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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

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Leon (Marcus ) Uris (1924-2003)


American writer whose bestseller Exodus (1958) was immediately translated into some 50 languages, among others into Finnish. Uris is known for his panoramic, action-filled novels which often depict determined individuals during the dramatic upheavals of modern history.

"This was what I came to found. The conquest of loneliness was the missing link that was, one day, going to make a decent novelist out of me. If you are out here and cannot close off the loves and hates of all that back there in the real world, the memories will overtake you and swamp you and wilt your tenacity. Tenacity, stamina... close off to everything and everyone but your writing. That's the bloody price. I don't know, maybe it's some kind of ultimate selfishness. Maybe it's part of the killer instinct. Unless you can stash away and bury thoughts of your greatest love, you cannot sustain the kind of concentration that breaks most men trying to write a book over a three- or four-year period." (from Mitla Pass, 1988)

Leon Uris was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of Wolf William and Anna (Blumberg) Uris. His father, a Polish immigrant, was a paperhanger, later a storekeeper. Anna was a first-generation American; William spent a year in Palestine after World War I before entering the Unites States. He derived his surname from Yerushalmi, meaning man of Jerusalem. "He was basically a failure", Uris said later of his father. "He went from failure to failure." Uris attended schools in Norfolk, Virginia, and Baltimore, flunked three times in English, and never graduated from high school. At the age of seventeen Uris joined the United States Marine Corps. He served in the South Pacific at Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and New Zealand from 1942 to 1945. While recuperating from malaria in San Francisco, he met Betty Beck, a Marine sergeant. They married in 1945.

In the late 1940s Uris was a newspaper driver for the San Francisco Call-Bulletin. He had been writing stories since his childhood, but his first attempts to get them published were not successful. In 1950 Esquire bought an article on football; it marked the beginning of his career as a full-time writer. Uris began to work intensively on a novel about the Marine Corp, often writing 18 hours a day. The story was based on his experiences during training and combat. Although the manuscript was first rejected by several publisher, it finally appeared in 1953 and was sold to Hollywood.

Uris's debut novel Battle Cry (1953) was published by G.P. Putnam's Sons. The story about a battalion of Marines during World War II was received favorable from both critics and readers. In 1953 Uris went to Hollywood to write the screenplay of the novel. Subsequently he wrote an original screenplay western, Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957). The film depicted the defeat of the Clanton Gang by Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. It was directed by John Sturges, starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas.

The Angry Hills (1955) was an account of the Jewish brigade from Palestine that fought with the British army in Greece in World War II. It received less praise than Battle Cry and Uris had difficulties getting it published. The spy-chase story drew on the actual experiences of Uris's uncle, who had fought as a volunteer in the campaign. The screenplay for Robert Aldrich's film version of The Angry Hills, starring Robert Mitchum, was written by A.I. Bezzerides. Uris had never been in Greece. The production company sent Uris there, when he was writing the first-draft screenplay.

In 1956 Uris covered the Arab-Israeli fighting as a war correspondent. Two years later appeared Exodus, published by Doubleday & Company. The idea for the book evolved out of a conversation with the author and Malcolm Stuart, his agent. Exodus became an international publishing phenomenon, the biggest bestseller in the United States since Gone with the Wind. Uris had sold its film rights in advance. Also a musical version was produced in 1971.

For the book Uris traveled widely in Israel "by train, plane, Vauxhall, and Austin, jeep and by foot", and interviewed more than 1,200 people the space he covered in his gathering of material was nearly fifty thousand miles. Exodus dealt with the struggle to establish and defend the state of Israel. The birth of a new nation was depicted through several characters but the story of an American nurse and an Israeli freedom fighter formed the nucleus of the work. Otto Preminger, who directed the film based on the book, considered it anti-British and anti-Arab. He also thought that his picture avoided propaganda and was much closer to the truth than the book. Uris publicly declared that the director had ruined his book. "He was hopeless," said Preminger, who hired Dalton Trumbo to make the script shootable. "A novelist writes dialogue to be read. A scriptwriter writes dialogue to be heard." Naturally the large historical sections in Exodus, dealing with the origins of ghetto system, pogroms in Russia, the ideas of Theodor Herzl, the birth of kibbutzs, and such issues, were not in the film. Preminger followied his line also when he directed The Man with the Golden Arm, based on Nelson Algren's novel the original author denounced him.

Most scenes of the film were made in locations where the original events had occurred. The historic prison break was shot in the fortress of Acre, where it took place. Israeli statesman Meyer Weisgal played the part of David Ben-Gurion in exchange for $1 million for the Weizmann Institute of Science. Almost the only genuine Jew in the entire lineup of show folk was Preminger himself. "Otto, let my people go," said satirist Mort Sahl as he watched the film's 220-minute preview. Ernest Gold won an Academy Award for his musical score.

