One of the Me Decade’s most startling real-life events occurred on July 4, 1976, when Israeli commandos raided an airport in Uganda to rescue more than a hundred hostages from Palestinians who hijacked a passenger plane. Filled with larger-than-life individuals, notably crazed Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, the story of “Operation Thunderbolt” helped define the era during which international terrorism first took root. Almost inevitably, Hollywood pounced on this material, with the first screen dramatization reaching American airwaves six months after the rescue, and a second version airing a month later. Both telefilms feature big-name casts.
First to air was Victory at Entebbe, a rushed and schlocky melodrama that mostly focuses on dynamics among hostages during their tense incarceration in Uganda. Filmed by director Marvin J. Chomsky with garish lighting and unimpressive production values, Victory at Entebbe suffers badly for the choice to shove the biggest names possible into various roles, no matter the results. Good luck figuring out the genetic math by which parents Kirk Douglas and Elizabeth Taylor produce daughter Linda Blair—and have fun scratching your head while Anthony Hopkins plays Israeli Prime Minister Ytzhak Rabin opposite Burt Lancaster as his Minister of Defense. Helmut Berger does forgettable work as lead terrorist Wilfried Böse, and those playing the other hijackers stop just short of twirling moustaches.
Portraying key passengers, Theodore Bikel, Severn Darden, Helen Hayes, Allan Miller, Jessica Walter, and others do what they can with florid dialogue and overwrought dramaturgy. Way too much screen time is devoted to Blair’s alternately cutesy and whiny performance as a young hostage, the Douglas/Taylor scenes feel like clips from a bad soap opera, and Julius Harris looks cartoonish playing Amin thanks to an ill-advised fat suit. Scenes set in Israel are better, though it’s hard to buy doughy Richard Dreyfuss as fierce commando Yoni Netanyahu. Worse, the Israeli scenes focus on procedural matters, mostly sidelining political ramifications. A final strike against Victory at Entebbe is the use of stock footage for airplane scenes, which greatly diminishes verisimilitude.
Although the star power of Raid on Entebbe is not quite as impressive as that of the preceding film, the performances are much better. Martin Balsam, Charles Bronson, Horst Buchholz, Peter Finch, John Saxon, Sylvia Sidney, Jack Warden, and others deliver restrained work, letting the story speak for itself. Only a few players—including Tige Andrews and Stephen Macht—succumb to melodramatic excess. More importantly, Raid on Entebbe has Yaphet Kotto. He’s dazzling as Amin, conveying the madman’s grandiosity, moodiness, and narcissism. Directed by the versatile Irvin Kershner with docudrama simplicity and the occasional subtle flourish—a sleek camera move here, a dramatic lighting pattern there—Raid on Entebbe unfolds methodically. The opening scene depicts the hijacking without sensationalizing events, and thereafter the movie cuts back and forth between Israel, where officials plan their response, and scenes involving hostages and their captors.
Eventually, the film resolves into three parallel narratives. The first involves Rabin (Finch) rallying support for military intervention, despite his government’s propensity for endless debate. The second involves the hostages, of whom Daniel Cooper (Balsam) is the unofficial spokesman, watching their fates transfer from the hands of religious zealots to those of an unpredictable tyrant. The third involves units of the Israeli military—under the command of Generals Gur (Warden), Peled (Saxon), and Shomron (Bronson)—figuring how to achieve the impossible. The level of detail in Barry Beckerman’s teleplay is extraordinary, so despite its lengthy running time (two and a half hours), Raid on Entebbe is interesting and thoughtful from start to finish. Better still, the presence of marquee-name actors never eclipses the solemnity of the narrative. (Special note should be made of Finch’s fine performance as Rabin, because this was his last project. He died a week after Raid on Entebbe aired.)
Yet another dramatization of these historic events emerged soon after the dual telefilms, this time from Israel. Directed by Menaham Golan, Operation Thunderbolt features a mostly Israeli cast, although the intense German actor Klaus Kinski plays Böse and the voluptuous Austrian starlet Sybil Danning costars. Operation Thunderbolt received an Oscar nomination as Best Foreign Film.
Victory at Entebbe: FUNKY
Raid on Entebbe: GROOVY