‘Above and Beyond’ & the Birth of Israel’s Air Force

Pilots Lou Lenart, Gideon Lichtman, and Modi Alon copy

Pilots Lou Lenart, Gideon Lichtman, and Modi Alon copy

Pilots Lou Lenart, Gideon Lichtman and Modi Alon

In 1948, the new nation of Israel seemed to face certain destruction after the British pulled out of Palestine. Above and Beyond is a fascinating documentary about how the country cobbled together an air force with the help of World War II pilots from around the world. Giving military support to Israel was illegal at the time, but hundreds of American citizens found ways to support the effort.

Director Roberta Grossman interviewed a surprisingly large number of old guys who participated in the fighting. Since there’s not much available footage from the era, the film also features some well-produced CGI recreations of the battle and an elaborate score you don’t often hear in a documentary film. The movie is available now on iTunes and On Demand. We’ve got an exclusive deleted scene and producer Nancy Spielberg talked to us about how she made the film and what it’s like being a movie producer when your brother is, you know, that guy.

Military.com exclusive: deleted scene from “Above and Beyond.”

It’s notable how high your production values are for a historical documentary.

Thank you. That was so critical to us, not to make a film that showed your typical talking heads and a couple of historians. When you’re dealing with interviewees that are 90-94 years old, you don’t have a lot of options. We had to get a little more creative and thankfully we had some incredible partners.

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“Above and Beyond” Producer Nancy Spielberg

Some of the staged flying scenes look better than the ones in “Unbroken.”

I’m so glad you said that because I thought that too. But, come on, don’t pick on Angelina. People keep bringing up that we’re a whole female team that made a film about a male topic. And I say, “Yep, me and Angelina, we’re both doing it.?

After watching some of the flying sequences in other movies, whether it was Pearl Harbor or Red Tail, I wanted to make sure we did ours in a different way. We had an aviation consultant that built Paul Allen’s private aviation museum in Seattle. He sat there in the editing room looking over every shot, checked the sound, just to make sure. If there was an engine flying over the water, the sound was the right plane engine over water, not over land. I couldn’t tell the difference, but we tried to go that extra mile so that aviation enthusiasts wouldn’t say, “You guys screwed that up.” But instead we hope they’ll say, “You got it 85% right.”

David Ben-Gurion with Pilot Modi Alon

David Ben-Gurion and Modi Alon

The film has a real feature film-style score, too.

Yes. It feels very big picture. I often say that the whole Spielberg thing is a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse when you go to raise money because people say, “Well, how come your brother is not giving you all the money?” That’s not how I roll. I love my brother, he loves me, but I just don’t do that.

It’s a blessing because I can make phone calls to some people who may not take other people’s phone calls right away and at least have them listen to me. It doesn’t mean they’re going to give me what I want, but at least I have a fighting chance. The truth is that I got my toe in the door, but it was the movie, the story that got my foot in the door.

When it came time for the score, the first guy I went to was Johnny Williams. I knew I could not afford John Williams because he scores with a live 100-piece orchestra with musicians who all need to get paid and feed their families. But he gave me wonderful advice. The other composer I wanted to talk to was Hans Zimmer.

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Nancy Spielberg and George Lichter

The funny story is that my husband had once met Steve Kofsky, Hans Zimmer’s partner. He said to Steve, “Listen, you know Jess, our daughter Jess is a singer.” We held on to his card just in case. When this film came up, I called him and I said, “My name is Nancy Katz and you met my husband at synagogue” and he’s like, “Yeah, what do you want? Just email me.”

So I emailed him what I’m doing and he sends me an email back saying, “Call me now.” I called him and he said, “ou don’t understand. In 1948, my uncle and father went from South Africa and volunteered for Israel’s Air Force. What do you want?” That’s what opened the door to Lorne Balfe, who is one of Hans’ right-hand composers and he made a score that really feels so beautiful and big.

Above and Beyond - Trailer from Katahdin Productions on Vimeo.

As time passes and we get further away from WWII, a lot of stories that were big news at the time seem to be forgotten. Did the American papers cover this story at the time?

There was nothing. These guys broke the law and snuck out of the country to go to Israel. Some of them did get caught and there were court cases and indictments. But there was a US-imposed embargo against sending anything to the combatant parties in the Middle East, which sounds fair except that the British had left Egypt their spoils and sold them Spitfires. And the Iraqi Armies and the Jordanian Armies were very well-equipped. Israel under British rule was not allowed to arm itself and had no planes except a few Piper Cubs. So, if anything, that “fair” embargo only hurt one country.

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Filming one of the recreated battle sequences

So these guys snuck out of the country. They made bogus excuses. They had one-way tickets. They did all of this trench coat kind of activity. “Meet a man wearing a flowered lapel” and then they would go to Italy or Switzerland. Then they’d go to Yugoslavia and then they’d get to Czechoslovakia where they were training. When they came back home, they kept it hush-hush because the authorities were still looking for anybody involved in this. So they kept their mouths shut because they didn’t want to get arrested after the fact. It was only later that it started to come out in little bits and pieces, but nobody has really ever laid it out there in a big way.

