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The infamous attack on Isreali athletes and coaches in the Olympic Village during the 1972 Munich Olympics is chronicled in this made-for-TV movie and supplemented with archive footage from the actual games. Members of the Palestinian Black September Movement kill two and hold nine others as hostages to exchange for hundreds of Arab prisoners in Isreali jails. The Isreali government adheres to its policy of not negotiating with terrorists, and German Holocaust guilt will not permit West German officials to allow the terrorists to leave the country with the hostages. Therefore, it falls to Chief of Police Manfred Schreiber to delay fulfilling the Palestinian demands through ongoing negotiation, but sooner or later he knows that tough decisions will have to be made. Written by
The nightmarish specter of terrorism on an international level can be said to have its origins in what occurred during September 4th and 5th, 1972 at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich, West Germany. For twenty-one hours, the world, having been transfixed by how much the standing of the German nation had improved during these Games from what had been done in Berlin in 1936 under the shadow of Hitler, was horrified by how eight heavily armed gunmen belonging to the Black September terrorist organization had managed to storm the Olympic Village and hold nine Israeli athletes hostage (having already killed two of them). The terrorists' demands, which of course Israel wasn't about to comply with, were the release of two hundred militants from various factions being held in German prisons, or the Israelis would be killed. It all ended in the most horrific way possible at nearby Furstenfeldbruck airport early on the morning of September 5th.
The 1976 made-for-TV film 21 HOURS AT MUNICH was really the first dramatic attempt to place these horrific events into context; and given that, when it aired on November 7, 1976, the events were still relatively fresh, it had to have been more than a little painful to watch. That said, this still holds up as a thoroughly well made film about the first act of internationally televised political terrorism. Incredibly filmed on location in Munich itself, the film stars William Holden as Manfred Schreiber, the chief of police in Munich who has to deal with this incredible crisis for which West Germany was woefully unprepared for (deliberately lax security, owing to a desire not to make the Olympic Village seem like a modern-day concentration camp, allowed the terrorists to slip through), with Franco Nero portraying the Black September leader who identifies himself as "Issa". In the main, the approach taken by this movie towards the incident is one resembling a chess game, with nine Jewish pawns in the middle of it all. And when Holden is forced to make the decision to end this thing at Furstenfeldbruck, he is under the assumption that Nero has only four compatriots with him, when in reality it was eight. And with untrained snipers not being told how to coordinate with one another as to the targets, the nightmare that ensues is all but preordained.
While it might have been exceptionally tempting for this TV movie, which was scripted by Edward Hume (TWO MINUTE WARNING) and Howard Fast (the author of the source material for Stanley Kubrick's 1960 epic SPARTACUS) from the book of the same name by Serge Groussard, to turn the events into melodramatic fodder, veteran TV and feature film director William A. Graham holds off on that, instead allowing this to become more of a psychological drama in which the entire world was watching. Although much more of the Munich tragedy, including the well-meaning ineptitude of the Bavarian and West German officials and the arrogance of the International Olympic Committee in not halting the games until some eleven hours into the crisis, was shown in the later Oscar-winning 1999 documentary ONE DAY IN September, 21 HOURS AT MUNICH still manages to let a fair amount of that in itself. Holden and Nero are very well matched; and the film also co-stars Shirley Knight, Anthony Quayle, and Richard Basehart (who portrays West German chancellor Willie Brandt).
The events of Munich have colored not only the Olympics, both winter and summer, in political and social turmoil of some kind ever since, but a great many sports events around the world, including our Super Bowl and the World Cup. 21 HOURS AT MUNICH, like the later ONE DAY IN September and Steven Spielberg's own 2005 film MUNICH (which looks at Israel's response to the horror), gives us as insightful a glimpse into why this is so as any dramatic presentation could ever hope to accomplish.
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