- Operation Thunderbolt (movie 1977) review: Menahem Golan’s ineptly directed, written, and (for the most part) acted real-life-inspired terrorism drama fails on virtually all counts – including its function as political propaganda.
- Operation Thunderbolt received one Academy Award nomination: Best Foreign Language Film.
Operation Thunderbolt (movie 1977) review: Real-life-inspired flag-waver surely 1 of worst Foreign Language Film Oscar nominees
Notwithstanding the complex, gripping real-life basis for his 1977 flag-waving drama Operation Thunderbolt / Mivtsa Yonatan – i.e., the previous year’s hijacking of a Tel Aviv-Athens-Paris Air France flight – Israeli filmmaker Menahem Golan, multitasking as director, co-producer, and co-scenarist, succeeded in making a movie utterly devoid of depth, suspense, and intelligence.
With its cheap look (despite full cooperation from the Israeli armed forces), subpar craftsmanship, and one-dimensional characters, Operation Thunderbolt is so bad that it’s surely one of the very worst productions to have received an Academy Award nomination in the often mediocre Best Foreign Language Film category.
Dramatic rescue operation
Operation Thunderbolt begins on June 27, 1976, when Air France flight 139, on its way from Tel Aviv to Paris (by way of Athens), is hijacked by a small band of terrorists (among them Klaus Kinski and co-producer Sybil Danning) connected to the far-left German-based group Revolutionary Cells and to a splinter group of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Following an unsuccessful attempt to keep the plane in Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya, the hijackers fly to the airport in Entebbe, Uganda, where they are welcomed by that country’s psychopathic dictator, Idi Amin Dada.
Once in Entebbe, the Jewish passengers are separated from the others – the non-Jews are freed, the Jews are held as hostages at the airport. In order to release the Jewish passengers, the hijackers demand that Israel free several convicted terrorists held in its jails. If the Israeli government fails to meet the set deadline, the hijackers vow to kill all hostages.
Feeling pressure from its citizens to save the passengers, Israeli political leaders debate the merits and the dangers of a rescue operation. Finally, they allow an elite commando unit to stage a raid at the Entebbe airport.
No depth, no nuances
Menahem Golan – whose Cannon Group would distribute some of the trashiest productions of the 1980s – and co-screenwriter Clarke Reynolds were apparently so busy elaborating cliché-ridden dialogue and flag-waving monologues that they made no effort to add either psychological depth to their characters or nuances to the political underpinnings of the crisis.
As a result, Jews/Israelis are depicted as either pitiful victims or fearless warriors, while the German and Arab terrorists are mean-spirited, grenade-carrying people with no taste in clothes or sunglasses and no raison d’être.
Unsurprisingly, with the exception of Yehoram Gaon’s charismatic turn as commando leader Col. Yonatan Netanyahu (older brother of future far-right Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), the performances in Operation Thunderbolt come across as flatter than cardboards. Even master scenery-chewer Klaus Kinski is quite sedate here – and for once, his Nosferatu fangs were sorely missed.
Now, it would be naive to expect unbiased historical context from filmmakers who made a point of presenting the Israeli rescue commandos through deifying camera angles reminiscent of those used on the 1960s puppet TV series Thunderbirds. But it must be pointed out that such gross disregard for subtlety ends up working against the film.
For even though Operation Thunderbolt is supposed to be a retelling of actual events – it even boasts the appearance via documentary footage of several Israeli government officials – its propagandistic tone is so blatant that viewers will wonder not how much, but how little of what they see may actually have any connection to reality.
Operation Thunderbolt / Mivtsa Yonatan (movie 1977) cast & crew
Director: Menahem Golan.
Screenplay: Menahem Golan & Clarke Reynolds.
Cast: Klaus Kinski. Yehoram Gaon. Sybil Danning. Gila Almagor. Assi Dayan. Arik Lavie. Ori Levy. Mark Heath.
“Operation Thunderbolt (Movie 1977): Inept Terror Drama” notes
Victory at Entebbe & Raid on Entebbe
 Two quickly assembled made-for-television flicks, both featuring impressive name casts, found their way onto American small screens within six months of the hijacking – before, producers and executives hoped, U.S. TV watchers had forgotten all about the previous summer’s thrilling world-stage event.
Aired on ABC in December 1976, Marvin J. Chomsky’s Victory at Entebbe features Helmut Berger, Anthony Hopkins, Burt Lancaster, Elizabeth Taylor, Helen Hayes, Theodore Bikel, Jessica Walter, Linda Blair, Julius Harris, Harris Yulin, Richard Dreyfuss, Kirk Douglas, David Groh, and Christian Marquand.
Aired on NBC in January 1977, Irvin Kershner’s Raid on Entebbe features Peter Finch, Charles Bronson, Yaphet Kotto, Horst Buchholz, Sylvia Sidney, Martin Balsam, John Saxon, Stephen Macht, Jack Warden, Robert Loggia, and Eddie Constantine.
“Operation Thunderbolt (Movie 1977)” endnotes
Klaus Kinski and Sybil Danning Operation Thunderbolt movie image: Golan-Globus Productions.
“Operation Thunderbolt (Movie 1977): Inept Oscar-Nominated Terror Drama” last updated in April 2023.