Author: Michael Winterbottom & Laurence Coriat
Writer’s Potential: 5
British police attempt to quell Jewish terrorism in World War II-era Palestine.
Archival newsreel footage is accompanied by CHAMBERS narrating the violent history of the Jewish return to Palestine: after several failed attempts starting in 1897, during World War I a Zionist leader finally convinced the British Empire to establish a “National Home for the Jewish People” in Palestine, controlled by the British. This didn’t make the Arab population happy. Throughout the 1920s, the British allowed more Jews to emigrate into the area, increasing the population significantly. Despite British control, the Jews looked after themselves, with their own self-run union, military force, and schools. With the rise in Arab attacks, the British established a police force modeled after Scotland Yard. Ironically, the Arab terrorist attacks caused the Zionists to create their own terrorist organization, the Irgun, to fight back. The British police spent more time chasing them than the Arabs. Chambers introduces the major players: British detectives WILKIN and MORTON, and Irgun leaders JABOTINSKY and AVRAHAM STERN.
GOLDBLUM, leader of the local Haganah military, brings a group of women (including SHOSHANNA) to a hotel with orders to use their feminine wiles to lure British police into relationships and slowly bring them over to the side of the Jewish cause. The Haganah works with British forces to protect their land, but it’s not good enough for the Irgun—they want all of Palestine to themselves and are prepared to fight for it. Stern and a few others are sent to rob a bank to fund the Irgun’s plans. Wilkin and his boss, CID leader CAIRNS, identify Stern easily but do not catch him with the other robbers. Wilkin and Shoshanna attend a party. They flirt with each other and dance. After, Wilkin walks her home, and she propositions her. Surprised but eager, he brings her back to his apartment. Chambers goes to Jenin, an Arab village, to meet with Morton, the superintendent of their police force. Morton tricks villagers into giving up their cache of illegal weapons by faking the execution of a prisoner. In voiceover, Chambers describes how things with the Irgun really got started: after an Arab killed a Jewish settler, Irgun member SHLOMO BEN YOSEF led a group on an incompetent mission attacking an Arab bus. Shlomo was arrested and executed, and he became a martyr for the Irgun cause. Stern uses the execution to his advantage, writing frequent newsletters calling his countrymen to action—against the British as well as the Arabs. Stern begins manufacturing explosives that are detonated in crowded markets throughout Palestine.
Cairns and Wilkin struggle to track down the bombers, but they’re good at blending in and fleeing before the bomb even goes off. Eventually, they track down a few Irgun members, hoping they will provide better leads. They find out the name of the bomb maker, but nothing else. Several months later, at another party, Goldblum congratulates Shoshanna on her choice of Wilkin. Chambers reintroduces Wilkin and Morton, who trained together. The British High Commissioner imposes a limit on the number of immigrants in an attempt to curb the terrorism. This only fuels the Irguns’ resolve. Stern declares an official war on the British and Arabs. More bombs are set off throughout the nation. Cairns finally finds the bomb maker, when he accidentally blows himself up. He dies without giving them any information.
Shortly thereafter, Cairns is targeted and shot down in the street. Despite the increasing violence and the tension between Britons and Jews, Wilkin takes Shoshanna on a trip to Jerusalem and asks her to marry him. Shoshanna asks for time to think about it. The following day, the heat causes Wilkin to start lashing out at Shoshanna. They both realize marriage might not be right thing. The British police begin following a lead, whom they track right to Stern’s secret headquarters. The police storm the house and arrest everyone there, including Stern. Wilkin interrogates Stern, who won’t give up much information. He does tell them he wants a Jewish homeland and unkindly suggests the Arabs can go to one of the neighboring Arab countries. Stern’s imprisonment is short-lived. When war breaks out with Germany, the Irgun announces they will start working with the British against the Germans. In an act of good faith, the British release all Irgun prisoners. Stern quickly forms a splinter organization, Freedom Fighters of Israel, which has no such goodwill toward the British.
Morton is promoted to replace Cairns. Morton’s tactics and personality quickly rub Wilkin the wrong way. Stern and his men resume robbing banks to finance their work. Wilkin takes Shoshanna to a dinner party hosted by Morton and his wife, ALICE. Morton is somewhat hostile toward Shoshanna, but Alice is polite. At work, Wilkin explains the threat Stern poses. Morton says he wants to use informants to find Stern, but Wilkin doesn’t think that will be as easy with the Jews as it was with the Arabs. Morton ignores him. Shortly thereafter, Morton announces a complaint has been filed against Wilkin, alleging that he knew about a Haganah member working for the police but didn’t nothing. Wilkin tries to argue, but the committee investigating it seems preoccupied with his relationship with Shoshanna. Realizing he’s being railroaded, he storms out of the meeting. Wilkin confronts Shoshanna about her brother, whom the committee insisted has Irgun ties. Shoshanna tells him she hasn’t seen her brother in years. Wilkin demands to know whose side she’s on. Shoshanna leaves, for good.
