Widely characterized as a "Zionist epic", the film has been identified by many commentators as having been enormously influential in stimulating Zionism and support for Israel in the United States. While the Preminger film softened the anti-British and anti-Arab sentiment of the novel, the film remains controversial for its depiction of the Arab–Israeli conflict. It would also become famous for Preminger openly hiring screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted for over a decade for being a communist and forced to work under assumed names. Together with Spartacus, also written by Trumbo, Exodus is credited with ending the Hollywood blacklist.
Exodus was filmed on location in Israel and Cyprus. However, relations between the director and actors were difficult, particularly with the male lead, Paul Newman.After Newman suggested changes to the script were rejected by Preminger, and the actor given a dressing down for making the suggestions, Newman hid a mannequin on a high balcony on which he was due to play out a fight scene. At the end of the scene Newman pretended to stumble, and threw the mannequin over the balcony. Not realising this was a practical joke, Preminger collapsed and required medical attention. At other times Preminger and Newman were barely on speaking terms,
Although filming key elements of Exodus on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus was authentic, as it was the location of the British internment camps for Jewish refugees trying to reach Palestine, it was difficult as the island was in the middle of a Greek insurgency against British rule, led by the Greek nationalist organisation EOKA. EOKA was considered a terrorist organisation by the British authorities in Cyprus and they were opposed to the filming of a movie on the island that seemed to combine anti-British sentiments, with a storyline that appeared to show terrorist action could be successful. As a result the British military refused to help Preminger with the logistical side of filming. The only assistance given by the British authorities was the placing of an armed guard on the large number of decommissioned rifles used as props in the film, to prevent them falling into the hands of EOKA and being recommissioned.
Nurse Katherine "Kitty" Fremont is an American volunteer at the Karaolos internment camp on Cyprus, where thousands of Jews—Holocaust survivors—are being held by the British, who will not let them go to Palestine. They anxiously wait for the day they will be liberated. Ari Ben Canaan, a Haganah rebel who had been a captain in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army in the Second World War, obtains a cargo ship and smuggles 611 Jewish inmates out of the camp for an illegal voyage to Mandate Palestine before being discovered by military authorities. When the British find out that the refugees are in a ship in the harbor of Famagusta, they blockade it. The refugees stage a hunger strike, during which the camp's doctor dies, and Ari threatens to blow up the ship and the refugees. The British relent and allow the Exodus safe passage.
Meanwhile, Kitty has grown very fond of Karen Hansen, a young Danish-Jewish girl searching for her father, from whom she was separated during the war. She has taken up the Zionist cause, much to the chagrin of Kitty, who had hoped to take young Karen to America so that she can begin a new life there.
During this time, opposition to the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states is heating up, and Karen's young beau Dov Landau proclaims his desire to join the Irgun, a radical Zionist underground network. Dov goes to an Irgun address, only to get caught in a police trap. After he is freed, he is contacted by members of the Irgun and is interviewed by Ari Ben Canaan's uncle Akiva. Before swearing Dov in, Akiva forces the boy to confess that he was a Sonderkommando member in Auschwitz and that he was raped by Nazis. Due to his activities, Akiva has been disowned by Ari's father, Barak, who heads the mainstream Jewish Agency trying to create a Jewish state through political and diplomatic means. He fears that the Irgun will damage his efforts, especially since the British have put a price on Akiva's head.
Karen has gone to live at Gan Dafna, a fictional Jewish kibbutz near Mount Tabor at which Ari was raised. Kitty and Ari have fallen in love, but Kitty pulls back, feeling like an outsider after meeting Ari's family and learning of his previous love interest, Dafna, a young woman tortured and murdered by Arabs, who is the namesake of the Gan Dafna kibbutz. Leaving Kitty, Ari promises to help find Karen's father, who is eventually found ill in a hospital in Jerusalem and does not recognize Karen, because of his being shell shocked from the concentration camp experience, whence he cannot speak.
When Dov Landau bombs the King David Hotel in an act of terrorism, leading to dozens of fatalities, Akiva is arrested, imprisoned in Acre fortress, and sentenced to hang. Seeking to save Akiva's life, as well as to free the Haganah and Irgun fighters imprisoned by the British, Ari organizes an escape plan for the prisoners.
