Saturday, June 30, 2007

Before Munich: Black September on TV and Film

Before Munich: Black September on TV and Film

By Wesley Britton

On September 5, 1972, what became known as "Black Sunday" or the "Munich Olympic Massacre" took place when Eight Palestinian "Black September" terrorists seized eleven Israeli athletes in the Olympic Village in Munich, West Germany. In a bungled rescue attempt by West German authorities, nine of the hostages and five terrorists were killed. (note 1) In subsequent years, these events have been explored and dramatized in various media projects. The response to the tragedy by the Israeli government has also found its way into film scripts, most recently Steven Spielberg's December 2005 Munich.

The range of such projects has included simple exploitation to insightful explorations into the human motivations that say much about our responses to violence. On one extreme, during the 1970s, "Black September" became a group useful for fictional adventures as in Black Sunday (1977), a thriller so violent even its scriptwriter, Earnest Lehman, had to turn his head when viewing it in a theatre. True enough, Robert Shaw and Bruce Dern were graphic in this story about Palestinian terrorists plotting to blow up Americans at the Super Bowl. In this release, there was no pretense of capturing history, and the big-screen spectacle prefiguring 9/11 was unintentional prophecy no one then dreamed was possible. On a much smaller scale, The Olympic tragedy was rumored to have inspired ABC to shift its 1972 projected series, Assignment: Munich to Vienna. (note 2) Later, “Black September” was the title of one episode of Return of The Saint (1978) in which Simon Templar (Ian Ogilvy) aided the Israelis battling Palestinian terrorists. But the actual historical events have not been neglected on the small and large screen and some projects are of special interest.

One Day in September

Narrated by Michael Douglas, One Day in September was a 1999 Arthur Cohn documentary including promos, newscasts, and interviews with athletes and survivors of the actual 1972 tragedy. Directed by Kevin McDonald, this straight-forward production Focused on the hours leading up to the attack, what transpired at the Olympics, but said little about the aftermath which would become the subject of Munich.

To begin, the film makes clear these Olympics were of historical importance even before the terrorist took their hostages. As the 1972 games occurred just 30 miles from the site of the Dachau concentration camp, Israeli competitors were thrilled to march under the Star of David flag unfurled in Germany for the first time since World War II. For Germans, these games were intended to erase old memories as the Nazis had used the Olympics to promote their world vision. So hopefulness was, in the words of one participant, in "overdrive." For example, even though Israel and Lebanon were at war, their athletes were able to meet and compare competition results, illustrating what the Olympics are all about.

Without editorial comment, in One Day, we learn how such goodwill was destroyed. In the moments leading up to the attack, we get glimpses into the men whose lives were about to change from jubilant success to fearful captivity. We learn the Israeli team viewed a production of Fiddler on the Roof the evening of the takeover of their quarters. One of them had nearly missed the train from Holland to attend that night, and we hear the words of his girlfriend who described her last happy hours with him. Later, we would hear her memories as she saw her last view of her boyfriend on television, a gun at his head as he stood on the balcony in the Olympic village hours before his murder.

According to the film, it was the East German team who allowed the Black September group to sneak into the grounds to survey the apartment building where the Israelis were staying. The report showed how the terrorists first captured a coach who led the gunmen to the apartment where the wrestlers and weight-lifters were housed, the coach thinking they might have the best chance of fighting back. He was the first to die. Then, Black September demanded some 200 political prisoners be freed or the hostages would be killed.

One Day then focuses more on what happened around the captives rather then what transpired behind the doors of the Olympic village. Of course, during these hours, little was known about what happened in the apartments, the number of captives and captors not certain until much later. If the documentary is accurate, it quickly became apparent the West German government was ill-equipped to handle the situation. The Olympic committee, in turn, was reluctant to let the events altar the schedule. While American swimmer Mark Spitz, winner of seven Gold Medals was spirited away as he was Jewish, the games were not, at first, postponed or affected in any way. While international anger grew, the committee felt the hostage crisis had nothing to do with the games. One sad moment in the film is when cheering crowds respond to the games while negotiators try to get the terrorists to delay their deadline. Later scenes showed athletes swimming and sunning themselves in a pond not 200 yards from the apartment building. One observer described the attitude as "selfish and obscene."

Then the horror mounts--again, not seen in the violence by Black September--but by the authorities charged with dealing with them. While the Israeli government offered to send in a rescue team, the West German government said no. The Germans did send in an untrained team of snipers in a ploy to get the terrorists out in the open, all the while an astonishing amount of security information was being broadcast over television. Other blunders included only five marksman being set up at the airport where the hostages were taken by helicopter even though eight terrorists were involved. While four of the five snipers fired their guns, none hit their targets until it was too late and these shots were not coordinated. The security squad in the plane allegedly there to take the kidnappers and their hostages to Egypt voted to abandon their mission just seconds before the group arrived. The police had forgotten to order armored cars which were then caught in traffic and did not arrive in time. Two security officers were shot by snipers, mistaken for terrorists. To compound blunders of action, an official made the statement the events were unfortunate and would hopefully be forgotten in a few weeks.

Again, without commentary, the film noted the West German government of Willy Brandt apparently colluded with the terrorists to get the imprisoned members quickly out of Germany. According to an interview with one surviving terrorist, the Germans agreed to exchange the three terrorists for kidnapped Germans in what he claimed to be a set-up. Why else the haste the Germans went through to get his group out of Germany?

At film's end, few viewers would think justice, on any level, had taken place before or after September 5, 1972. Rather, one might wonder why Israel didn't close their German embassy in disgust. After viewing this account, who would blame Israeli intelligence for taking the actions detailed in Spielberg's film?

