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Mel and the Maccabee

Australian-American actor and director Mel Gibson—he of the anti-Semitic outbursts, the abused girlfriend, The Passion of the Christ—has just closed a deal to make a film for Warner Bros. with screenwriter Joe Eszterhas about the life of Judah Maccabee.  Gibson described his project in an interview with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg: "Oh, my God, the odds they faced.  The armies they faced had elephants!  How cinematic is this!  Even Judah's dad—what's his name? Mattathias?—you kind of get this guy who more or less is trying to avoid the whole thing, but he just gets to a place where he had enough, and he just snapped!"

Relevant Links
The Gospel According to Mel  Jeffrey Goldberg, Atlantic. In a freewheeling interview, Mel Gibson discourses on anti-Semitism, atheism, Christianity, circumcision, and his forthcoming movie about Judah Maccabee. (Includes obscene language.)
Crack-Up  Peter Biskind, Vanity Fair. How, in five short years, did one of the best-loved and best-paid talents in Hollywood become an industry pariah? (Includes obscene language.)
Jews, Christians, and The Passion  David Berger, Commentary. The good will that Christians and Jews have painstakingly established over the last generation is sorely tested by this movie.

Despite the Jews' celebration of Hannukah, the Book of Maccabees belongs to the Christian rather than the Jewish canon.  Still, for some, the combination of Gibson and Jews is beyond the pale.  "It would be a travesty," said Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, "to have the story of the Maccabees told by one who has no respect and sensitivity for other people's religious views." 

Gibson has long raised the ire of those who defend the public reputation of the Jews.  He was raised as a traditionalist Catholic, steeped in the doctrine that salvation is impossible for non-Catholics.  The Passion of the Christ, Gibson's 2004 film about the last hours of Jesus, with dialogue entirely in Aramaic and Latin (by some measures it was the most profitable non-English-language film ever made) was harshly criticized for both its violence and its critical depiction of the Sanhedrin and the Jewish high priest Caiaphas.  During a drunk-driving arrest in 2006, Gibson averred to police that "Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world."  

            The Passion of the Christ (Icon Productions, 2004; includes graphic images). 
   As a scourged Jesus takes up his cross, the figure of Satan skulks among the Jews.  

But in some respects, few people are better equipped than Gibson to tackle the character of Judah Maccabee and the Jewish revolt against the Syrian Greeks, which took place from 167 to 160 B.C.E.  In his 1979 breakthrough movie Mad Max, Gibson fought his way across the post-apocalyptic Australian outback. In the Lethal Weapon series, Martin Riggs, the Los Angeles detective played by Gibson, was chronically on the edge of a breakdown.  In the more recent Edge of Darkness, Gibson's homicide cop pursued his daughter's killer.  Gibson's most iconic characters have been damaged loners who are roused by adversity to lead against-the-odds battles against injustice.

Gibson also has a long cinematic history with freedom fighters.  In the 1995 Braveheart, of which he was director and star, he played the doomed 13th-century Scots leader William Wallace, driven by an outrage committed against his beloved into warring against the English.  In The Patriot in 2000, he portrayed a South Carolina farmer drawn into the Revolutionary War after his son was brutally killed by the British.  When it comes to reluctant heroes who "just snapped," no one does it better than Gibson.       

                                    Braveheart (Paramount Pictures / 20th Century Fox, 1995).

Moreover, the biblical epic as a cinematic form in America is in grave need of a reboot.

The era of American epic sword-and-sandal films lasted from just after World War II through the mid-1960's.  In those pre-Brando days, American filmmakers minimized their heroes' inner conflict in order to celebrate their earnest nature, divine calling, and noble deeds.  The biblical heroes of American movies could be initially reluctant, like Moses; or flawed, like David; or transcendent and doomed, like Jesus; but they were rarely tormented by their roles and responsibilities.  In the 1949 movie Samson and Delilah, Victor Mature's smug Samson was partly played for laughs.  Gregory Peck's David, in the 1951 David and Bathsheba, was carved out of wood.  In 1956, in The Ten Commandments, Charlton Heston's austere and inaccessible Moses was light-years away from any sort of modern film protagonist.

