Nominally, we are supposed to be this Christian country, although even a glancing look over some of the media’s recent treatment of religious themes in popular culture does make you wonder. Right now, Mel Gibson’s getting it in the neck for, as Time Magazine of Sept. 1 refers to it, his “eccentric film project” – the “eccentric” project being of course, “The Passion,” the filmed recounting of the last day in the life of Jesus Christ.

You get the feeling from the venomous tone of many of the articles written so far about the Gibson film (a number in the New York Times), many of those writing can’t forgive him his Christian fervor, and his conservatism, which rather indeed sets him apart from many of his fellows in Hollywood. So they’re having something of a field day, nailing him for “anti-Semitism,” getting real picky about details such as whether the Roman soldiers spoke Latin or Greek in the Holy Land in Christ’s day. People magazine after running a cute picture of him frolicking on the beach at Malibu with his youngest child (of seven) devotes two pretty nippy pages to him and “The Passion.”

Since when has anyone been given to such incredibly petty nitpicking over anything in any Hollywood production, I ask you? It’s simply: “We’re out to get Gibson.” I like best the biblical scholar who found the film – judging from film clips – as too graphically violent. What else is a crucifixion other than graphic and violent, I would like to know?

Of course, I don’t recollect anyone calling George Stevens’ “The Greatest Story Ever Told” eccentric, back in 1965. Mind you, having a six-foot blond, blue-eyed Swede (Max Von Sydow, wonderful actor though he is) as the young Jewish preacher of the Gospels was a bit of a stretch, and the casting of John Wayne as the Roman centurion did come in for some gentle mockery, but still no one dreamed of calling that biblical project “eccentric.”

The cast of Stevens’ film was about as all-star as you could get in those days: Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier, John Wayne, Carroll Baker, Shelley Winters, Jose Ferrer, Telly Savalas and Claude Rains. Leonard Maltin in his annual compendium rates it three and half stars, referring to “some of the most spectacular scenes ever filmed,” although he did find John Wayne as the centurion supervising the crucifixion a little hard to take.

Four years earlier, Nicolas Ray, who gave the world “Rebel Without a Cause” and made James Dean the icon he remains to this day, had turned his hand to “King of Kings” with Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus, which provoked some wags in the trade to call it “I Was a Teen-Age Jesus.” Still, Maltin giving it two and a half stars deemed it “intelligently told and beautifully filmed, full of deeply moving moments.” Orson Welles lent his sonorous God-like tones to the voiceover. No talk of “eccentric” here.

The following year, the Italian director-poet Pier Paolo Pasolini made “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew” in black and white with non-professionals as his cast. Although a Marxist himself, he treated the text with dignity and simplicity, dedicating his film to Pope John XXIII. The film was received with respect and critical acclaim in Europe and the States.

Then, too, a few years later in 1973 we had “Jesus Christ Superstar,” filmed by Norman Jewison from the Tim Rice / Andrew Lloyd Webber Broadway musical success. It may well be the only film on the life of Christ to have actually been filmed on his native land. I covered part of the shoot in Israel for the Los Angeles Times. Let me tell you: It was a very eerie experience indeed to be strolling across the desert hills by the Dead Sea beside a young man clad in the robes of Jesus. The actor, Tim Neeley, was somewhat overawed by the role he was playing, I remember, and that he couldn’t quite adjust to his mates on the set treating him with special reverence every day.

I think we can safely say Richard Corliss, Time writer and film reviewer, is not overly concerned with giving Gibson the most perfectly balanced of treatments. Incidentally he chooses to end his piece with a clumsy dig equating “The Passion” with “Gigli,” a cheap shot if there ever was one. Corliss refers to films like “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “Priest” (who even knew that was made?) as having grossed less than $10 million at the box office, as if blaming Gibson for his lack of business sense. There is every reason to think Gibson in his personal life is a genuinely devout man, and when he says he wants his film to spread Christ’s message of love and brotherhood, we might just allow him credit until we actually see the film on the screen.

Incidentally, although Mr. Corliss refers to the film being released later this year, Gibson and his associates have stated firmly their plan is to open it on Ash Wednesday. I mean, with all due respect, who’s going to want to take the family to see a movie about the crucifixion after Christmas dinner? Whereas Easter?

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