Not the Next ‘Passion’

A widely circulated Internet report that Steven Spielberg was planning to produce a trilogy of films exposing Christian brutality has been denounced as a hoax and "mean prank" by the filmmaker’s chief spokesman.

The report, headed, "Spielberg Fights Fire With Fire," quotes him as preparing a movie on the Christian Crusades of the Middle Ages, in response to the supposedly anti-Semitic slant of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ."

"I will show Christian brutality in a realistic and most graphic and gory way," Spielberg is alleged to have said.

If successful, the Crusades movie would be followed by a film on the Spanish Inquisition and a subsequent picture, "Hitler and the Pope: A Team Formed in Hell," the Internet message continued.

Spokesman Marvin Levy described the story as "vicious" and "absurd…. Anyone who knows Steven would know that he is dedicated to doing what he can to rid the world of hatred and intolerance, wherever it exists," Levy said.

He added that "It’s a shame that Internet messaging has become a means of spewing anything that fits [the sender’s] distorted agenda."

At a press conference last week to mark the DVD release of his film, "Schindler’s List," Spielberg said that he would not comment on "The Passion" until he had seen the movie.

If and when he views it, "My first call will be to Mel Gibson," Spielberg said.

Lord of the Oscars

Around the time Mark Ordesky discovered J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy trilogy "The Lord of the Rings," he was engaged in his own epic struggle: trying not to flunk out of Temple Emanuel’s Hebrew school. "I was spectacularly unsuccessful at it," confides the affable, boyish executive producer of director Peter Jackson’s "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," now leading the Oscar pack with 13 nominations. "I’ve a terrible facility with languages."

So 38-year-old Ordesky, then around 12, dropped out and didn’t become a bar mitzvah until he was 18. It’s the only time he’s been late for anything in his life.

Before he was 30, the USC journalism grad was head of acquisitions for New Line Cinema. By 34, he’d been named president of the studio’s indie arm, Fine Line Features. Ignoring the critics who called him "a boy in a man’s job" Ordesky purchased films that brought Fine Line its first best picture Oscar nomination (for the Holocaust-tinged "Shine") and ushered action superstar Jackie Chan into the New Line family. After making a shidduch between his old pal Jackson and New Line, he was instrumental in shaping the movie that brought the studio its first best picture nod and a current worldwide gross of more than $727 million.

"It was a gargantuan risk," he says of the studio’s decision to gamble $270 million on a project never before attempted in film history: making three films at once on a 274-day shooting schedule. "Without question, my job was at stake."

So, apparently, was the studio: "A lot of naysayers thought we’d lost our minds," Ordesky admits. "So I decided to read ‘Final Cut,’ the story of the making of ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ which was the unmaking of United Artists. I read it because a lot of people were saying behind my back that I, personally, Mark Ordesky, was leading New Line to its Waterloo."

Jackson saw the executive’s role differently. "Mark knew Tolkien’s books, and he knew what the franchise could become," the director told The Journal. "I don’t think New Line would have picked up the project if he hadn’t been so enthusiastic. His contribution to these films has been huge, in everything from casting to post-production."

Ordesky’s enthusiasm dates back to his childhood years as a self-professed "Dungeons & Dragons and fantasy-literature geek." He noted the Holocaust parallels upon his first reading of Tolkien’s trilogy, which was partially written during the Hitler years: "The humans of Tolkien’s Middle Earth are besieged by ferocious enemies who hate them for no other reason than they are human," he says. "They have these ambivalent allies, the elves, and the dwarves are isolationists living in the mountains. Growing up Jewish, I could relate to that."

Cut to the late 1980s, when Ordesky, then working acquisitions, met Jackson, a fellow "Rings" enthusiast. The executive had been trying to convince his bosses to purchase the director’s early films, "Bad Taste" and "Meet the Feebles" (which Ordesky describes as "unbelievably clever and absolutely disgusting"); his bosses said, "no way." Undaunted, Ordesky secured Jackson a New Line "Nightmare on Elm Street" screenwriting gig and let him sleep on his couch when the New Zealander’s paltry Los Angeles per diem ran out.

As Jackson put it, "We played Risk, we watched bad horror films, and we became friends."

A decade later, the filmmaker called on his old friend when his beloved "Rings" project went into turnaround at Miramax, which had ordered him to compress the trilogy into two films. After other studios spurned the project, it was Ordesky who ushered Jackson and his collaborator, wife Fran Walsh, into a meeting with then New Line chairman and CEO Robert Shaye in 1998. In a legendary moment, Shaye asked the director why he wanted to turn a trilogy into two films rather than three. "[We felt] just sheer joy … that our project was going to survive," Jackson says. "It wasn’t until later that the realization of what we’d actually gotten ourselves into sunk in."

As the director began shooting in more than 100 locations with 2,400 crew members in New Zealand, it was Ordesky who served as his trouble-shooter, advocate and sounding board.

"While it was inherently funny to see people walking around the set wearing false noses and incredibly long beards, there were also some dark moments," says Ordesky, who toured the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles with Jackson during a "Rings" screening there last week. "At times I remember thinking, ‘If this doesn’t work out, I might not survive this business.’"