                                             The Ten Commandments (Paramount Pictures, 1956).

More recently, though, the biblical epic has fallen on hard times.  Monty Python's 1979 Life of Brian—freethinking, satirical, hilarious—is the type of movie attuned to our cynical and ironic era.  More serious biblical epics have been, to understate the case, a distinctly mixed bag.  In Martin Scorsese's 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus, played by Willem Dafoe, seems to have been pushed to the edge of insanity: "God loves me. I know He loves me. I want Him to stop."  The spectacle of Richard Gere's King David in the 1985 film of that name is hard to forget, no matter how hard one tries.  Little wonder that the Bible has been largely relegated to less-than-memorable made-for-TV dramas.

Gibson, though, has the technical skills for epic movie-making.  He has the ability to direct vast crowds and battle scenes, a talent that has all but disappeared from Hollywood.  Extreme violence, dwelt upon almost lovingly, is another one of his specialties.

But Judah Maccabee may not be the kind of Jewish hero who merits an epic—or whose reputation deserves protection against treatment by Mel Gibson.  After all, in addition to his war against the Greeks in Syria, Judah Maccabee and his faction waged war against numerous other parties, including countless fellow Hellenizing Jews.  Judah Maccabee also concluded the treaty with the Roman Republic that set the Jews of Judea on the road to their ultimate downfall and dispersal.  Maybe he deserves not a biblical epic but something darker and more ironic, like a Christopher Nolan Batman film.  The larger question is whether the American relationship with the Bible can be rebooted by the movies in the first place.

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

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Independent Patriot on September 22, 2011 at 6:08 am (Reply)
Personally, I think Gibson's making an epic about Judah Maccabee is offensive, as do most Jews.

Interestingly, the dark side of the Hasmoneans sounds a lot like today's modern followers of "realpolitik."
Adam Holland on September 22, 2011 at 8:25 am (Reply)
Gibson is associated with an anti-Semitic cult that believes a conspiracy of Jews and Freemasons took over the Catholic Church after the death of Pope Pius XII. That he wants to make a film concerning the Jewish templ'se being taken over by an analogous conspiracy of Greeks and corrupt priests makes perfect sense. In this way, he intends to make an anti-Semitic film using a Bible story as a metaphor for what he sees as contemporary Jewish evil.
Daniel M. Wright on September 22, 2011 at 8:52 am (Reply)
This film has potential. I hope, despite Mel's flaws, that they do this film right from a historical and art direction perspective. The person of Judah Maccabee and the story that brought about Hanukah are virtually unknown in America outside Jewish circles. It's a story worth telling; and Mel, as Alex Joffe pointed out, can easily pull it off.
Daniel M. Wright on September 22, 2011 at 10:12 am (Reply)
Respectfully, this is not really a "Bible story," as it is not recorded in the Jewish or even Christian version of the Bible. As for Mel's and Warner Bros.' motivation? Mixed, I am sure, but primarily? They want to make money. My hope is that the story is told well enough to shed light on the miracle of Hanukkah and the glorious goals of the obscure (at least in Gentile circles) Maccabean heroes. Let's face it: Any individual narrative or opinion about Judah and that time frame in the history of the Jewish people won't be told in a way that satisfies every individual. It wouldn't matter who made the film. We are Americans, and we love to complain and criticize. But at least this story is a true one, based on history, and may become a welcome theatrical alternative to all the other epic, violent, fictitious, computer-generated junk that fills movie halls in our time. This about the Temple in Jerusalem, not Mel Gibson. I welcome an epic in this category. When can I see a trailer?
Mack Hall on September 22, 2011 at 11:03 am (Reply)
I would never presume to speak for Catholics (I'll leave that to the infallible Mel), so please forgive my personal conclusion that Mel is a jackass. And surely he speaks for no one but himself.