Dov, who had managed to elude the arresting soldiers, turns himself in so that he can use his knowledge of explosives to facilitate the Acre Prison break. All goes according to plan; hundreds of prisoners, including Akiva, manage to escape. Akiva is fatally shot by British soldiers while evading a roadblock set up to catch the escaped prisoners. Ari is also badly wounded. He makes his way to Abu Yesha, an Arab village near Gan Dafna, where his lifelong friend, Taha, is the mukhtar. Kitty is brought there and treats his wound and Ari and Kitty's romance is rekindled. Meanwhile, the doctor at Camp Dafna, is arrested by the British troops when they find that the camp has stored illegal weapons under the surface of the pavement.
An independent Israel is now in plain view, but Arab nationals commanded by Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, plot to attack Gan Dafna and kill its villagers. Ari receives prior warning of this attack from Taha, even as Taha decides to join the Grand Mufti in fighting Israel. He manages to get the younger children of the town out in a mass overnight escape. Karen, ecstatic over the prospect of a new nation, finds Dov (who was out on patrol outside the town) and proclaims her love for him; Dov assures her that they will marry someday. As Karen returns to Gan Dafna, she is ambushed and killed by a gang of Arab militiamen. Dov discovers her lifeless body the following morning. That same day, the body of Taha is found hanging in his village, killed by the mufti with a Star of David symbol carved on his body. A swastika and the sign saying "Jude" is written on the walls of the village, indicating the Arabic hate of the Jews. Karen and Taha are buried together in one grave. At the Jewish burial ceremony, Ari swears on their bodies that someday, Jews and Arabs will live together and share the land in peace, not only in death, but also in life. While the other people shovel in dirt at the grave site, Dov angrily just steps on the shovel and leaves, refusing to accept Karen's death. The movie then ends with Ari, Kitty, and a Palmach contingent entering trucks and heading toward battle.Academy Awards
Composer Ernest Gold won the Academy Award for Best Original Score at the 1960 Oscars.
The film was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Sal Mineo) and for Best Cinematography (Sam Leavitt).Golden Globe
Sal Mineo won the Best Supporting Actor AwardGrammy Award
Ernest Gold won Best Soundtrack Album and Song of the Year at the Grammy Awards of 1961 for the soundtrack and theme to Exodus respectively. It is the only instrumental song ever to receive that award to date.Cannes Film Festival
The film was screened at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival, but was not entered into the competition for the Golden Palm.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2005: AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores – Nominated
2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – Nominated
The main theme from the film has been widely remixed and covered by many artists. A version by Ferrante & Teicher made number 2 on the Billboard Singles Chart. Another notable version was recorded by jazz saxophonist Eddie Harris. Other versions were recorded by Mantovani, Peter Nero, Connie Francis, Quincy Jones the 1960s British instrumental band the Eagles, and the Duprees, who sang the theme with lyrics written by Pat Boone. Other artists include gospel pianist Anthony Burger (in the Gaither Vocal Band's "I Do Believe"), singer Edith Piaf (who sang French lyrics) and classical pianist Maksim Mrvica. Davy Graham reinvented the main theme on his 1963 album The Guitar Player. Trey Spruance of the Secret Chiefs 3 re-scored the theme for "surf band and orchestra" on the album 2004 Book of Horizons. Howard Stern uses it for comedic effect when discussing aspects of Jewish life. A portion of the theme was covered live by '70s Southern Rock band Black Oak Arkansas, whose 3 lead guitarists used eBows to play the theme in harmony, embedded into a cover of the Buddy Holly song "Not Fade Away".
Different samples of the Exodus theme have been used in several hip-hop songs, including Ice-T's song "Ice's Exodus" from the album The Seventh Deadly Sin, Nas's song "You're Da Man" from the album Stillmatic, and T.I.'s song "Bankhead" from the album King. A portion of the main title was included in a montage arranged by composer John Williams and performed at the 2002 Academy Awards ceremony. The artist Nina Paley used the entire theme song to satirical effect in her animated short, titled after the lyrics, "This Land is Mine" (2012). Although not in an official film soundtrack, a Chopin Nocturne was played while General Sutherland and Kitty Fremont discussed the future of Jews and Palestine.