Morton takes Alice to pick up SHMUEL, his informant. Shmuel tells them about a Haganah arms cache. The next day, Morton prepares for a raid. Wilkin is livid, trying to explain that the Haganah hate Stern as much as the British do, but Morton doesn’t care. To him, an illegal organization must be stopped, whether they’re sympathetic to the British or not. Wilkin tries to get Shoshanna to talk to him, but she won’t. Schmuel turns up dead, executed by the Haganah for his treason. This fuels Morton’s disdain for the Jewish population. Shoshanna goes to Chambers to tell him that she has ended her relationship with Wilkin, so there’s no need to continue investigating him. Stern’s group robs another bank. The police catch two of the robbers and torture one, who refuses to talk. Not long after, the two officers who tortured the robber are killed. They do this to suss out Wilkin, their newest target. Their bomber won’t detonate the bomb because too many women and children are around. An informant comes out of the woodwork to tell Morton and Wilkin the alleged location of Stern. They check it out, fearing an ambush, and they’re not wrong—three men start shooting at them. Morton believes they will find a fourth. They do and arrest him.
The fourth man receives a letter, allegedly from his wife. They track down the address of this “wife” and find Stern. Morton is called in once Wilkin and his detectives have arrested Stern. Morton shoots Stern dead, claiming he tried to escape. Not even Wilkin believes this. Fearing she might be a target, Wilkin seeks out Shoshanna and tells her everything that happened with Stern. They make love and get back together, but not for long—Chambers reassigns Wilkin to Jerusalem, fearing he’s a target. They confirm Morton is a target, so the British assign bodyguards to himself and his family. Wilkin convinces Alice to convince Morton to return to England. She does, which leaves Wilkin as the main target of the Irgun’s ire.
Wilkin is tracked in Jerusalem. Assassins are dispatched. They make the long trip from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. They wait for Wilkin to leave his secure government housing on the way to work. Wilkin sees them and is immediately suspicious, but before he can draw his weapon, he’s gunned down in the street. The assassins speed away. Chambers tells Shoshanna that Wilkin has been killed. She’s horribly upset. Shoshanna, along with the rest of the Haganah, joins forces with the Irgun and the Freedom Fighters of Israel to force the British out. In voiceover, Chambers admits some relief to leaving, but he’s disappointed that they made such a mess of things. In 2008, real interview footage with a blasé DAVID SHOMRON—one of Wilkin’s assassins—finds him describing the difference between murder and execution. Shomron felt nothing about what he did—he executed him because he was ordered to.
The Promised Land is never quite sure if it wants to be a sweeping, ensemble-driven epic or an intimate love story set against the backdrop of British-occupied Palestine. The emphasis on the overall story of this time in history marginalizes the love story, making it seem forced and unconvincing. Simultaneously, the focus on this love story undermines the many other people involved in the historical events, making the overall struggle less compelling than it should be. As written, it merits a pass.
The first act is devoted almost completely to historical background information narrated by Chambers, a peripheral character. While this background is necessary for many audience members to understand what will unfold in the second and third acts, the story doesn’t focus at all on Wilkin, the person who eventually emerges as the main character. Without tying the story to Wilkin and/or Shoshanna from the start, it becomes a major structural problem as characters enter and leave the story in rapid succession. There isn’t much, dramatically, for an audience to sink their teeth into.
This presents a problem when the writers do finally start telling Wilkin and Shoshanna’s story. After so many characters enter the story and either die or outlive their usefulness to the historical events, it’s hard to know that these are the people audiences should care about. Neither Wilkin nor Shoshanna are presented as having any clearly defined goals or desires, making it even harder to differentiate them from the numerous supporting players in the story. This is partly because, even after the script brings them into focus, the script spends more time on the historical events than these two characters. It’s only in the third act, when the story closes with Wilkin’s tragic death followed by an apathetic interview from his killer, that it becomes evident that the Wilkin-Shoshanna story is supposed to be more than just a romantic subplot.
Overall, the writers simply don’t spend enough time developing the relationship between Wilkin and Shoshanna into something more interesting than a mere story beat. For instance, it’s poignant conceptually that Shoshanna gets involved with Wilkin because of orders from Goldblum but then truly falls in love with him, but their romance is never made convincing. They spend too much of their time discussing plot-related political affairs instead of getting to know each other in more significant ways. It makes moments like Wilkin’s proposal seem far-fetched and confusing instead of loving and romantic. Developing the relationship would, in turn, give these characters more depth. They’re based on real people, yet they never feel like more than cardboard cutouts. Only the fact that they have more screen time signifies Wilkin and Shoshanna as more important than any of the many other characters.
Ironically, the time the writers spend dramatizing the relationship comes at the expense of all those supporting characters. The story is rather complex, but the writers are content to merely dramatize the historical events rather than depict the people behind these events. While the characters don’t necessarily fall victim to ridiculous stereotyping or clichés, they also don’t stand out as anything more interesting than historical chess pieces. For the most part, they don’t seem to have any motivations or feelings regarding the things they are doing or that are being done to them. The only exception is Avraham Stern, whose desire to see a Jewish state very clearly drives every one of his actions.
It’s possible that a skillful director can overcome some of the narrative obstacles, and maybe great actors can fill in the gaps on what drives these characters to do the things they do.