With the Lethal Weapon franchise now in full swing, this was enough action for a while. Gibson turned down the lead in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (he also turned down the role of James Bond, TWICE – after Roger Moore had departed, and then after Timothy Dalton), and took on Shakespeare’s finest, Hamlet. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli, and co-starring such heavyweights as Glenn Close, Alan Bates and Paul Schofield, the movie was a huge risk for Gibson. Some critics jeered, unable to accept that Mad Max might dare to follow in the footsteps of Olivier, but Gibson really was good, more than holding his own in terrifying company. And he kept on with his “interesting” projects. Next came the tear-jerking Forever Young, where he played a man frozen for fifty years, then woken up by Elijah Wood (later Frodo Baggins in The Lord Of The Rings). Then he played alongside another kid in Man Without A Face, where he played a horribly scarred recluse who becomes a young boy’s mentor. Importantly, this was also Mel’s first directing experience – the thoroughly unlikely practice run for Braveheart.
Mel had formed a production company, called Icon, and had signed a $42 million, four-picture deal with Warners and got moving fast. Mel’s love of opera (inherited from his gran, probably) and classical music led Icon to produce Immortal Beloved. Later, they’d make Anna Karenina, 187 and Fairy Tale: A Love Story, the last of which would see Mel turn up in the last shot as the little heroine’s daddy, returned from the war. First, though, there was the Mel-starring Maverick, written by William Goldman and directed by Lethal Weapon’s Richard Donner.
But it was Icon’s next production that made Mel undeniably the biggest star in Hollywood. Randall Wallace (later to write Mel’s We Were Soldiers), sent a script to Icon concerning William Wallace, a Scottish hero who, partly for freedom’s sake and partly due to the brutalizing of his wife, went to war with Edward I and nearly won. Mel, who’d always love epics like Spartacus, went for it. The wife angle was familiar too, with Gibson taking to calling his character Mad Mac. As said, aside from the infinitely smaller Man Without A Face, Gibson had little experience of directing, and none of directing on this scale – and he knew it. Filming in Ireland, he took to carrying around a book he’d had made, titled A Beginner’s Guide To Directing The Epic. He had, though, done his homework, studying the battle sequences in Kubrick’s Spartacus and Orson Welles’ Chimes At Midnight. He knew what he wanted and, with the help of the Irish army reserve, serving as extras, he got it.
Braveheart was a mighty achievement. Aided by great performances from Gibson, Angus Macfadyen as Robert The Bruce and especially from Patrick McGoohan as Edward Longshanks, it was invigorating, touching and tremendously brutal. The battle sequences were amongst the best ever filmed, and the story-telling was strong too. Gibson surprised everyone – for action films are not traditionally the Academy’s favourites – by taking the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director.
Turning down the role of another Brit icon, Steed in The Avengers, Gibson moved on to a string of huge hits. In Ransom he played a rich man taking all manner of crazy risks to rescue his kidnapped daughter. In Conspiracy Theory, co-starring Julia Roberts (who he kept sending dried rats) and directed once again by Richard Donner, he was a geek cabbie who gets drawn into a real CIA plot. Then, after Lethal Weapon 4, where Martin Riggs was unfortunately a parody of himself, there was the harsh and thrilling Payback, a remake of Lee Marvin’s Point Blank with Gibson as Porter, calmly and coldly beating and threatening everyone till he gets his money back. Mel had every right to be a bit tetchy – he suffered appendicitis during the shoot and production was halted for a week while he was in hospital.
After this came Wim Wenders’ more arty The Million Dollar Hotel where Gibson played an FBI agent investigating the bizarre occupants of run-down hostelry. The movie was apparently based on the ideas of U2 singer Bono, his band having performed on top of the same hotel when filming the video for Where The Streets Have No Name. After this, Mel provided the voice of Rocky Rhodes The Rhode Island Red Rooster in the animation Chicken Run (he’d earlier provided the voice of John Smith in Disney’s Pocahontas).
Now came two more Big Ones. In The Patriot, as Colonel Benjamin “Ghost” Martin, he took on the English forces during the American revolutionary war. The movie was a tad sentimental and borrowed heavily from Michael Mann’s superior Last Of The Mohicans. But audiences lapped it up, as they did Mel’s next offering, What Women Want. Here he was ad exec Nick Marshall, a macho sexist who, having been electrocuted in the bath, can suddenly hear what women are thinking. This, of course, causes much hilarity, both in his “romantic” life and in his relationship with his teenage daughter who’s plotting her first sexual experience. The movie made well over $300 million, and aside from winning him a Golden Globe nomination (he’d also received one for Ransom), it justified Mel’s now incredible pay-packets. For The Patriot he received a then-groundbreaking $25 million.
On he went to We Were Soldiers, the true story of a band of 400 elite US soldiers surrounded by 2000 North Vietnamese in one of the bloodiest conflicts of recent times. Like Saving Private Ryan, much of the movie was an extended battle sequence, but it was searingly effective, nonetheless. And there was also emotional weight added by Mel’s relationship with his screen wife, the excellent Madeleine Stowe.
After this, he took the lead in Signs, M. Night Shyamalan’s follow-up to The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Here he played a Pennsylvania farmer and former priest, his faith destroyed by a terrible accident. As bizarre and frightening events began to occur all over the world, mysterious crop circles appeared in his fields and the suspense racked up as Shyamalan reinvented the modern terror-flick. It was another massive hit for Gibson, recouping a budget of $62 million in its first weekend, topping the box office charts and later returning to the top for another two weeks. Soon passing the $200 million barrier, it was America’s biggest summer hit, even outdoing Goldmember.
Gibson’s next outing would be another fascinating piece – Keith Gordon’s film adaptation of Dennis Potter’s legendary TV series The Singing Detective. Here Robert Downey Jr would replace Michael Gambon as the pulp fiction writer driven to the verge of madness by psoriasis and living in a weird world of painful reality, hallucination and vengeful daydreams. Gibson, near unrecognisable in skullcap and thick-lensed glasses, would play his psychotherapist, attempting to understand his patient’s bitter tongue and violent temper.