The signal characteristic of Otto Preminger's Exodus from 1960, a story of the founding of the modern state of Israel, has nothing to do with the film's sensitive political content; nothing to do with the iconic, stirring Romantic main theme of Eric Gold's deservedly Oscar-winning score; nothing to with the fact that this is the only movie to pair Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint, two of the most beautiful people in midcentury American cinema. The signal characteristic of Exodus is its length - at 208 minutes, it is not the longest movie ever made, or even close to it, but those 208 minutes take their goddamn sweet time in expressing themselves. After Gold's music, probably the best-known thing about the movie is a story too perfect too be true and too good not to repeat, that comedian Mort Sahl stood up a few hours into the film's premiere to loudly proclaim "Otto, let my people go!", and while perhaps impolite, it's hard not to sympathise with the sentiment. I find myself irresistibly drawn to compare the film to Lawrence of Arabia, made two years later, in broadly the same part of the world and running to a slightly longer length; while that film is beautiful, and full of driving incident, it has that bit towards the end where it starts to grind and get bogged down in talking and politics and even the main character seems impatient for the thing to end. Exodus is like that draggy 20 minutes of Lawrence of Arabia stretched over the entirety of three and a half hours, instead of just coming at the wrong time near the end of three and a half hours.

In this regard, Exodus is a fine representative of what had just about started to become a trend at the beginning of the '60s and would turn into a full-fledged addiction by the decade's end: exhausting, pointless bloat. For all that it's fun to bitch and moan about how, in the 2010s, we can't have a movie about superheroes or giant robots that can find its way to a genre-appropriate running time, contemporary cinema doesn't have anything on the heaving immensity of a real good Indulgent Monstrosity from the 1960s. Some of these movies were good, or even great: Lawrence of Arabia, for one. Many more of them are just enervating, endurance tests which make the cardinal sin of assuming that a broad sense of capital-H History and enough widescreen panoramas justifies plodding through a narrative with far too much attention to detail in every last tiny way: Doctor Zhivago jumps to mind, David Lean's very next film post-Lawrence.

Exodus is damn near the patron saint of this latter group. Carved out of Leon Uris's 1958 Zeitgeist-dominating novel by screenwriter Dalton Trumbo - allegedly leaving a great deal of plot and depth of backstory behind, which makes one gawk to think how jam-packed the book must have been - it follows a handful of key people during a specific chain of events in 1947 and '48, all of which contribute to the partition of Palestine and the formation of a new country to serve as save haven for the world's Jewish population, reeling from the unprecedented horror of the Holocaust. And it follows this people with extremely close attention, though not necessarily historical precision (the event it portrays as being the key event in the events of those years plays out in literally the exact opposite of how it did historically). And this focus is more invested in minutiae than dramatic momentum: even if you read a scene-by-scene description of the film's plot, I don't think you could rightly fathom how it could cross the two-hour mark, let alone three.

But I'll stop bitching about that before this review becomes as long as Exodus itself. The film opens in Cyprus, in 1947, with American widow Kitty Fremont (Saint), a nurse whose photojournalist husband died recently covering a story about the Jewish agitation to be permitted entry into the British-controlled Palestine. She is given a tour by General Sutherland (Ralph Richardson), commander of the British forces on Cyprus and a sympathetic figure for the Jews; he convinces her to volunteer as nurse for the internment camp where displaced Jewish refugees are kept while the British government flails around trying to figure out what to do with them. This puts her in a perfect position to see firsthand the act of rebellion by which Ari Ben Canaan (Newman), formerly of the British Army and now of the revolutionary group Hagannah captures a ship which is renamed the SS Exodus, and peopled with over 600 refugees. Ari plans to take these people to Palestine, and stages a hunger strike and also threatens to blow up the ship if the British try to interfere; eventually, the Brits cave in and allow the Exodus to go on its way. In Palestine, the plot blossoms into a kaleidoscopic view of the radical attempt to form an independent Jewish state: Ari's father Barak (Lee J. Cobb) is the leader of a diplomatic group working for that goal, while his brother, Ari's uncle Akiva (David Opatoshu) is a high-ranking member of Irgun, a group preferring more violent means. This makes it greatly appealing to Dov Landau (Sal Mineo), a refugee from the Exodus and survivor of Auschwitz, who has meanwhile struck up a close relationship with Karen (Jill Haworth), a Danish-Jewish refugee who has been unofficially adopted by Kitty, hoping to take the girl back to America and a better life. And Kitty, in the meantime, has begun to fall in love with Ari.

