Following the horrors of the 1972 Munich Olympics, the pro-Palestine terrorist organization Black September was depicted in a number of film projects, some based on real events and some wholly fictional. In addition to this picture, which was extrapolated by producer-director Otto Preminger from a novel by Paul Bonnecarrère and Joan Hemingway, Black September appears in the big-budget thriller Black Sunday (1977). Yet while Black Sunday is a robust action thriller, Rosebud is a talky procedural depicting the complex international response to a politically motivated kidnapping. Like many of Preminger’s movies, Rosebud is simultaneously too smart for its own good—issues are discussed at such great length that the movie sometimes seems like a talk show—and too tidy. Even with the presence of characters who personify the ambiguity of the modern world, Rosebud is dry and schematic. This is exacerbated by Preminger’s predilection for scenes in which characters sit or stand in one position while delivering reams of dialogue.
Dramaturgical shortcomings aside, Rosebud is somewhat compelling because of its level of detail. The picture begins by introducing a group of young women from various countries as they hop onto the massive yacht Rosebud, which is docked in the Mediterranean and owned by French businessman Charles-Andre Fargeau (Claude Dauphin), who is grandfather to one of the ladies. After Black September operatives hijack the boat and move the women to a hidden location, Fargeau hires Larry Martin (Peter O’Toole), a CIA-trained operative, to engineer the release of the women. Extensive back-and-forth maneuvers ensue. The terrorists use ingenious means to obfuscate their location while issuing films in which the captives read lists of demands. Larry tracks the source of the terrorists’ finances to an Englishman named Edward Sloat (Richard Attenborough), who converted to Islam and became a fanatic. Meanwhile, individuals including an activist sympathetic to the Palestinian cause are used as pawns, by both sides in the conflict, to gain information and leverage.
Some of the scenes depicting backroom negotiations feel sterile, thanks to drab staging and inconsistent acting, but the script—credited to Preminger’s son, Erik Lee Preminger—is painstaking in the extreme. Even the film’s handful of action scenes, such as the hijacking and the climactic assault on the kidnappers’ lair, include copious details about methodology. Plus, as Preminger did in Exodus (1960) and other politically themed films, the filmmaker paints a complicated picture by showing how crisscrossing agendas create problems—for instance, while the parents of the kidnapped women want to capitulate, government officials from America and Israel advocate hard-line stances toward negotiating with terrorists. So, while Rosebud is infinitely more cerebral than visceral, the story is muscular and relevant.
As for the performances, O’Toole dominates with his signature brand of civilized cruelty, and Attenborough infuses his small part with to-the-manor-born indignation. Kim Cattrall, in her movie debut, provides streetwise edge playing one of the kidnapped women, and Gallic star Isabelle Huppert lends dignity to the role of a released hostage who participates in the effort to rescue her friends. Other notables in the cast are Cliff Gorman (as an Israeli intelligence officer) and Raf Vallone (as the courtly father of Huppert’s character).