In fact, people have contacted me saying, “My father was one of these guys. He lived always paranoid that the FBI was gonna come knocking at the door with a file on him.”

The most publicity was about Al Schwimmer because he was indicted (for selling planes to Israel and there was a big trial. A few other people were indicted. If you go through newspaper clippings, maybe you’ll find that, but the other guys snuck back into the country and shared it with their family and friends, but no, they weren’t celebrated. They broke the law.

Israeli Fighter Plane

Israeli fighter plane

When the war started in Palestine, Israel out of nowhere has an Air Force. The American media didn’t dig enough at that point to realize who the pilots were?

This wasn’t a huge Air Force at all and there were volunteers from all over the world. At that time, there weren’t cameras everywhere and flight plans and everybody couldn’t spot where you were just from where you text from. It was easier to sneak around. No one said that you couldn’t go to Israel during that time. In 1948, there were Americans studying at Hebrew University and in Jerusalem.

Things got a little hairy when Israel started to get their act together in forming the Air Force. At first, it was this band of pilots doing whatever they want and saying to the Israelis, “Buddy step out of the way. You don’t know what you’re doing. We know how to fly. You don’t. Back off.” Suddenly Israel was trying to gather these guys up and put things into some type of actual form. When they asked some of the guys to sign papers to join, the guys said, “We can’t sign those papers. In our passport it says, you will not pick up arms for another country.” So that became an issue. They actually ended up finding a way around that, but they’d just about finished fighting by then.

101 Fighter Squadron

101 Fighter Squadron

The men in our film went over in ’48. Ben-Gurion and some of the people in Israel, with all of the unrest in ’46-’47, they knew there was gonna be a war. So some of these secret operations that happened in the U.S. There were secret operations under the guise of Offices for Land and Labor for Palestine, but they were really gathering pilots and ammunition and money to help Israel. That all happened very quietly. So it still never really came out in a big way. I mean we couldn’t find it in any way in the archives when we were looking for it.

There were rumors. When Buzz Beurling, Canada’s ace top pilot from World War II, He was called the Falcon of Malta. He had more kills in World War II than any other individual. He decided he wanted to go to Israel. Devout Protestant, he wanted to go and help Israel. He was killed in Italy on the way there when he went to test fly a plane and it blew up. Then headlines came out that he was possibly on his way to fight for Palestine. Stuff like that came out, but there was really nothing much that could have been done over here.

I think that the United States, the State Department was basically pushed or pressured by the British to stay out of that situation. But, once it was over, I think the U.S. government sort of let things go. They prosecuted some people. Some people lost their citizenship. Some people paid a $2000 fine, got a slap on the hand. One lady in California, Eleanor Rudnick, was training Israelis how to fly in Bakersfield. She was also indicted, but she didn’t go to jail.

President Shimon Peres at interview with Producer Nancy Spielberg and Director Roberta Grossman

“Above and Beyond” producer Nancy Spielberg, Israel President Shimon Peres and director Roberta Grossman

When I watched the film, I got the impression that quite a few of the American pilots decided to stay in Israel after the fighting.

Most of them actually did come home. A lot of the guys told me that they sort of felt like they were in World War II, they helped liberate the camps, and then all the sudden they see those survivors coming into Israel and they’re gonna walk into a potential genocide. This was a continuation of their service in World War II. A lot of them said, “I came here to help you guys. Now I’m going home. I’ve had enough fun. I’m going home now.” Part of the pilot mentality is this need for the adrenaline. It’s like they’re addicted to that. They need their band of brothers. They need some of the action. It’s really hard to be a celebrated war hero, a pilot, and then go sell insurance.

So most of them actually came back. One of them, Coleman Goldstein, actually stayed for 32 years in Israel. He became one of the first pilots of El Al Airlines. Lou Lenart, another guy, he came back to America. One of them, Giddy Lichtman came back and he was still in the reserves here and he still fought for his country. So he went and broke the law quietly in Israel then came back and still served his country.

Pilot George Lichter

Pilot George Lichter

How can our readers see your film?

It’s hard to play a documentary in theaters because the theaters want to make a lot of money and it’s the big pictures that have the turnover. But this film actually has been in over 70 film festivals, but is now going to be released on iTunes and On Demand on April 28th, which is great because iTunes also has iTunes Extras. And Amazon. I think Hulu and Netflix is in the fall. And Comcast On Demand is after Memorial Day. So it is starting to roll out and I think if people keep their eye out they can watch it online and download it like that very soon.

We have a website, AboveAndBeyondTheMovie.com. So if anybody wants to go to that website, we’ll list also where the film is available.

  • LIAM

    it is clearly obvious this documentary needed to be made……it was about time!!

  • rivrat1970

    U.S. Pilots are top of the world until faced with the IDF pilots. Ready room banter goes quiet As a blooded Israeli pilot walks in while on an exchange. our best Topgunns contribute a great deal, but the IDF pilots have to fly in swarms.

  • Rick

    Are you going to put it on CD and sell copy’s?