The daring and accidental-symbolism of the raid Entebbe by Israeli forces on July 4th, 1976 was not lost on American movie studios. Easily identifiable good guys and bad guys, a complicated and dangerous plan, and a victory that wasn’t without tragedy—the script practically wrote itself. What’s interesting, however, is that of the five significant movies that depict the situation in Entebbe in any way, only two are really any good, and only one of them is actually about Entebbe.
Within six months of the raid, the first adaptation, Victory at Entebbe, was released as a made-for-TV special. Quality-wise, it’s pretty clear why it was made for television—the acting is hammy, the accents are ridiculous (if even attempted), and visually, it looks like closed circuit security footage—but holy hell, look at the cast: Anthony Hopkins, Kirk Douglass, Richard Dreyfuss (as Yoni Netanyahu, if you can believe it), Burt Lancaster, Elizabeth Taylor, Helen Hayes, and Linda Blair. Not to mention Jessica Walter (aka Lucille Bluth) in a minor role. That the movie itself is such a failure is fascinating, but among movies made about Entebbe, it’s not even the worst.
Raid on Entebbe (1977) scores points for having Peter Finch play Yitzhak Rabin with some serious fire (even if he does sound like, well, Peter Finch), but beyond that, it’s just bursting with reminders of what bad action movies look like. Faceless Israeli soldiers just sort of fire randomly into the air, barely bothering to watch where they point their guns, and a single mournful horn wails as Netanyahu dies on the plane, as every single passenger looks on. Kudos to the producers for putting Charles Bronson in this, though.
The same year, the only Israeli dramatization of the raid came out, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is the only watchable non-documentary on the subject. Starring Herzog muse Klaus Kinski, Operation Thunderbolt is a tense thriller (available on YouTube!) that does an excellent job delivering the payoff of the rescue. It also features original footage of Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Yigal Allon. The movie was partially financed by the Israeli government, which is usually the type of deal that makes for really bad propaganda, but in this case, the material rises above.
Which means, of course, that the next adaptation had to be unrelentingly horrible. Chuck Norris’s The Delta Force (1986) combined Entebbe with Operation Eagle Claw, the Carter administration’s famously failed attempt to rescue Americans held in Iran. If Chuck Norris shooting dudes in kefiyyahs with bullets that come from the motorcycle he’s riding to catch a plane that’s about to take off is your thing, then this is your movie. While not explicitly about Entebbe, the entire movie was filmed in Israel, and the rescue scene is modeled on the original raid. Quality: 0/10. Chuck Norris: 10/10.
The most recent movie to feature Entebbe is The Last King of Scotland (2006), which, oddly enough, is the one least indebted to the events, and yet portrays them in the most interesting way. The Last King of Scotland is about the reign of Idi Amin, Uganda’s leader during those tumultuous years, and the movie shows how Amin was able to play to the media while he harbored terrorists and their hostages for almost a week. Forrest Whittaker plays Amin with the mixture of brutality and PR smarts that is terrifying. In the Entebbe scene, he makes a deal with the terrorists where they get to hold on to their Jewish hostages, which is scary for its cheapening of Jewish lives, but also for Amin’s ability to make that sound like the only logical solution. Quality: 7.5/10. Chuck Norris: 0/10.
Hollywood, take note: there still needs to be a good Entebbe movie. It could be like 13 Hours, but without Michael Bay.
Jesse Bernstein is a former Intern at Tablet.