The Jewishness of the Long Distance Runner

marathon-man.jpg“Schindler’s List?” “The Chosen?” “Fiddler on the Roof?” Naaahhh…

I like “Marathon Man.”

Yep, for my money, one of the great Jewish movies of the last thirty years. You’re dubious? I’ll explain.

“Marathon Man” (1976) is the story of Babe Levy (Dustin Hoffman), a Jewish graduate student and long distance runner. A series of complex events set him at odds with an ex-Nazi death camp doctor named Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) who has come out of hiding in South America to travel to New York City in order to retrieve a fortune in stolen diamonds.

Most remember this movie for the infamous scene in which Szell tortures Babe with a dentist’s drill, mistakenly assuming he knows where the diamonds can be found. (“Is it safe? Is it safe?”) In the end, Babe manages to literally outrun his tormentors and he eventually turns the tables on Szell in a climactic scene at the Central Park reservoir.

In thrillers such as this, one would expect the lead to be the classic tough guy. As played by Hoffman, however, Babe, is a Jewish anti-hero: he is short, bookish, and is picked on by the tough residents of his neighborhood. But, being a marathon runner, Babe is also tenacious, driven and almost obsessively focused. As film critic Kathryn Bernheimer notes, “In the end, it is Babe’s ability to withstand pain and his endurance – products of his running as well as his heritage – that allow him to triumph over his Nazi persecutor.” Interestingly, Babe’s older brother, a shadowy secret agent named Doc (Roy Scheider) is cut more from the traditional action hero mold, but “Marathon Man” counterintuatively opts to make Babe the primary protagonist. The juxtaposition of these two Jewish archetypes provides a fascinating counterpoint to one another – but given their respective fates, the film makes it clear its money is on the long distance runner.

The ending of the movie makes a particularly powerful Jewish statement. As it turns out, the way this scene was created is something of a story in itself. In the recent book “Stars of David” by Abigail Pogrebin, Dustin Hoffman claims he refused to act in the scene as originally written by screenwriter William Goldman: with Babe shooting Szell point blank in cold blood. Hoffman’s refusal apparently precipitated a summit meeting with Goldman and director John Schlesinger, where Hoffman says he told them flatly, “No I won’t play a Jew who cold-bloodedly kills another human being. I won’t become a Nazi to kill a Nazi. I won’t demean myself.”

Hoffman’s strong convictions led to the much more dramatic and emotionally powerful scene in which Babe never loses the moral upper hand and the Nazi still gets his ultimate comeuppance in the end. This critical change in the ending lends all the more poignancy and symbolism to “Marathon Man’s” final image. It is for me, one of the classic Jewish moments in film: Babe throws his gun into the reservoir and slowly runs off into the distance. Of course, if he had shot Szell, this act would simply have meant he was disposing of his murder weapon. But with the changed ending, this image has a much deeper symbolic resonance.

In Hoffman’s words, “That’s important to me: that I didn’t shoot him in the end. Being a Jew is not losing your humanity and not losing your soul. That’s what they were unable to do when they tried to erase the race; they tried to take the soul away. That was the plan.”

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