Lebanon. Directed by: Maoz Schmulik (or Schmulik Maoz, he signs it both ways) and Samuel Maoz (see?). Written by: Maoz Schmulik. Starring: Oh, yeah… right. Name two Israeli actors. Barbra Streisand in a cameo as the Merkava Mark II tank.
Bittersweet it is, I suspect, when any number of us think back to when Esther Schlumberger turned us down for a date, she of the eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon, of the hair like the goats on Mount Horeb, of the breasts (only guessing on this one in view of above) like twin roes (whatever a roe is, but better be round and hard and the moonlight glint off of)… annnnnnd these days forty-some years later the hips like the broad, flat veranda of the First Temple (and probably just as chalky white). That said and notwithstanding whatever animus may persist from that primal denial, most of us admire the feisty, desperate, professional combat waged by the Jews of Israel against any number of intruders, antagonists, adversaries. A “Defence Force” (I think they spell it with a –c, perhaps in memory of the sainted Orde Wingate, Lawrence of Palestine, early Brit advisor), they nonetheless seem to have ample capability of reaching out beyond purely defen(c)ive posture to beard wannabe foes in their sancta and little enough compunction against doing just that.
We’re in Lebanon, first time around I imagine, 1982, with a tank crew. I’m out of the loop these days, but it’s either the old Centurion upbarrelled to 105 M&Ms (S’hot do they call it or maybe Sh’ot, dunno where the jot or tittle or whatever is that thing go, but allegedly “scourge” in Hebrew) or the Merkava (”chariot” in Hebrew, although dunno when she came on line) since most of the film takes place inside the track, in the shadowy, circumscribed, sweaty, stinking, clanking half-world of armor crewmen. Anyhow. Somebody’s got the tank stuff mostly right (if an infantryman’s impressions are any guide). We see the looming battle, the scurrying enemy, the hunched-over paratroopers from our own side, the detritus of what once was the Riviera of the Middle East, the terrorized civilians through a narrow view slit whose jerky sidelong gaze we always get accompanied by the searing hum of the electric turret motor. The tank’s cabin, microcosm itself, fills with smoke when the engines turn over, with the filth and excreta of her crewmen, sunken into the pool of black bile—oil, urine, blood, diesel… who knows?—puddled on the deck underfoot as nameless ichor oozes in eerie droplets from the cast steel bulkhead.
Inside the somber carcass of the monster, called “Rhino” by its radio call sign, four reservists, Yigal, Hertzel, Assi, Schmulik (presumably the auteur since there can’t be two guys in Israel called Schmulik, “river otter” in Hebrew), bounce off one another like chunks of the inner hull spalled by incoming fire: Assi, the track commander, tries to hold it together, preserve some notion of order, less military than moral. Yigal, timid kid, wants only to be sure his Mom knows he’s all right. Hertzel, older, cynical, tired of endless battle and preparation for battle, wants to pack it in when the instrumentation reads dead zero… like his will to power. No tank? No tankers. Let’s go home. Schmulik, the gunner (called in the subtitles “gunman,” for some reason and not the only problem with the subs: “bomb” for “round” another misnomer though you’d think what with the constant callups there’d be plenty of Israelis around who knew both English and Hebrew and what to call a tank round), just can’t seem to pull that trigger but points out through his shame that the track commander has a trigger, too, and why don’t you pull it and blow away that woman and her child?
The issue here is urban combat, battle through rubble, a phenomenon to which the Late Twentieth and early Twenty-first have treated soldiers of all armies. What lurks behind that pile of bricks, inside that ruined high-rise, behind that section of stuccoed wall and on and on? Half the time, turns out, it’s a squalling fee-male (in her undies, be it noted, prurient concession to eventual billboard poster) or big-eyed urchin; t’other half it’s a three-day-bearded Semite (I mention on account of the good Semites appear just as grubby and the bad, unhappily) distinguishable from our own troops only by the fragment of uniform or the ubiquitous Kalashnikova (our guys got the Galils and Uzis… and those silly-ass Israeli half-helmets) and, oh, yeah… by they’re shooting at us (when they’re not shooting the civilians as we’re trying not to, minor but significant distinction between the warring factions).
And factions there are: Who’s a Maronite? Who’s a Druze? Who’s a Syrian? Who’s a Lebanese phalangist? Who’s a regular service para? Who’s a dirtbag reservist? As ever, the Israelis are their own worst enemy since the para Major can’t abide the “friendly” phalangists or the tank crew, whose members can’t get along among themselves. The pressure of battle accentuates these schisms as Schmulik, hestitant, doesn’t pull the trigger and evidently lets a para get killed. Discord pops into the tank chamber at random intervals through the upper hatch, letting in piercing shafts of sunlight but also disquieting news of our predicament: lost in the rubble of this city and way outside the protective fan of artillery or infantry support. How do we get back to our lines? Along the way we pick up a Syrian prisoner (who looks a lot like us, grubby, three-day-bearded, frightened, bewildered, now bare-footed, unshod by the paras for their own reasons). When the allegedly allied phalangist drops down in among the crewmen and discovers they speak no Arabic (he evidently no Hebrew), he draws near the prisoner and in tones of silky menace recites a litany of horror and mutilation he and his buddies aim to visit upon the Syrian soon as he falls into their hands, death the long last and likely most welcome of these.
Well, do we get out? Do we ever stop fighting? Do we reconcile with war as the interminable condition and cost of an Israeli state in that cesspool? Do the professional paras and the reluctant reserve crewmen ever find common ground? Dawn reveals our tank marooned in a field of blooming sunflowers from here to the horizon, Nature’s eternal response to the imbecility of men. Not what I’d call a good movie in the end but a rare glimpse into a small, dark world orchestrated, it would appear, by a denizen of that world. For that reason if for no other worth the watch…
Anyhow. For amusement’s sake, I permit myself the fruitless conjecture as to whether Esther Schlumberger woulda been any more receptive to Schmulik Maoz.