The film starts when some thirty thousand Jews who have fled from Europe, are interned by the British on the island of Cyprus and denied entry into Palestine. In the book an American journalist, Mark Parker, comes to Cyprus to see Kitty Fremont, an American nurse. Kitty has lost her husband in the war.

After preparations made by Ari Ben Canaan (Paul Newman), a young officer of the Palestine's Jewish Underground, three hundred refugees, mostly orphaned children, escape from the internment camp. They board an old freighter called the "Exodus" and go on a hunger strike in protest at the British destroyers blocking their path. Kitty (Eva Marie Saint) also is abroad the ship. She becomes attached to a refugee girl named Karen (Jill Haworth). Dov Landau, a survivor from Auschwitz, friends with Karen. Influenced by the intervention of the island commander, General Sutherland (Ralph Richardson), the British permit the "Exodus" to sail for Haifa. In Palestine a strong bond of affection develops between Ari and Kitty. Ari's uncle Akiva (David Opatoshu) and Dov are members of the Irgun, a terrorist organisation. Ari joins with the Irgun, which executes a mass breakout of Jews from the Acre prison. Through the escape is successful, Akiva dies and Ari is wounded.

When the United Nations votes for the partition of Palestine, hostilities increase. Kitty remains by Ari's side. During a Syrian raid Karen and Ari's Arab friend Taha (John Derek) are killed. Ari delivers an impassioned eulogy at their grave and goes off to continue the fight for his country. In the book Taha's and Ari's friendship have already ended in a quarrel. Karen and Dov Landau plan their future. Karen wants to continue her work in a kibbutz. Ari and Kitty wait Karen to attend the seder. When she does not come, Ari finds out that she has been killed by terrorists from Gaza, and tells crying the news to Kitty.

When he had published Exodus, Uris began to travel throughout Eastern Europe. With the Greek photographer Dimitrios Harissiadis he collaborated in Exodus Revisited (1960), about places mentioned in his bestseller. For the new novel he collected material from the Memorial Archives in Warsaw and interviewed the survivors of the Holocaust. Mila 18 (1961) was set in the midst of the Warsaw ghetto uprising against the Nazis in 1943. The title of the novel referred to the address of the command post for the Jewish resistance in the city, but its forced Joseph Heller to change the title of his satirical, anti-war novel Catch-18 to Catch-22 (1961). In 1964 Uris and his British publisher, Bantam, were sued for libel by a Polish doctor, Wladislaw Dering. He claimed that Uris had mentioned him by name as one of the surgeons who had committed atrocities against the Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz. The court court ruled against Uris but ordered Dr. Dering to pay the legal costs of both sides. He was awarded only a halfpenny for damage. The incident provided basis for the novel Q.B. VII (Queen's Bench Seven), which was published in 1970 and dealt with British legal practices. In the book Dr. Adam Kelno sues the Pulitzer Prize winning author, Abraham Cady.

After divorce in 1965, Uris married in 1968 Margery Edwards; she died next year it was an apparent suicide. In 1970 Uris married the photographer Jill Peabody; they had two children. She became his chief editor and published in collaboration with Uris two books, IRELAND: A TERRIBLE BEAUTY (1975) and JERUSALEM: SONG OF SONGS (1981). They were divorced in 1989.

The background of Topaz (1967) was like from a spy story. An exiled French diplomat, who did not support DeGaulle's foreign policy, approached Uris with papers containing information about French Intelligence Service. The publication of Topaz caused a serious conflict inside the French government. When Alfred Hitchcock decided to adapt the book into screen, Uris wrote for him the screenplay, but Hitchcock was not impressed. The final scrip was written by Samuel A. Taylor, who had worked with the director in Vertigo. The location filming in Paris was delayed. André Malraux, the French Minister of Culture, withdrew the crew's shooting permit as he felt the film was anti-French. At least three different versions for the ending were shot and later Hitchcock regarded the film as a complete disaster. Philippe Thyraud de Vosjoli, the former French diplomat and intelligence official, sued Uris for breach of contract. Evetually he was awarded royalties from the book and film version.

Trinity (1976) was based upon Uris's Irish experiences. While living in Dublin, he had written a photo-essay entitled Ireland, a Terrible Beauty (1975). Trinity was a chronicle of a Northern Irish farm family from the 1840s to 1916, whose fate is connected with two other families, one representing the British aristocracy and the other coming from Scotland. The central characters are a young Catholic rebel and a Protestant girl, who try to find their own place in the country divided by religion and wealth. The story of the Larkin family continued in The Redemption (1995). In these works Uris developed further one of his central themes, the restorative capacity of love and forgiving. Also the situation in the Northern Ireland, the division between two conflicting sides, had similatities with the situation in the Near East.