Instead, "Rings" garnered a stellar $74 million during its December 2001 five-day opening and cleaned up when the Oscar nominations were announced. During a recent Journal interview at the Newsroom cafe, the exec suddenly rolls up his right shirt sleeve to reveal an unusual memento of the film: a tattoo of the number 10 in Tolkien’s invented language of Elvish. The tattoo came about after the actors who played the nine members of the Fellowship got inked with the number nine as a souvenir of the shoot. When the actors suggested that Ordesky was like the 10th member of the Fellowship, they arranged for him to get his own tattoo. "It’s a memento of movies that I desperately wanted to see made," Ordesky says. "I’m thrilled I was able to play a role in bringing them to the screen."

The Academy Awards ceremony airs March 24.

A ‘Ring’ of Bias Not Likely

I imagine the fish out of water is the only fish to have an inkling of water. — J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien, the “discoverer” of Middle Earth and the source of the imminent-blockbuster movie “The Fellowship of the Ring,” (which opens in theaters Dec. 19) was a lot of things. Many of them contradictory.

The erudite professor of philology and expert in Norse languages wrote books about dragons and trolls and elves and wizards. The devout Roman Catholic purged any mention of Christianity from the 500,000 pages of his epic, “The Lord of the Rings,” series.

The unrepentant monarchist (“Give me a king whose chief interest in life is stamps, railways or race horses; and who has the power to sack his vizier if he does not like the cut of his trousers”) became an icon of the 1960s counterculture, and his literary themes enlisted to encourage drug use and free love.

The fiercely loyal Englishman who wasn’t sure the Americans were any better than the Soviets is more popular — and intellectually respected –in the United States than in his own country. (But arguably even more wildly popular in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics!)

But as Peter Jackson’s cinematic trilogy based on The Lord of the Rings unfurls over the next two years (the release of “The Fellowship of the Ring” will be followed by “The Two Towers” in 2002 and “The Return of the King” in 2003) and adds significantly to the tens of millions of his existing fans, some will ask: Was J.R.R. Tolkien anti-Semitic?

Since there are no religious designations or distinctions of any kind, not just Christianity, in “The Lord of the Rings,” the answer must come from other sources. Most troubling for many is Tolkien’s love for, and use of, the Norse pagan myths — the same ones the Nazis (and many present day white supremacists) turned to for inspiration.

Also the Roman Catholic Church of his era (he was born in 1892), which he loved so fiercely, was known to harbor many with anti-Jewish sentiments.

Then, in a 1971 BBC radio interview two years before he died, he was asked if the different races in The Lord of the Rings represent specific character-istics, “the elves wisdom, the dwarves craftsman-ship, men husbandry and battle, and so forth?”

“I didn’t intend it, but when you’ve got these people on your hands you’ve got to make them different, haven’t you?” he replied. “The dwarves of course are quite obviously — wouldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic, obviously, constructed to be Semitic. The Hobbits are just rustic English people.”

That well may be his only recorded comment linking Jews with “Lord of the Rings.” The stereotype is there if one wants to use it. The dwarves’ primary weakness, as revealed in the saga — to their own detriment as well as harm to the quest of the Fellowship — is a lust for gaining, protecting and hoarding jewels and gold and silver.

It is obvious that each of the races of Middle Earth are a combination of strength and weaknesses, each contributes negatively and positively. In fact it is the race of “men” who are the most given to evil.

The racial distrust and bigotry of Legolas, the elf, toward dwarves is matched prejudice-by-prejudice by the feelings of Gimli, the dwarf, toward elves. Yet, it is these two who struggle toward and eventually reach a position of mutual respect and deepening friendship that models how different cultures and races should be able to get along.

Andrew O’Hair, writing in Solon magazine last summer, agrees Tolkien “is the product of his background and era, like most of our inescapable prejudices.” But he insists, “At the level of conscious intention he was not a racist or anti-Semite.”

Michael Martinez, a major authority on Tolkien on the Web at, turns the idea that he’s guilty because he was a man of his times, inside out by noting that Tolkien’s “time” included “living through two world wars and the 1960s,” when the scholar would have been attuned to the discussion and dissection of the shallowness of anti-Semitism.

One would think [Tolkien], who expressed so much disapproval of his fellow white Englishmen, would have expressed any phobia about Jews somewhere, Martinez says. “Instead, in his letters, we are treated to discussions of how the Orcs in the British army behave.”

The best response comes from Tolkien himself. After Hitler came to power, but prior to World War II, the German government officially requested, through Tolkien’s publisher, that he establish his racial purity so they could authorize a translation of The Hobbit (the prequel of “The Lord of the Rings”).

The Oxford don, struggling financially to support his family, could have used the income from Third Reich sales. Instead, though Tolkien is a Germanic name, he took the opportunity to remind the Nazis of the ludicrous pretension of racial purity.

“Thank you for your letter…. I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend,” he wrote. “I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are inquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people….”