Confusing and convoluted, but not enough for three and a half hours which are not, anyway, mostly taken up with character material, but with scene after scene after scene of talking. Talking about the hunger strike, talking about the negotiating with the British government, talking about dealing with the UN, talking about performing acts of terrorism, talking about the encroaching hostility of the Arab populations surrounding and inhabiting Palestine. There is, probably, no other way to dramatise the events of this scenario than to show people talking, but there's not a whole lot that's less interesting in cinema, unless the filmmakers are keen, aggressive stylists, and this is not something that is typically true of Preminger. He was a talented director, and a phenomenal journeyman when making something like Laura; as he began to grow in stature as a producer-director, he demonstrated fine instincts for picking controversial projects that would allow him to grip Modern Society by the balls and twist and tug and force it under his unforgiving microscope. Sometimes this worked out brilliantly, and we get Anatomy of a Murder or Advise & Consent (the films he made on either side of Exodus). Sometimes, this resulted in the idiotic frippery of The Moon Is Blue. While Exodus is undoubtedly better than that film, it's on the same side of the Preminger Scale, where the desire to do important, edgy, groundbreaking things in his storytelling (which included hiring Trumbo, whose script for Spartacus in '60 was the first time a blacklisted artist had received onscreen credit) outweighs such trivial things as entertainment or human interest.

Exodus is appallingly boring. That's a subjective word, but I can't think of a better one. And the main reason why is its central pair of Newman and Saint, neither of whom works in the film's interests whatsoever, and whose portrayal of Ari and Kitty, protagonists and the source of all the alleged emotional involvement in the human-sized drama playing out amidst all the Important History, is completely without warmth or interest. Newman, the WASPiest half-Jew on the books in all the history of Hollywood filmmaking, played every moment of his performance as a cold, angry rageaholic, admitting nothing but glowering contempt for anyone and everything, even the people who agree with his goals and his methods, and it's both tedious and unenlightening to have him as our primary guide to the human story of Israel. But at least his simmering anger is an emotion - Saint's performance is so devoid of affect or inflection that it would be hilarious, if it were in the context of a movie that wasn't so goddamn long that every little thing that makes it feel more stilted adds hours to the subjective experience of watching it. If it's not her mechanical depiction of physical attraction to Newman, its her false smiles of warmth towards Karen, or worse things still - the film opens with a scene in which, among other things, she discusses her past miscarriage without altering her tone of voice or facial expression even slightly. It's all so contrary to anything that the movie or the character needs at any moment that I'd almost guesss that Saint was a rabid anti-Zionist hoping to single-handedly ruin the film by torpedoing its emotional throughline with her wooden non-acting.

There are, thankfully, some stronger performances around the edges, with Richardson standing out heads and shoulders above everybody, though Mineo's gaunt expressions of pain and resentment, which are likely what earned him his Oscar nomination for the role, are moving and vulnerable like nothing else in the movie is. But it's always pretty clear that Preminger wasn't chiefly interested in telling the story of Ari and Kitty and Barak and Dov and Karen and whoever the hell else, he was making an advertisement for Israel's moral right to exist. I'm not getting into the argument over whether or not that was a worthy goal in and of itself; for one thing, I have absolutely no idea what kind of opinion most of the world had about the state of Israel in the late '50s, a full decade before the Six-Day War changed everything about Israel's place in global politics. My only claim is that it makes for rough cinema, especially in the bluntly detached, observational style that Preminger always favored. A spoonful of sugar helps the propaganda go down, if you will, but Exodus lacks any visual flair or clever structure to sweeten its reeling off of scene upon scene of social studies lessons and recapping what was then recent enough history that the film allows itself to skimp on some details that would be awfully nice to have available nearly 70 years after the events the film depicts.

It's not exactly ill-made, though sometimes it's awfully sloppy - the lighting is sloppy, the sound is often tinny, and the refugees on hunger strike look awfully hale and well-kept. But even if Preminger and his collaborators - cinematographer Sam Leavitt, editor Louis R. Loeffler - weren't in a particularly inventive mood when it came to making and combining their images, this was still a movie made with obvious talent and resources, with handsome location photography of Israel giving the film a sense of place that suits it well. When it allows itself to loosen up, as happens somewhat regularly in the last 90 minutes, after the intermission, there's even some genuinely great filmmaking. The chaos in the aftermath of Irgun's bombing of the King David Hotel (which is pushed back by a year to fit into the dramatic chronology) is captured with tense momentum, and later on, there's a prison break sequence that's a triumph across the board: well-choreographed, scored with bellicose impact, sharply cut.

More moments like that, and the living history of Exodus could have been genuinely involving, its retelling of Israel's dramatic, contentious founding turned into something rich and moving and exciting. But it's such a lecture in its current form, and a particularly dry and inhumane one to boot. I understand having motivations that have nothing to do with entertainment, and the urgency of Exodus is apparent throughout - oh my, is it ever an urgent, urging movie - but there has to be something compelling to watch or all that impassioned political argument adds up to nothing but a bunch of noise, playing out for what feels like an eternity and never adding up to anything.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1960

-Director-star John Wayne makes the tiresome, bullying epic The Alamo, which he then humiliates the Academy into nominating for a Best Picture Oscar
-MGM's The Last Voyage births the modern disaster picture
-Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho changes everything

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1960
-Michelangelo Antonioni's L'avventura also changes everything
-Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless changes everything that hadn't been changed yet
-Kim Ki-young's The Housemaid changes nothing, but it is one of the essential masterworks of South Korean cinema nonetheless