Hollywood Flashback: When Mel Gibson's 'Passion' Turned Christ's Blood Into Gold

FILMING OF THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST - 2003-REX/Shutterstock - One time use-H 2016
Nick Cornish/REX/Shutterstock



"I think it's the best thing I’ve ever done," the 'Hacksaw Ridge' director tells THR today of his 2004 epic drama, which grossed $612 million worldwide and became a landmark film among Christians for its gory, vivid portrayal of crucifixion.

That Mel Gibson's latest film, Hacksaw Ridge, has an abundance of blood and gore is expected — the film is set during World War II's Battle of Okinawa and stars Andrew Garfield as a real-life Seventh-day Adventist medic who refused to bear arms. The fact that Ridge could be less blood-soaked than 2004's The Passion of the Christ, however, says something about how the director portrayed the agony of Jesus' final 12 hours.

THR said the film displayed "near pornographic violence" and described it as "a medieval Passion Play with much better effects." But the vivid portrayal of crucifixion is still so popular among penitent Christians that in the Philippines and some Latin American countries, believers take a vow to watch Passion on each of Lent's 40 days. "I'm glad people see the film as a meditation. That's what I wanted it to be," Gibson, 60, tells THR. "I think it's the best thing I've ever done."

Gibson's self-financed film even received a thumbs-up from Pope John Paul II. The pontiff saw a prerelease DVD in his Vatican apartment, and his five-word assessment was, "It is as it was." (Passion was less popular with Jewish groups, who felt blame for Christ's crucifixion was placed on them rather than the Romans.) But it was with a worldwide audience that the film found its real popularity. It's safe to say that no subtitled, $30 million film done entirely in Aramaic and Latin ever again will gross $612 million worldwide. (On Tuesday, Gibson revealed that his sequel will be called Resurrection.)

"Because of the language and subtitles, other distributors thought it would be an art house film," says Amazon's Bob Berney, who in 2004 headed Newmarket Films. "We saw it as Mel's 'Braveheart Jesus.' On the day it opened, there was a multiplex in Plano, Texas, that had it on all 23 screens that sold out starting at 6 a.m. The studios could not believe independently distributed films could have that kind of success. In many ways, it changed the business."

Passion topped the U.S. box office for three weeks after its Ash Wednesday release (and came close to recouping its $30 million production cost on that day alone) before being dethroned by the zombie resurrection film Dawn of the Dead.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.