Beyond the inappropriateness of an anti-Semite's working with religious material, the story of the Maccabees is indeed too complex for a simplistic "Braveheart in a yarmulke" treatment.
Dr George on September 22, 2011 at 5:26 pm (Reply)
Where was Mel Gibson with his artistic talent (after having watch the clip from his Passion of *****) when the Nazis murdered Jews for no other reason than they were Jews, with the same brutality he shows in his movies? It is a travesty that a Holocaust survivor [Joe Eszterhas] should collaborate with such anti-Semitic, alcoholic, wife-beating barbarian in even attempting to steal one of the most beloved Jewish heroes, Yehudah Maccabee. Why is it that only the worst Jew-haters have a flair for this kind of thing? Shame on him and everyone like him.
Scorpio on September 22, 2011 at 5:56 pm (Reply)
Mel Gibson, controversy aside, is an action director. The story of the Maccabees, grand and action-filled, is right down his alley. If this is his way of seeking atonement for his previously shameful acts, then let us wait until the film comes out. Whatever one may say about his films, they are not small numbers. It's his money, his project, and his reputation.
Eric Weis on September 22, 2011 at 6:26 pm (Reply)
It figures that Mel Gibson would find the Maccabee story to his liking. The Maccabees, aka the Hasmoneans, became corrupt and certainly contributed (if they did not directly cause) the events of the first century CE. The Rabbis have tried for centuries to parse the Maccabean revolt and turn Hanukkah away from a celebration of a short-lived military triumph. Despite these attempts over 2000 years, Hanukkah remains just that--a celebration of war. Judah Maccabee was a hothead. The legends of oil and miracles that have evolved are Rabbinic inventions. The Diaspora and the birth of Christianity, followed by centuries of pogroms and anti-Semitism, had their birth in the Maccabean revolt.
Bill Pearlman on September 23, 2011 at 8:54 am (Reply)
Say what you will about the guy, he makes great "war movies." And thats basically the story here. I think its a great idea.
Adam Holland on September 23, 2011 at 10:07 am (Reply)
Daniel M. Wright's comment deliberately misses my point. Gibson believes that the Catholic church has been taken over by a conspiracy of corrupt Catholics and evil Jews. He intends to make a film about the Temple's being taken over by corrupt cohanim and evil Greeks. How could this be clearer?
Eric Weis on September 23, 2011 at 10:55 am (Reply)
Bill Pearlman shares the popular misconception that the Maccabees' revolt--really a civil war--was a good thing. The Rabbis had a different slant on things and cast the story in terms of God's miracle of oil. And the historical perspective is that the Maccabees (Hasmoneans) in time became corrupt too, leading to the Romans, more persecution, and the emergence of the early Church. Was Judah Maccabee a saint? No. He was merely, in modern parlance, an insurgent. Shall we glorify all insurgents? If so, then our recent wars are all shams. As General Sherman once said, "War is hell, boys. . . ." Mel Gibson has no clue.
David Miller on September 23, 2011 at 10:56 am (Reply)
The types of Jews worried about Mel Gibson because of The Passion of the Christ are the types of Jews who don't truly care about the Bible in the first place. As for Gibson's anti-Semitism, it's nothing Hillary Clinton hasn't said herself in less guarded moments, and I don't see liberal Jews getting all up in arms because of her.

Fact: The Jews who dislike Gibson dislike him because the man is an unapologetic, religious Christian who was raised by an unapologetic, religious Christian. They hated him even before he was pulled over [for drunk driving] by the cop. They may not like what his religion thinks about Jews, and neither do I. But guess what? Have you ever seen what our own religion says about non-Jews? It isnt pretty.

Fact: A movie about a religious figure, played by a religous figure (unlike richard Gere and Williem Dafoe), is going to make a mint. Take it to the bank.
Chana on December 15, 2011 at 10:10 pm (Reply)
I would see it just to check it out and see whether he has it right. I do not like him for all the above reasons, but I would see this movie.
brian on December 30, 2011 at 3:02 pm (Reply)
I want to see it. We need more movies like this.
Joseph on January 19, 2012 at 6:14 pm (Reply)
This Jewish Quarterly article takes a similar starting point, though it develops in a different direction.

Comments are closed for this article.

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