by Vicky Judah.
On August 8, in Jaffa, Israel, Menachem Golan died at the age of 85. He was a man who was endlessly enigmatic and charismatic. He leaves behind his wife and three children but a legacy besides. He produced an immense library of feature films spanning a vast spectrum of genres and then there is the memory of his leadership in the global film world.
My husband, born in Haifa in 1960, attributes his emigration to Los Angeles, to the icon that was Menachem Golan. The story goes that when he was a young teen, he took a bus to the airport in Tel Aviv to meet his parents from a long trip but the plane was endlessly delayed. At the same time, Golan was filming a movie at the airport. He remembers the area being cordoned off and he spent the day watching the film set and the incredible producer, who was sitting on a high chair, barking orders through a megaphone. For a teenager, the atmosphere was mesmerizing; there was an electric charge in the air and a feeling of watching something being birthed. By the end of the day, he decided that he would have to walk in the footsteps of this Menachem Golan and fifteen years later, he moved to LA with the goal of studying film. Life ultimately dealt him a different path, but the future is still to come.
Golan started producing movies after serving as a fighter pilot in the 1948 War of Independence. His first movie, produced in 1964, was the humorous Sallah Shabati with Topol in the lead role. The movie’s intelligent, sensitive but oh-so-true depiction of life as new Israeli immigrants, went on to win a Golden Globe, Israel’s first Oscar for Best Foreign Film and other prestigious awards. In Israel, it was the best performing movie ever with more than 1.3 million tickets sold in the first year. This was Golan at his best.
Given the success of this first movie, it is not surprising that Golan went on to produce 23 movies in the 70’s alone and this was when my husband bumped into the cigar smoking oh-so-grand producer. The set was buzzing and was, most probably, the production of Golan’s next most successful film, Mivtsa Jonatan, the story of the 1976 hijacking of an Air France plane as it left Tel Aviv for France. The retelling of the daring recapture of the Jewish passengers from Entebbe, Africa, and the loss of life of Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother, Jonatan, was the story he successfully brought to the screen.
It would have been a great contribution to the cinema archives if Golan had continued to produce movies that were of specifically Israeli issues and society. But this was not to be. Along with his cousin, Yorem Globus, Golan acquired Cannon Films and went on a blitz of producing low budget action movies in America. They successfully appealed to young audiences. Many of these movies birthed sequels, sometimes as many as seven, and for a time they brought a huge income to Canon Films. They were not the kind of stories which have quality and longevity that contribute to the global library of cinematography, but they were solid low-brow entertainment.
My dealings with Golan were many years later. I was a young twenty-something English woman with no Zionist or religious conscience and was working at the Cannes Film Festival. My attendance at the Festival was motivating and I was wonderfully fearless to the likelihood of my complete failure in any film making capacity in which I would immerse myself. It was then that I found myself sitting with Golan in his expansive offices on the ground floor of the elegant Carlton Hotel.
I had known that Golan’s company financed independent movies and I had witnessed firsthand the sleek young men and women working his huge open-plan office that he set up at the Mifed Film Market in Milan, the previous fall. Golan understood that he could best sell his less respectable movies with oh-so-polished sales people. And he did.
It was late in the day when I met with Golan, with his alluring Israeli brashness and his imposing Israeli accent. I enthusiastically explained how the road movie I wanted to produce was perfectly commercial with a spiritual edge. The predictable story was of two heroes made their way through the Californian desert on their way to deliver a package to Las Vegas. Golan listened intently for a few minutes. He knew absolutely nothing about me, about my lack of film making education and experience and he had no interest in my specifics. But the story caught his imagination.
He had an electrifying response to the details. As I remember it, he said, “The sweat needs to pour down their faces. The sand needs to be a character in the movie. The car they drive must be a character in its own right. And the heat, the heat must be everywhere. They can’t escape it. Lots of sweat. I think they even fall in love with it. And of course with each other.” I was transfixed by his charisma. There was nothing about what he said that was so creative but the words he spoke were liquid gold. Then, in an instant, he said he would fund the movie for the pitiful sum of $250,000. My response was instantaneous; that would be perfect.
The following morning I returned early to his office to collect an enormous contract which I was to sign… by the end of the day. With the gratifying innocence of a first time producer, I went out to the Carlton Terrace and ordered an exorbitant cup of coffee under the shade of the palm trees while movie stars glided past. And I began to read. Did I say it was an exceedingly lengthy contract? I reasoned that I could allow a quantity of other people to each receive producer credit on the movie, although they would have nothing to do with the project. Did it really matter? And I could agree to do the editing of the movie in another country. Oh, and the sound work in yet another country?
The contract noted that I would have the right to cast the movie, except that the lead actor and actress would be chosen by Golan and the director would have no say in the matter. Hhmm. I do not remember all the details but there was certainly something about the financing. It would be coming from an unnamed person somewhere in the unknown reaches of the world.
There was no denying it; the complexity and detail of the paperwork was unworkable for anyone with any sense of traditional values. Although I spent the day laboring at the fax machine in Golan’s office, trying to send the epic contract to my LA attorney, my innocence left with the pages on the fax machine. The deal was a dud.
Soon after, I produced Destination Vegas, but not with Menachem Golan. Although I nodded respectfully when I saw him at film markets, I never had dealings with him again. It was said that more recently he had made and lost a fortune producing stage-musicals in Israel. I had no doubt that he would remake his fortune again.
It was therefore quite sad to hear of his passing and it lead me to wonder as well. Had he been interested in my movie because it reminded him of the Negev desert? Was he just out to take advantage of a young film producer or could he perhaps see that I was a hopelessly lost Jew and he felt kindly to me? In the bigger scheme of things, did he miraculously know that the young Israeli who had watched him filming that day in Tel Aviv airport, would find a shared knowledge with his bride-to-be because they had both been utterly hypnotized by the one and only Menachem Golan?
Perhaps not, but then in movies, anything is possible.