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In Our Own Hands

Narrator: Peter Thomas.

Narrator: Peter Thomas.

The little-known yet revelatory story of WWII’s only all-Jewish fighting battalion is cleanly told in U.S. docu “In Our Own Hands.” Though inevitably engrossing, this dramatic piece of history gets rather conventional, pedestrian handling from vet nonfiction helmer Chuck Olin, marking tube sales as its logical outlet.

Jews already living in late-’30s/early-’40s Palestine — albeit under a British rule skittish about offending the majority Arab population — pressured the U.K. government to let them form a Jewish fighting force. After several years’ refusal, and quite late in the war ((September ’44), permission was finally granted. The resulting Jewish Brigade fought back Axis troops in Italy shortly before Hitler’s suicide and Germany’s unconditional surrender.

The brigade was then moved to the Austrian-Italian border to help assist an overwhelming refugee populace. They quickly discovered the horrific fate of most European Jews; many soldiers went AWOL to find any extant relatives. The initial postwar Allied policy was to repatriate all refugees to their original countries — even the most anti-Semitic ones.

This was, of course, cruel and unthinkable to those who’d survived concentration camps or years of hiding. Brigade members then made it their mission to use whatever means — stealing Allied trucks, forging transport papers and so on — to get Jews as close as possible to southern ports, where they’d stand the best chance of reaching a fledgling Middle East “homeland.”

After grim reels of battle and camp liberation footage, these latter stories of cunning and often humorous authority-eluding have the upbeat excitement of a good-guy espionage tale — and indeed would make great fodder for a dramatic feature.

Once this “subterfuge” became obvious, Brit leaders disbanded the Jewish Brigade. But story’s great irony is that the top-drawer training these men received made them natural leaders in 1948’s War of Independence to create the Israeli nation-state — slamming another nail in Britain’s colonialist coffin.

Seven surviving brigade members offer passionate, colorful, alternately harsh and funny recollections via talking-head format. But pic is mostly strung together from an evident wealth of newsreel and Allied military footage, plus archival photos.

While a sweeping, multilevel story is well organized here, there’s little artfulness in the execution. Dramatizing flourishes are often heavy-handed (like the dubbed-in gunshot when one brigadier talks of secretly assassinating a Nazi war criminal found in postwar hiding); the narration is flatly written, and dully read by Peter Thomas. This unimaginative approach will play better on PBS or the Discovery Channel than it would in theatrical release.

Ditto conventional tech package, which has been adequately transferred from vid original to 16mm, but will still benefit from TV-screen visual shrinkage.

In Our Own Hands

(DOCU -- COLOR/B&W)

Production: An Olin/Palm production. Produced by Chuck Olin, Chuck Cooper, Matthew Palm. Directed by Chuck Olin. Screenplay, Olin, Matthew Palm.

Crew: Camera (color/B&W), Steve Rosofsky; editor, Robert Schneiger; music, Steve Mullan; sound, Tom Blakemore. Reviewed at San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, July 22, 1998. Running time: 84 MIN.

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