In The Haj (1984) Uris returned to the lands of Palestine. It depicted the lives of Palestinian Arabs from World War I to Suez war of 1956. One of the central characters is Ishmael, born in Palestine during the riots of 1936. "I am Ishmael", starts the first chapter, not "Call me Ishmael." "Do not forget," he says, "my esteemed reader, that we Arabs are unusually gifted in matters of fantasy and magic. Did we not give the world A Thousand and One Nights?" Uris was threatened by some extremist Arab groups although this time the tragedy in the Middle East was seen through the experience of the Arab nations. Mitla Pass (1988) was an semiautobiographical account of the Sinai campaign of 1956. The protagonist is Gideon Zadok, a gifted young author of a successful World War II novel. He travels to Israel, determined to find material for a new book. There he meets Natasha Solomon, a survivor of the Holocaust. Gideon is torn between her and his love for his wife, who supported him when he was an aspiring writer. On the eve of the '56 Sinai War, Gideon joins the Israeli forces. He is parachuted to the key junction of Mitla Pass, deep behind enemy lines.

Although Uris wrote mostly on near-history, the story of A God in Ruins (1999) was narrated in flashbacks and set in the United States on the eve of the 2008 presidential election. His last novel was O'Hara's Choice (2003). Uris died of renal failure on June 21, 2003 at his home on Shelter Island, N.Y.

For further reading: Leon Uris: Life of a Best Seller by Ira Bruce Nadel (2010); Leon Uris: A Critical Companion by Kathleen Shine Cain (1998); Contemporary Popular Writers, ed. by David Mote (1997); World Authors 1950-1970, ed. by John Wakeman (1975)

Selected works:

  • Battle Cry, 1953 - Taisteluhuuto (suom. Tapio Hiisivaara, 1963)
  • The Angry Hills, 1955 - Vihan vuoret (suom. Eija Palsbo, 1965) - film 1959, dir. by Robert Aldrich, starring Robert Mitchum, Gia Scala, Stanley Baker, Elisabeth Mueller
  • screenplay: Battle Cry, 1955 - film 1955, dir. by Raoul Walsh, starring Van Heflin, Aldo Ray, Mona Freeman
  • screenplay: Gunfight at the OK Corral, 1957 - films: 1957, dir. by John Sturges, starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas; 1965, Korkusuzlar, prod. Roket Film (Turkey), dir. Semih Evin, starring Yilmaz Gney, Fikret Hakan
  • Exodus, 1958 - Exodus: romaani (suom. Laura Tala, 1960) - film 1960, dir. by Otto Preminger, written by Dalton Trumbo, starring Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint, Ralph Richardson, Peter Lawford, Lee J. Cobb . "I think that my picture (in these matters at least) is much closer to the truth, and to the historical facts, that is the book. It also avoids propaganda. It's an American picture, after all, that tries to tell the story, giving both sides a chance to plead their side." (Preminger in The Cinema of Otto Preminger by Gerald Pratley, 1971)
  • screenplay: Israel, 1959 (documentary)
  • Exodus Revisted, 1960 (GB title: In the Steps of Exodus)
  • Mila 18, 1961 - Mila 18: romaani (suom. Tapio Hiisivaara, 1962)
  • Armageddon: A Novel of Berlin, 1963 - Harmagedon (suom. Eija Palsbo, 1965)
  • Topaz, 1967 - Topaz (suom. Lauri Tala, 1968) - film 1969, dir. by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Frederick Stafford, Dany Robin, John Forsyte, Karin Dor, John Vernon
  • The Third Temple, with Strike Zion by William Stevenson, 1967
  • Q.B. VII, 1970 - QB VII (suom. Erkki Vainikkala ja Antero Virtanen, 1971) - television mini-series in 1974, prod. Douglas S. Cramer Company, Screen Gems, dir. Tom Gries, starring Anthony Hopkins, Ben Gazzara, Leslie Caron, Lee Remick
  • Ari, 1971 (play, adaptation of his own novel Exodus, music by Walt Smith and William Fisher)
  • Ireland, A Terrible Beauty, 1975 (with Jill Uris)
  • Trinity, 1976 - Kolmiyhteys (suom. Kaija Kauppi, 1975)
  • Jerusalem: A Song of Songs, 1981 (with Jill Uris)
  • The Haj, 1984 - Hadzi (suom. Kaija Kauppi, 1984)
  • Mitla Pass, 1988 - Mitlan sola (suom. Hanna-Liisa Timonen, 1988)
  • Redemption, 1995 - Lunastettu maa (suom. Osmo Saarinen, 1997)
  • A God in Ruins, 1999
  • O'Hara's Choice, 2003

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