Operation Thunderbolt (1977)

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Operation Thunderbolt
Mivtsa Yonatan
Dir. Menahem Golan
Premiered January 27, 1977

In June of 1976, Palestinian Terroristts led by radical German Communist guerillas hijacked an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris, embarking en route in Athens, and took the plane first to Benghazi and then to Entebbe Airport in Uganda, then ruled by friendly dictator Idi Amin. After allowing all non-Jews to leave, the terrorists demanded the release of dozens of convicted terrorists imprisoned in Israel as ransom. Neither hijackings nor hostage situations, nor anti-Israeli terror were unfamiliar in the 1970s, but this was the most daring– and most famous of all. Equally famous was the rescue mission by Israeli paratroopers, whose leader, the military hero and Jonathan Netanyahu, was killed in action.

The Israeli film industry, under the direction of national auteur Menahem Golan, immediately went to work dramatizing the events. The budget was limited and production was rushed. Even then, the Israelis were beaten to the punch by two star-studded made-for-TV movies in America, one of which aired just eighteen days before the release of this film: Operation Thunderbolt.

In the same spirit as Moustapha Akkad’s contemporary Muhammad biopic The Message, Operation Thunderbolt was filmed twice: a multilingual but mostly Hebrew-language version, and a shot-for-shot rendition entirely in English; I opted to see the former, since it was the more famous of the two, though I watched it unsubtitled. The aforementioned low budget and rushed production are plain to see: the film was shot on super 16mm film, in a 4:3 aspect ratio, Idi Amin (Mark Heath) has a distinctly American accent, while the bulk of his army look suspiciously like Ethiopian Jews.

At the same time, Operation Thunderbolt is easily the most visceral depiction of the Entebbe Raid that I know of. While every such rendition makes reference to the Holocaust, then well within living memory, Golan’s framing feels way more lived-in. When blond Germans with machine guns (Klaus Kinski and Sybil Danning) are ordering Jews to separate from other passengers (the French crew bravely refusing to leave them), and emphatically speak only German to a tattooed survivor, no explanation is necessary.

Operation Thunderbolt also uniquely explores the internal politics at the time. Nearly half the film is dedicated to goings on in Israel, such as the military’s preparation for the raid while the press and general public are necessarily left in the dark (several leading politicians appear through the use of archival footage and stand-ins). Easily the weakest link is the portrayal of Netanyahu (Yehoram Gaon). As the great fallen hero of the day, he gets less characterization than any other speaking character, an obvious pitfall of making the film so soon after the events that inspired it. Otherwise, though, the film is poignant and engaging, if you’re willing to look past a few production shortfalls.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
The film specifically offers thanks to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Defense Minister Shimon Peres. Many if not most of the Israeli actors speak Hebrew with the then-officially sanctioned Sephardic accent, which is nearly extinct today. Women are still able to wear bikinis in Jerusalem.

How Did It Do?
I wasn’t able to find any information on Operation Thunderbolt’s finances, and it has only one review on RottenTomatoes (a positive one, but still only one), but it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. In 1979, director Menahem Golan and his cousin/producer Yoram Globus purchased the American film consortium Cannon, made a fortune producing action B-movies, and developed a reputation in the west directly inverse to their legacy in their native Israel.

Because Operation Thunderbolt was released so soon after the actual Entebbe Raid, the political aftermath bears some discussion. In spite of the success at Entebbe and previous efforts against terrorism abroad, Israel’s Socialist government, which had held power since independence, was unable to recover from its perceived mishandling of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. On May 17, 1977, Yitzak Rabin’s Alignment Party was unexpectedly swept from power. Known ever after as the Revolution, the ascendant Likud Party, led by founding father Menahem Begin, both signaled and commanded a steady but dramatic shift in Israeli society. Jonathan Netanyahu, a career military officer from a Likud family, was expected to eventually become leader of the party before his death. In his stead, that responsibility fell to his younger brother Benjamin, who is Prime Minister at the time of this writing and appears likely to be forced from power soon.

Next Time: Cross of Iron

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