Mel and the Maccabee

By Alex Joffe
Thursday, September 22, 2011

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!"

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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