Mel Gibson’s Planned Judah Maccabee Blockbuster Shows He Still Doesn’t Get it.
All good heroes have to change. So all the storytelling gurus and literary theorists, from Aristotle onwards, agree. If you get to Act III and there’s been no transformation, you’ve lost your audience. There are, of course, exceptions: sit-com protagonists rarely change; there are a few great ‘stuck’ characters, like Peter Pan, whose very inability to grow is the hallmark of their identity; and high literature sometimes throws up a clever-dick like Ovid, who wrote an epic, Metamorphoses, in which the hero was Change itself. But, in Hollywood at least, the Rule of Change is a hurdle few heroes can vault.
The tricky bit, for writers, is that their heroes must also stay the same. It’s no good having Han Solo slough off his vanity and cynicism and embrace the Light Side, if it turns him into another earnest Luke Skywalker. Elizabeth I’s transformation from woman of passion to ivory-skinned Virgin Queen only moves us if we know her passion is still seething beneath her leaden foundation.
Seen in this context, Mel Gibson’s decision to make a film about Judah Maccabee comes straight out of the screenwriting primer. Right now, Gibson is at the nadir of the Act II crisis — what script-doctors call ‘Descent to the Deepest Cave.’ Already consumed by alcoholism and battered by domestic strife, Gibson has branded himself a pariah with his rants about Jews. He has to change. But his redemptive transformation will be entirely in character. For, as with Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, the story of Judah Maccabee offers the opportunity for a rich historical drama, with lovingly evoked scenes of sadistic torture and a hero prevailing against numerically superior but spiritually impoverished foes. Only this time, it will be a Jewish hero. Presto, change-o, Mel is kosher again — and yet somehow he’s still Mel. But what exactly is a Jewish hero? And does Judah Maccabee count as one, anyway? The figure of the Jewish hero is a contested one. Here’s a conversation I recently overheard between two old schoolfriends:
A: I don’t like the Israeli-type macho hero. I prefer my Jewish heroes old school.
B: Like Bar Kochba?
A: Like Franz Kafka. The little specky guy who thinks too much. Who can’t really get his head round having a body — let alone putting it in danger. Not the IDF commando with his wraparound shades. There’s nothing Jewish about wraparound shades.
B: Yeah, but without the commando to protect him, Kafka gets killed by the Nazis.
A: The Nazis didn’t kill Kafka. B: Communists, then.
ME: Can’t you two shut up while the game’s on?
Which, I realise now, implicitly put me in B’s camp. As for the Maccabees, if they are heroes they are curiously uncelebrated ones. At cheder the details of the Chanukah story were always left vague. Occasionally I, or another mystified child, would pipe up, asking who exactly the Maccabees were fighting, and over what, and why they sounded so Scottish. No one ever explained. No one bothered to mention how Alexander the Great conquered most of the known world; how his empire fused local traditions with Greek culture — the gym, the games, the theatre, the household as a hive of economic productivity (this was ancient Greece); how little Judaea managed to retain a degree of religious and political independence as part of the Seleucid empire; how tensions between Hellenized and traditional Jews escalated into something close to civil war; how the Seleucid king Antiochus IV waded in on the Hellenisers’ side, massacring Jews, banning traditional practices, gruesomely torturing dissenters; and how these outrages kindled a rebellion under the command of a provincial priest’s son called Judas Maccabeus, who waged a guerilla campaign against the might of the empire. (In addition to their vagueness about the bigger picture, our teachers glossed over the little details left on the ground when the Maccabees forcibly mass circumcised the Hellenised Jews they conquered. But rest assured that that’s one bit Mel won’t cut.)
The apocryphal texts certainly trumpet Judah as a great military and religious leader. He is implicitly compared to the judges, especially Joshua, who, like him, waged a divinely inspired war of conquest against pagan neighbours. And yet, being a great military leader does not make him a hero in any way that his people would have understood. Nowadays the term ‘hero’ can be used loosely to describe any protagonist, or, for tabloid newspapers, any professional soldier. But the word was originally, of course, Greek. And the notion of a Jewish hero, to a traditional Jew of Judah’s time, would have been nothing less than a contradiction in terms. For heroes were not only foreign — they were blasphemous. The Greeks were literal hero-worshippers: the cultic worship of figures like Hercules and Theseus was ubiquitous across the Greek world. Indeed, having a cult in your name was the only absolute requirement for the job of hero. That said, an all-action background was preferred: some heroes were great statesmen or lawgivers or even artists in life, but being big and violent was a definite plus. The basic mould of the hero was the warrior or the athlete, and the foundational texts of Greek culture were the Homeric epics, in which prodigiously big and strong men relentlessly compete — in war, games and sometimes love — for honour. This battle for personal martial or athletic glory and cult worship is what makes these heroes so unjewish. ‘Kafka heroes’ were thin on the rocky ground of Greece. It’s true you get the odd outlier like Odysseus, who’s big and violent but also wordy. And then there’s Oedipus, who’s big and violent but has a complicated relationship with his mother. But what is lacking is anything akin to Judaeo-Christian morality. Certainly, Homeric heroes had a value system. But the key value they fought and died for was their kleos: their honour, their name, the story that would be told of them down the ages, accompanied by the sacrifices that would nourish their immortal shades. They were not required to embody or fight for anything that we — or the Judeans — would have recognised as good against evil.
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