Mel Gibson, Joe Eszterhas and Maccabees, oh my

There he goes again.

If you are into film, alcohol, claims of anti-Semitism and manic mood swings, you may already know that Mel Gibson is developing a film about, well, the man who could justifiably be called the Jewish version of William “Braveheart” Wallace. That would be one Judah Maccabee, the warrior whose story is tightly linked with the celebration of the once low-key Jewish holiday called Hanukkah.

As you would imagine, some Jewish leaders in Hollywood and elsewhere are not amused.

However, the Los Angeles Times coverage of this story notes that another controversial name has been mentioned in connection with this project.

Gibson’s Icon Productions has closed the producing deal with Warner Bros., and Joe Eszterhas will write the screenplay. Gibson’s camp said the filmmaker will decide if he’s directing after the script is done and that he has not ruled out the possibility that he could act in the film.

Maccabee, his four brothers and his father led the Jewish revolt against the Greek-Syrian armies. The role of his father, the priest Mattathias, might be a logical one for the 55-year-old Gibson if he does opt to appear in the film.

Maccabee is a figure who has fascinated Gibson for years, and at one point he considered this as a follow-up project to “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004. Gibson’s camp describes the film in terms that resonate with past Gibson projects, such as “Braveheart” or Roland Emmerich’s “The Patriot.”

Gibson, of course, can be a powerful artist when he is sober and going to confession on a regular basis. But what about this other guy? Later on, readers are told:

Eszterhas, best known for fare such as “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls,” is an intriguing collaborator for Gibson. The screenwriter was awarded the Emanuel Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995 for his writings about the Holocaust in Hungary and two of his projects, “Betrayed” and “Music Box,” speak to Jewish themes.

In a Times blog post on the same subject, this background is stated just a bit different.

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.” …

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.

This is all very interesting and relevant, including the reference that Eszterhas is trying to “return to … form.”

You see, this infamous screenwriter — one more time, all together now, he made a mint for writing “Showgirls” — has been through some changes. The key is whether these changes are relevant to this new connection to Gibson and to this movie torn from religious history.

You see, after suffering throat cancer and hitting rock bottom, Eszterhas was converted to Christianity. Thus, the title of his memoir — “Crossbearer: A Memoir of Faith.” Here’s a slice of a Scripps Howard News Service piece I wrote about his speech a few years ago at Biola University’s annual conference on faith and the entertainment industry.

The turning point arrives with a weeping sinner on his knees, his heart skipping beats, his hands shaking, his voice moaning through his tracheotomy tube. Then Eszterhas hears his own voice mumbling strange words.

“I didn’t know why I had said it. I had never said it before,” he said. “Then I listened to myself say it again and again and again. ‘Please God, help me.’ ‘Please God, help me.’ ‘Please God, help me’ … I thought to myself, ‘Me, asking God, begging God? Me, praying?’ “

Then his pain was gone and he was staring into a bright light. He decided that, with God’s help, “I could defeat myself and win, if I fought very hard and if I prayed. … God saved me from me.”

Condensed into the punchy talking points that sell screenplays, Eszterhas said his life has gone from “Malibu to Ohio, from booze to diet Sprite, from Spago to McDonald’s, from Sharon Stone to Jesus.” Now he walks five miles and prays for an hour every day. With his second wife and their four sons, he worships at Holy Angels Catholic Church in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, where he volunteers to carry the cross in Sunday Mass.

“The twisted little man” who wrote his scripts still lives in his head, he said, but is no longer in charge. The big question was whether Eszterhas could write without the tobacco, alcohol and deadly darkness that fueled his 16 screenplays, which became movies that grossed more than $1 billion.

Can he still write screenplays? How about one that mixes his old talents with some of his new convictions? It’s a Jewish story, of course. But I predict that these radical changes in the writer’s life may have had something to do with the connection to Gibson and this scripture-driven project. It may be just as relevant as his work in “Basic Instinct.”

Sounds like religion may be connected to this piece of a major entertainment-news story. Might the pros at the Times do just a tiny bit of new research on Joe Eszterhas?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Bill

    I wish I could remember which TV show I saw Mel Gibson interviewed on – perhaps Larry King; it was after his infamous antisemitic tirade. He had done the standard Hollywood/NY/DC damage control bit about seeking treatment for alcohol/drug/depression. On this occasion he said that he hated and was ashamed of that part of him that says things that are hateful, hurtful and offensive to humans and above all to God. It struck me that here was a man who was tortured by demons, and in his sane and sober hours wanted desperately to overcome them. How hard it must be to fight one’s demons in pubic view – especially when they are unpopular demons.

    I recall Gibson’s cameo in The Passion: his hands drove the nails through Christ’s hands. Gibson said then that his sins were responsible for the Crucifixion.

    We’ll likely read a lot more coverage of this, should it go into production. The real story here is redemption, whether you frame it from a religious or secular framework. I don’t see how the religious dimension can be ignored, and I hope it is treated seriously.

  • Julia

    I’m thinking the connection between the two might be AA.

  • tmatt


    A totally logical fact to pursue. Excellent point.

  • tmatt

    Is anyone having trouble with the comments link?

    I discovered your excellent site via another and find it most thoughtful.

    In reading the Gibson/Eszterhas piece, it struck me that the reporter assumed American/European convention and referred to Judah Maccabee as “Maccabee”, as if Maccabee was his surname. It was not. Many theories have been put forth as to the name’s origin, but no Jew refers to him
    as anything but Judah or Judah Maccabee. In formal situations, hewould have been referred to as Yehuda ben Mattiyahu, following the custom of his time. Jewish surnames are a recent invention, one imposed by European authorities.

    While the above may seem picayune, it reflects the overall tendency of the press to assume that all religious groups follow the same conventions.


    Sari Garfinkle

  • Steve

    While the story of “Judas Maccabeus” (designated such in my Oxford Bible) may be characterized by the media as Jewish, it is well to remember that for both Gibson and Eszterhas – as Roman Catholics – it is a part of Christian Scripture. It is no more surprising that they would want to make this picture than it is that Veggietales would make a film about Jonah.

  • sari


    You are correct. Maccabbees I & II are considered canonical by Roman Catholics, but neither book is included in the Jewish canon. The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah (dedication) celebrates the re-dedication of the Jewish Temple. Little mention is made of the holiday in the Mishnah (older portion of the Talmud). Some posit that the Rabbis chose to emphasize the miracle of the lights rather than what could have been considered a miraculous military victory for fear of offending Rome, which had expelled the Jews after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., and/or because the descendants of Judah, the Maccabbee, gave rise to the corrupt Hasmonean dynasty, which ruled until Herod’s accession to power in 37 B.C.E.

  • Hadassah

    I don’t think anyone expects Gibson to tell the story the Jewish way.

    The real question is: will the movie be worth watching? Alex Joffe – – has high hopes for the film. He says Gibson is great at epic movies like Braveheart and he is just the person to portray Judah Maccabee as a complex character. I guess time will tell…