21 Hours in Munich

With a very different spin, many of these same events had been dramatized in the earlier Orion Pictures 21 Hours in Munich (1976), a re-creation filmed in the actual locations in West Germany. Like One Day, starring William Holden, Shirley Knight, and Franco Nero, the story begins with the hope of the games, the setting described as more "Hansel and Gretel than Hitler and Goebbels." In Edward Feldman's rather bare-bones production--Israelis, Germans, and Arabs all speaking with decidedly American accents--viewers do see different perspectives from One Day.

For one example, the Olympic committee is shown in a better light. Its spokesman said the games had been going on for centuries and no hoodlums should be permitted to molest them. In the script, the committee feared if the games were stopped, crowds would descend on the secure area, complicating security matters. Perhaps more notably, the lead Arab is portrayed sympathetically, saying he desires no harm to anyone but only wants his brothers freed. This point is repeated throughout the film, making the Palestinians as much victims as their hostages.

Whether by design or a lack of direction, 21 Hours is no tense drama. Much of the focus is the dialogue between the West German negotiator and the lead terrorist which implies the Black September group were attempting to escape peacefully but were betrayed by the Germans. In this version of events, the German negotiator led the kidnappers to believe they could execute their hostages in Egypt even though that government had rejected the German request to let the plane come to them. The Egyptian Prime Minister apparently knew the Germans merely wanted the crisis to move off their soil. Still, the production showed German law enforcement as far more efficient than shown in the documentary, the final blunders tragedies no one could have predicted. On its own, 21 Hours points fingers at West German authorities, but all else were victims, including the driven Black September gunmen. From this view, they were more guerilla fighters than members of what would become known as terrorism.

The Sword of Gideon

Moving to events after September 1972, the 1986 HBO production, The Sword of Gideon (based on the George Jonas book, Vengeance) is well-known as the inspiration for Spielberg's Munich. (note 3) Produced by Robert Lantos, like Munich, the events in the Olympic village are dispatched quickly in a pre-title sequence as the story is about the Israeli response to the murders and not what happened to set this revenge in motion.

While the cast included the likes of Steven Bauer, Robert Joy, Leslie Hope, Rod Steiger, Michael York, Leno Ventura, and Colleen Dewhurst, the acting is not on the same scale as Munich although we do learn more about the Israeli team than the later version of the same events. Many situations are better handled in Munich. For example, in the scenes when the unit encounters the French "honey trap" killer, Sword rushes through the episode with no glimpses into character reactions. We don't get the killer protesting her death saying her murder would be "a waste of talent." But we do see her termination in the light of one directive the team was given, that no innocent bystanders should be hurt. What if a gun is pulled? Then you're no longer a bystander, an idea that is the theme of the entire mission.

As with Munich, the hunters become the hunted but this idea is better developed in Sword. As the mission progresses, the killings have less and less connection to the events that inspired them. At the end of the second kill, they cry "For Munich"--the shooting of the French assassin is for themselves. The purpose of it all gradually dissipates in this comparatively stream-lined account.

Perhaps stream-lined is not the best term. The running time of both Sword and Munich is roughly the same, but the episodes in Sword are fewer but longer. The old warning that once you're in, you can't get out frames Sword with the lead agent being warned by his father in the opening scenes, and the long denouement is of this agent being unscrupulously pressured by his chief to continue the job--a rather different conclusion than in Munich with more global themes and less personal interconnections. In short, Sword ends up as the story of an agent too good to return to a normal life.


When Munich premiered in 2005, the film seemed a clear metaphor for current issues regarding Middle-Eastern themes. For example, the list of 11 names to be hunted down evoked the playing card deck of Iraqis sought by U.S. forces in the first months of that war. The theme of violence responded to with violence in an endless cycle certainly pointed to ongoing bloodshetting between Israel and groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, and Fatah. In one scene in Munich, a German tells the Israelis that the Palestinians have the long-term upper-hand as their population will swell over the next century. This monologue reminded me of a recent Atlantic Monthly article spelling out the same conclusion. The birthrate is apparently certain to be in the Arab's favor.

And images from the movie connected with themes from the past. The bom-maker, a former toy-maker, echoed Hitchcock’s 1936 Sabotage, especially the scene where a bomb maker worked on his craft surrounded by children's toys and ordinary laundry. In Munich, we see the bom-maker apparently blow himself up, a scene reminiscent of the Hitchcock project and the Joseph Conrad novel on which it was based where a young child is also exploded accidentally.

For those interested, each of the projects described above are available on DVD or video. (note 4) for those wanting to learn more about the background for Munich, I recommend One Day in September as a story that does not duplicate events in Munich but rather sets the stage for that project. It seems appropriate to remember what happened in 1972 and those who senselessly lost their lives in the early days of the Palestine/ Israeli conflict. Then, we didn't know what was to come. In hindsight, Black September were the first seeds of the blood to characterize the opening years of a new century.


1. For many more details about related films, see "Defining Terrorism: A Short History of Fact, Fiction, and Film" also posted at this website.

2. For more information, see my interview with Robert Conrad posted at this website.

3. For reviews of books dealing with Munich and its aftermath, see “The Mossad and Israeli Intelligence: An Annotated Bibliography (Books)” also posted at this website. Related movies are listed in “THE MOSSAD ON SCREEN: A FILMOGRAPHY.”

4. For those living in the Dallas, Texas area, One Day, 21 Hours, and Sword are available for rent at Starlight Video.

For related articles, see

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