Sword in the Desert

Sword in the Desert is a 1949 American war film directed by George Sherman. It was the first American film to deal with the 1947–1948 Civil War in Mandatory Palestine and marked the first significant feature film role for Jeff Chandler.

Sword in the Desert
Theatrical poster
Directed byGeorge Sherman
Produced byRobert Buckner
Written byRobert Buckner
StarringDana Andrews
Märta Torén
Stephen McNally
Music byFrank Skinner
CinematographyIrving Glassberg
Edited byOtto Ludwig
Universal Pictures
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • August 24, 1949 (1949-08-24) (New York City)
  • September 28, 1949 (1949-09-28) (Los Angeles)
Running time
101 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget₤200,000[1] or $1 million[2]


Freighter owner and captain Mike Dillon (Dana Andrews) reluctantly smuggles Jewish immigrants into Palestine, making it very clear to the Jewish leader, David Vogel (Stephen McNally), he is only doing it for the money. Dillon is annoyed to learn that he will have to go ashore to get paid the eight thousand U.S. dollars he is owed. When a British patrol boat arrives sooner than expected, Dillon is forced to join the Jews in their flight for freedom. There are casualties on both sides before the refugees get away, including one of Dillon's men.



The screenplay was based on a short story by Robert Buckner, who came up with the idea after a visit to Palestine in 1934. Bucker later expanded this into a short story about Christmas in Palestine as experienced by a visiting American. In the 1940s he expanded this into a novel, then a screenplay, originally called Night Watch, then later Desert Legion.[3]

Stephen McNally was originally supposed to play the American pilot, while Paul Christian was to play a Palestinian Jewish leader. However Christian had to drop out due to an eye infection, McNally took over his role, and Dana Andrews played McNally's part.[4] (Dick Powell had also been considered for the role of the American.[5]) Ann Blyth was intended to play the female lead.[6] Bucker was originally announced as director, but George Sherman took over that task.[7] Blyth was reassigned by Universal to Come Be My Love and the female lead given instead to Märta Torén.[8]

Jeff Chandler was cast in February 1949.[9] The role was originally intended for an older actor but was reconfigured once Chandler was cast.[10]

Production took place on Universal's backlot with location work at Monterey, California, the San Fernando Valley and Victorville in the Mojave Desert.[2]

Even during filming, there was an expectation that the film would be controversial because it showed Jewish settlers fighting the British and not Arabs. Universal barred reporters from the set during the last week of filming because several London papers had carried adverse articles on the project.[11]

Controversy on release in Britain and Australia

The Evening Standard claimed that the film was "not for the eyes of Britons" and the Daily Telegraph insisted that British audiences would be surprised to see the unwonted harshness with which the British troops in the film treated Jewish civilians. There were demonstrations and disturbances outside the New Gallery cinema, near Piccadilly in London, when the film opened there on 2 February 1950, and pamphlets supporting Oswald Mosley's fascist Union Movement were distributed to people wanting to see it. The cinema also received a bomb threat.[12] Mosley threatened to picket other cinemas that showed the film.[13]

Five days later, the Public Control Committee of London Country Council followed the advice of the Home Office and prohibited further public showings of the film in order to prevent further scenes of rowdiness by fascist elements. It ignored a protest from the National Council for Civil Liberties, which claimed that its action constituted a ban on free speech.

The film was screened in Australia after some cuts, but was not shown in Tasmania because of its controversial content.[14]


  1. "'Sword' is out". The Courier-Mail. Brisbane. 9 February 1950. p. 1. Retrieved 11 May 2012 via National Library of Australia.
  2. Elizabeth Pallett (12 June 1949). "Inspired by the Headlines: Conflict Between British and Jews in Palestine Independence Struggle Depcted in Universal's 'Sword in the Desert'"". The New York Times.
  3. Frank Daugherty (29 April 1949). "Letter From Hollywood". The Christian Science Monitor.
  4. Thomas F. Brady (28 February 1949). ""'Sword in Desert' to Star Andrews: Paul Christian's Illness Causes Change in the Cast of U-I Film About Palestine". The New York Times. p. 16.
  5. Thomas F. Brady (15 January 1949). "Ray Shuns RKO Bid to Direct Picture: He Opposes Work on 'I Married a Communist' for Dramatic, Not Ideological, Reasons". The New York Times. p. 11.
  6. Thomas F. Brady (19 January 1949). "Sturges to Make Movies at Metro: Producer-Director Expected to Sign Pact Today -- Studio Has Carlo-Menotti Work". The New York Times. p. 36.
  7. Thomas F. Brady (29 January 1949). "Lead in 'Candy Kid' For Errol Flynn: Actor Will Play Gambler Role in Warner Film Based on Story by MacDougall". The New York Times. p. 10.
  8. Thomas F. Brady (4 February 1949). "Ann Blyth Shifts Role at U-I Studio: Actress Takes Lead in 'Come Be My Love' -- Märta Torén Goes to 'Desert Legion'". The New York Times. p. 31.
  9. Thomas F. Brady (25 February 1949). "Wellman Director of 'Battleground': Metro Names Him to Handle Film of Battle of the Bulge -- Craig in 'Side Street'". The New York Times. p. 28.
  10. Philip K. Scheuer (29 October 1950). "Jeff Chandler Finally Gets to 'Act His Age': Rising Young (31) Screens Player Considers Himself 'a Lucky Kid'". Los Angeles Times. p. D3.
  11. "Palestine Film Will Rouse British Feeling". The Sunday Herald. Sydney. 24 July 1949. p. 4 Supplement: Sunday Herald Features. Retrieved 11 May 2012 via National Library of Australia.
  12. "Hollywood Film Incenses British". The Sunday Times. Perth. 5 February 1950. p. 3. Retrieved 11 May 2012 via National Library of Australia.
  13. "Picket threat by Mosley". The Sydney Morning Herald. 6 February 1950. p. 3. Retrieved 11 May 2012 via National Library of Australia.
  14. "Palestine Film". The Sydney Morning Herald. 6 February 1950. p. 3. Retrieved 11 May 2012 via National Library of Australia.
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