On June 27th, 1976, four terrorists hijacked an Air France flight and diverted it to Entebbe Airport in Uganda. With the blessing of dictator Idi Amin and with the help of a deployment of Ugandan soldiers, the terrorists held all of the Israeli passengers hostage while allowing the non-Jewish passengers to leave. The terrorists issued the usual set of demands. The Israelis responded with Operation Thunderbolt, a daring July 4th raid on the airport that led to death of all the terrorists and the rescue of the hostages. Three hostages were killed in the firefight and a fourth — Dora Bloch — was subsequently murdered in a Ugandan hospital by Idi Amin’s secret police. Only one commando — Yonatan Netanyahu — was lost during the raid. His younger brother, Benjamin, would later become Prime Minister of Israel.
A year after the the raid on Entebbe, Menahem Golan would direct a film the recreated that heroic moment. Originally, Operation Thunderbolt was intended to be a Hollywood production, with none other than Steve McQueen playing the role Yonatan Netanyahu. When McQueen withdraw for the project (as he did from a lot of productions in the 70s), Golan and the project returned to Israel, where it was produced with the help of the Israeli military and the Israeli government. (Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres are among the notable Israeli leaders who appear as themselves.) Singer and comedian Yehoram Gaon was cast as Netanyahu while veteran exploitation stars Klaus Kinski and Sybil Danning were cast as the German terrorists.
The end result is a rousing action film that takes a semi-documentary approach to telling its story. Imagine a less flamboyant version of Golan’s The Delta Force, one that tells a similar story but without the oversized personas of Chuck Norris, Robert Forster, and Lee Marvin. Though the film celebrates the bravery of Yonni Netanyahu, the emphasis is more on the IDF working as a team than on individual heroics. (The film open with the IDF running a drill that mirrors the eventual raid on Entebbe, a reminder that Israel and the IDF were determined not to be caught off guard.) The film is not only a celebration of the strength of the Israeli people but, with the Germanic Kinski and Danning cast the villains, it’s only a very loud cry of “NEVER AGAIN!” It may be an exciting action film but it’s an action film with a message: Don’t mess with us.
(At the same time, the hijacker portrayed by Klaus Kinski is not presented as being cardboard villain, which may seem surprising given Kinski’s reputation as an actor and Golan’s reputation as a director. Kinski’s terrorist does get a chance to explain his ideological motivations, with the film presenting him as being more misguided than evil.)
Though I will always consider The Delta Force to be the greatest film ever made (if just for it’s cry of “Beer! America!” at the end), Operation Thunderbolt features Golan’s best work as a director. Menahem Golan was a frequently crass director but, with Operation Thunderbolt, it’s obvious that he was motivated by more than just making a hit movie. Golan’s aim with Operation Thunderbolt was to make a film that would celebrate both Israel and the strength of the Jewish people. With Operation Thunderbolt, Menahem Golan succeeded.