Mel Gibson’s Judah Maccabee Film Stirs Jewish Leaders’ Ire

The embattled actor seeks to return to form with an action epic showing the Biblical battle of the Jews against their oppressors, but the Anti-Defamation League objects

Mel Gibson, who before his more recent battles to salvage his image has filmed many a battle scene for the big screen, is teaming with often-controversial screenwriter Joe Eszterhas to create a biblical epic.

The Anti-Defamation League quickly raised objections, citing his past history of reported slurs.

The teaming with Eszterhas has the legendary screenwriter preparing the script for Gibson to possibly collaborate on. His return from a lengthy hiatus  to participate alongside Gibson, who has an option to direct, is part of what stirred the surprise being expressed around own.

For Eszterhas, it’s a possible return to the form that made for his meteoric rise as both craftsman and a generator of big-time popcorn hits like "Basic Instinct" and "Jagged Edge."

What isn’t surprising is to see the film set up at Warner Bros., which has a long and positive history with the multi-hyphenate, more recently headine-making Gibson.

One component of said headlines, of course, were some intemperately anti-Semitic remarks Gibson made to an arresting officer when pulled over on a Los Angeles highway. Some of the reviews of Gibson’s writing-directing effort "The Passion of the Christ"  cited similar implications, denied by Gibson.

In that light, Biblical hero Maccabee’s struggle for religious freedom against an oppressive and autocratic enemy certainly gains resonance.

The optimistic view is that is Gibson's chance to show some real empathy in retelling the story that is so deeply rooted in Jewish lore and spirituality and is the key inspiration for the annual Hanukkah celebration. 

The ADL's Abraham Foxman isn't buying it, telling The Hollywood Reporter,  "It would be a travesty to have his story told by one who has no respect and sensitivity for other people’s religious views.”

Another Jewish leader, Rabbi Marvin Hier, told the trade, "Mel Gibson has shown nothing but antagonism and disrespect to Jews."

Certainly Eszterhas is well versed in such themes.  His 1987 film "Betrayed," featured Debra Winger as an FBI undercover agent infiltrating a Klan-style white supremacy group in the Midwest, and his 1989’s "Music Box," starred Jessica Lange as an attorney defending her own father against accusations of collaborating with the Nazis. In each case, Costa Gavras directed and Irwin Winkler produced.

Also read: Mel Gibson's Bad 'Beaver' Opening: This Indie Film Can't Save His Career

Gibson’s recent acting job in "The Beaver" won considerable plaudits, including a rousing reception at Cannes, and was notable for Jodie Foster’s resounding endorsement of long time friend (and “Maverick” co-star) Gibson.

Although skeptics might speculate that the actor has chosen an ideal moment and project to reconstitute the box office magic and general good will that made him one of Hollywood’s best-loved and most bankable stars, he’s actually been pursuing the project for more than a decade, and is on the record in past interviews about that.

In any event, there could hardly be a film genre more suited to Gibson’s skill set. His "Apocalypto" created a strikingly exotic but frighteningly compelling world of warfare in the Mayan culture of Mexico in 16th Century Mexico. The film won some craft Oscars and a Golden Globe for best Foreign Language Film  (it was in authentic dialect) and was No. 1 at the box office the weekend of its December 2006 opening.

But an even closer cousin, points out an associate of Gibson’s with knowledge of the new project, is Gibson’s 1995 "Braveheart," showing the heroic Scottish rabble in arms as they battled against a British oppressor. Gibson won acclaim for portraying Scottish hero William Wallace, and won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director.

"Like William Wallace in 'Brave Heart,'” said the associate, “It’s a charismatic warrior leading a small army against a massive one — and kicking their ass.”

Deadline first reported the news of the project.