made it through the Red Sea, didn’t we?” he asks.

Bryn­ner, taken aback, points out that for the first time Mar­cus has used the term “we.” He is iden­ti­fy­ing with the Jews. Dou­glas thinks a mo­ment be­fore an im­pas­sioned look come over his face. “You peo­ple. A pip­squeak na­tion. Tin can army that fights with seltzer bot­tles,” he says. “We! All my life I’ve been look­ing for where I be­long. Turns out it’s here: the Catskill Moun­tains, with Arabs.”

It is here that seltzer has been trans­formed from be­ing part of a hu­mor­ous in­ci­dent ear­lier in the film into a sym­bol of some­thing greater. It rep­re­sents the film’s ad­mi­ra­tion for how Is­rael faced its lack of re­sources against an in­vad­ing army. More im­por­tant, it rep­re­sents how Is­rael in­ge­niously, and with great brav­ery, em­ployed these lim­ited re­sources. When Dou­glas calls Is­rael a “tin can army that fights with seltzer bot­tles,” his char­ac­ter is claim­ing fel­low­ship with the es­sen­tial Jew­ish char­ac­ter of its peo­ple, sum­moned up in the image of a seltzer bot­tle tossed from a plane.

In­spir­ing! Fas­ci­nat­ing! But was any of it true? My heart wanted it to be, but with Si­na­tra and Dou­glas de­liv­er­ing these hu­mor­ous lines it was hard to be­lieve.

In re­search­ing the film, I learned, to my sur­prise, that Shavel­son not only came to re­gret mak­ing the movie, con­sid­er­ing it a to­tal dis­as­ter, but also wrote a book about it in ’“”’, called, “How To Make a Jew­ish Movie.”

But where did this idea for toss­ing seltzer bot­tles come from? It could not be true, could it? I had no idea if Shavel­son was still alive or if, ap­proach­ing “— years of age, he could re­call an in­ci­dent over four decades ear­lier.

I con­tacted the Writ­ers Guild of Amer­ica, and be­fore long I was di­al­ing Shavel­son’s home phone num­ber.

“Hello,” a friendly voice an­swered. It was Shavel­son him­self. (I was lucky to reach out when I did, as he would pass away a few years later.) When I told him I had called to talk about the role played by a seltzer siphon in his movie, he just laughed, then pro­ceeded to tell me every­thing I wanted to know.

I asked him how seltzer had ended up in the film in the first place. “Oh, very sim­ple,” he told me. “I did a lot of re­search, ob­vi­ously, about the Is­raeli War of In­de­pen­dence. I had a tech­ni­cal ad­viser, Col. Ger­shon Rivlin.”

In Shavel­son’s book, Rivlin is de­scribed as a “friendly, soft-spo­ken, lov­able man [who] spent ž— years fight­ing the Bri­tish Oc­cu­py­ing Forces as one of the lead­ing mem­bers of the Un­der­ground, and then fought through the War of In­de­pen­dence.” In ad­di­tion, there was one other item on Rivlin’s ré­sumé that made him so valu­able as an ad­viser to the film: “[Rivlin was] the o¡cial his­to­rian of the Is­raeli army,” Shavel­son said, “which means that he gets into more ar­gu­ments than any­one else in Is­rael — no mean achieve­ment.”

“Rivlin gave me many sto­ries,” Shavel­son said. “And one of the sto­ries is the fact that since the be­gin­ning of the war, they didn’t re­ally have any ae­rial bombs of any sort.” But they did have a mi­nor air force.

“And,” Shavel­son con­tin­ued. “they did use seltzer bot­tles at one point be­cause the Arab ar­mies had never seen seltzer be­fore, so it was used as an at­tack weapon. Now, how e ec­tive it was or how much it was used, I don’t know. But ob­vi­ously, as you can see in the pic­ture, it hits the ground and it ex­plodes. That’s all they needed.”

Well, that seemed fairly con­clu­sive. Ac­cord­ing to the o¡cial his­to­rian of the Is­raeli army, seltzer bot­tles were used as bombs, in at least one bat­tle, in its War of In­de­pen­dence. At least these are the facts if you can be­lieve a Hol­ly­wood di­rec­tor, the same one who made Si­na­tra squirt a seltzer bot­tle at an en­emy fighter.

I had one fi­nal ques­tion for Shavel­son: “How do you feel as the man re­spon­si­ble for ed­u­cat­ing an en­tire gen­er­a­tion about this unique as­pect of Is­rael’s, and seltzer’s, his­tory?”

With­out miss­ing a beat, he replied, “You’ve had a lit­tle too much seltzer.”


FILL ‘ER UP: Frank Si­na­tra awaits the weapon of choice.


SELTZER BREAK: Kirk Dou­glas (left) re­laxes be­side Yul Bryn­ner on the set of the film ‘Cast a Gi­ant Shadow.’

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