Saturday, February 10, 2007

Puzzle pieces

If my life were a puzzle - the cardboard kind, that is - I'd have many more pieces in place a the end of these last two weeks than I had before.

As you might know, I'm obsessed with an amateur historian who focuses on Israel's 101 Squadron, the country's first fighter squadron which flew and fought in the War of Independence.

I got into the lucrative field of screenwriting when 101 Squadron veteran Aaron "Red" Finkel told me, "You know what? You should write a movie." My friend Red passed away about a year ago.

A week and a half ago, I mentioned that Peter Mersky wanted me to sell his book on my Web site (see ad below). I agreed, and we started chatting about books and and efforts to make a movie about the events.

(Two older movies cover the period, the famous but somewhat melodramatic "Exodus" (1960) and the less known "Cast a Giant Shadow" (1960), which had Frank Sinatra as a bottle-tossing pilot with, I must admit, the right panache.)

Peter told me he chats often with Harold Livingston, who flew transports to bring vital supplies to Palestine/Israel during the war. Harold wrote "No Trophy, No Sword" about his experiences, and I've spoken with him myself in the past - you may know him as the guy who wrote "Star Trek: The Motion Picture". (The accompanying photo shows Harold, sitting, with Gene Roddenberry.) Peter briefly mentioned to me that Harold has tried to get Stephen Spielberg to make a proper movie made about the pilots who flew in 1948 (well, 1947-1949).

I'd heard that Dreamworks SKG has in the past optioned the first chapter of Ehud Yonay's "No Margin for Error", which covers the air operations and pilots of the War of Independence. I've also mentioned that David Mamet sent me a copy of his take on the era.

I asked Harold what he knew about the Dreamworks project. Harold kindly allowed me to reprint his response (n.b. Machal is a Hebrew abbreviation for "Foreign Volunteers"):

Yes, for some twenty years now I've nagged Spielberg re a Machal film. He responded kindly, albeit obliquely, to my own book, "No Trophy, No Sword," something to the effect that he "wasn't ready" for the project. Some such bullshit, I don't remember. I had worked closely with Jeffrey Katzenberg when I wrote "Star Trek," and when he and Spielberg started Dreamworks, I immediately hit him with not only "No Trophy," but my long-ago very first novel, "The Coasts of The Earth," same genre. No cigar. In the meantime, over the years, my information is that someone at Dreamworks paid David Mamet a fortune to write a Machal script, based on what I haven't the slightest idea. I never did see the script, which apparently died a fast death. (My own take, since as I say I never saw the script, is that Mamet writing an Israel Air Force story is akin to me writing a biblical epic.) As far as I know the project is in limbo and I suspect will remain so, at least with Dreamworks. I think they got burned with it and desire no more.

Some years ago Lou Lenart sold the story of his 101 experiences to a small-time producer named Zev Braun, who had a script written by a tyro writer. Braun was dumb enough to show this script around, and finally asked me to look at the work, which earned me Mr. Braun's everlasting antagonism when I told him that this was a comic strip, not a film script. Understandably, therefore, he expressed no interest in my suggestions for a page-one rewrite and for sure none in my agent's suggestion of payment for another crack at it. So that project bit the dust, although I think Lou has never given up on it.

One of these days someone will do the story, but only when a top director such as an Eastwood or a name actor is willing to do it. And, always, there are the political ramifications to be considered. In a word, it's a tough - if indeed not possible - sale. I'm even encountering trouble publishing my biography of the founder of the Israel Air Force, Al Schwimmer, so much so that I may have to settle for a University Press.

I have no objection to your using this with my name, and if I can be of any further assistance, please don't hesitate.


Harold Livingston

The Mamet script is apparently the one Mamet sent me, "Russian Poland". I had no idea this Mamet script was involved in the Dreamworks effort I'd heard rumors of.

Half of Mamet's story takes place in a Polish shtetl. One of the old Jews from the shtetl turns up a century or two later an Italian airfield, where he boards a transport flight to Israel. The transport runs into trouble, but manages to make it to Israel, and when it does the old man has disappeared.

It's a read that's, uh... introspective and spiritual. It's not bad, but it's not a movie. Too much action takes place in a cramped airplane and the screenplay opts for a small rationalization for Zionism over the larger story that should be "Saving Private Ryan" meets "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World". Pity.

When Alex Epstein interviewed me for my assistantship 18 months ago, one of the things we discussed was Lou Lenart (who produced "Iron Eagle" among other jobs). As Harold touches on, Lou has spent 20 years trying to get a biography filmed. A long time ago, Alex worked on an unsuccessful project about Lou.

After I read Harold's e-mail, I asked Alex if he knew of Zev Braun. Turns out that Braun was the man who brought the Lenart story to the company Alex was working for at the time, and Alex, although not the "tyro" Harold mentions, worked on a treatment for Zev, as did several writers.

That's what I mean by puzzle pieces. I've found two pieces that link two huge chunks of the puzzle together. Dreamworks, Alex, Mamet, 101 Squadron - they all tie together as one neat package now.

More on Lou and his recent efforts in the next post, with a guest appearance by Red.

Bonus book ad:

Israeli Fighter Aces, by Peter Mersky.
Specialty Press: Ocean, N.J., 1997. ISBN 1883809150

Click here to see Israeli Fighter Aces at

Use the Amazon link above and you'll discover that you can only find one used copy of this book on sale, for $50. Peter Mersky has contacted me and has agreed to sell new, autographed copies of this book for $24 (USA; $40 overseas), postage included. That's well worth the price - e-mail me if you want to take advantage of this offer. Mersky is known for his award-winning books and articles on US Navy and Marine Corps aviation. He devotes the same skill to this book, in which he focuses on the men who flew and fought for Israel. Despite the cover, this is not a guide for modelers. Through interviews and research, it's a look inside the events and minds of the pilots who have found themselves tangling with the enemy. Aerial tacticians have a saying: "It's the pilot, not the plane." That also describes the intention of this book.


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