|From left, the film’s cast and crew, on location in Duxford, England; surviving pilots, relatives, and the producer; Nancy Spielberg and George Lichter.|
Every once in a while, a filmmaker captures the essence of what the State of Israel means to the Jewish people in general and to America’s Jews in particular.
“Above and Beyond” provides a remarkable look at the birth of Israel’s air force. Perhaps more importantly, it considers the ways in which Israel can affect the lives of Jews in America.
On one level, this is a film about a group of veteran World War II pilots and navigators who volunteered to fly airplanes for Israel during the 1948 War of Independence, when Israel’s enemies had air power and Israel did not. This story has been told on film before, but after she saw the obituary of Al Schwimmer in 2011, producer Nancy Spielberg decided to provide a broader look at the “band of brothers” who changed the course of Jewish history, and who indeed may have saved Israel at a time when its very existence was at risk.
Al Schwimmer, often called the father of the Israeli air force, was a flight engineer during World War II who later worked for TWA. When he learned that Israel needed aircraft for the new nation, he managed to find surplus planes and smuggle them there. He also helped recruit many of the Americans who would pilot and navigate those planes during the early months of the ’48 war.
Most of the men who volunteered to fly for Israel were there because of a sense of adventure, a desire to find the next challenge, or simply to meet women. Leon Frankel, a bomber pilot in the Pacific during World War II, won the Navy Cross. Coleman Goldstein, George Lichter, and Gideon Lichtman flew for the U.S. Army Air Corps and Milton Reubenfeld did the same for the Royal Air Force. In the film, they are joined by other men, now in their 80s and 90s, who tell the story of how, when Israel declared its independence in May 1948, the country was ill prepared to fight its enemies and desperately in need of airplanes. Each man’s story, what brought them to Israel, and how their service for the new state would not only change their lives as men, but as Jews, is remarkable. Their recollections are candid and frank, and boy do they know how to tell a story. Recreations of flying sequences, so ably undertaken by director Roberta Grossman, make their stories even more dramatic.
This film is clearly about the volunteers who came from abroad, as “Mitnadvei hutz la’Aretz- Machal – to help Israel in its fight for independence. Producer Spielberg, writer Sophie Sartain, and director Grossman wanted the story of these surviving men to be the focus of this movie. Their escapades, whether in the air or on the ground, hold our attention throughout. In the course of the men’s narrative, we learn about how pilots were trained abroad, how second-rate aircraft caused unnecessary death, and how random air attacks by Israeli aircraft could alter the course of a battle and change the outcome of the war. One recreation shows how the Egyptian army, just 30 miles from Tel Aviv, stopped its advance when it was attacked by just a few aircraft. We also come to understand how important the activities of fundraisers, both here and in Europe, were in permitting the purchase of the weapons and equipment without which Israel might not have survived. Historians Benny Morris and Derek Penslar help provide a framework for these stories.
The filmmakers do such a superb job in bringing us in that I wanted to know more about the other flyers, in particular the native Israelis who joined these men in training and in the air. We hear from former U.S. marine Lou Lenart about how he trained to be a pilot with several Israelis near Prague. When he heard that two Egyptian planes had bombed the Tel Aviv bus station, killing 42, the Israelis cut their training short and headed back to Israel to provide some resistance in the air. Three Israelis – Modi Alon, Ezer Weizman, and Eddie Cohen – returned with Lenart. We learn a great deal about Alon, who assumed command of the air squadron, and whose widow and daughter describe later his plane crash at a landing field weeks later. But I wanted the story of the birth of Israel’s air command to be rounded out, particularly with inclusion of its Israelis – one of them, Weizman, years later would command Israel’s Air Force and become the seventh president of Israel. The filmmakers, however, said that they wanted to concentrate on the Americans and their unique story.
It was Al Schwimmer’s life story that sparked producer Spielberg’s interest. But she shied away from telling about his indictment for breaking U.S. law by smuggling aircraft to Israel, and chose not to touch on his trial and his loss of U.S. citizenship; Schwimmer stayed in Israel, founded Israel Aircraft Industries, and later was pardoned by President Clinton. The producer said that she omitted those details because there simply were too many stories to tell for one film, and that Schwimmer no longer was around to tell his story. Understandable, but I encourage you to simply read more!
We must be thankful for how exquisite a film “Above and Beyond” is. It is an amazing story about men who risked both their citizenships and their lives by fighting in the armed forces of another nation. It is also a heartfelt reminder of how special the State of Israel is to us as Jews. This is a film that should be seen, not only in theaters but on college campuses.
The film opens today in New York at Village East Cinemas.