Lawsuit-hit film about Hawick academic to be seen on big screen at last

Mel Gibson in The Professor and the Madman.
Mel Gibson in The Professor and the Madman.

A controversy-hit film about a Borders academic has finally been given a release date after a legal dispute lasting years, but its star is warning cinema-goers not to get their hopes up, branding it a disappointment.

Movie legend Mel Gibson and director Farhad Safinia have agreed a confidential settlement with Voltage Pictures over their film The Professor and the Madman, but they remain unhappy about how it has turned out.

That deal, agreed at Los Angeles Superior Court in California, has enabled a US release date of Friday, May 10, to be set by Vertical Entertainment for the film, about Denholm-born dictionary compiler James Murray, but it’s not yet known when, or even if, it will come out here.

Gibson, born in the US but raised in Australia, plays Murray in the movie, based on the 1998 Simon Winchester book The Surgeon of Crowthorne.

The 63-year-old’s company, Icon Productions, bought the movie rights for the book the year it came out, but it took until September 2016 for filming to begin, continuing into 2017.

“As partners in Icon Productions, Bruce Davey and I are huge fans of Simon Winchester’s bestselling book on which the script was based and worked for 20 years to bring this amazing story to the screen,” Gibson told US film news website Deadline.

“This was a labour of love for the entire creative team, and it is unfortunate for all concerned that this film was never finished as written.

“I regret that this film will never be seen as it was meant to be. Making it was never about money for Icon – it was about bringing this amazing story to the big screen.

“Sadly, that has not happened in the way it could have.”

“The Voltage version of this film is a bitter disappointment to me.”

This month’s settlement follows a federal judge dismissing a copyright-infringement complaint filed by Safina against Voltage.

The succession of lawsuits that had been holding up the film’s release stemmed from a disagreement over the film’s shooting location.

Gibson and Safinia believed that some key scenes needed to be shot at Oxford in England instead of Trinity College in Dublin, but Voltage chief executive officer Nicolas Chartier ruled that out, claiming the £20m movie was already over budget and behind schedule.

“Over the last two years, we have doggedly tried to film essential scenes in Oxford, which makes sense for a film about the Oxford English Dictionary,” explained Gibson, famous for films including 1979’s Mad Max and 1987’s Lethal Weapon. “Apparently, it was not meant to be.

“The shooting script was not completely shot, therefore, I did not get the opportunity to choose a final cut and cannot support the film.”

The film co-stars Sean Penn as dictionary contributor William Minor, and its cast also includes Steve Coogan, Natalie Dormer, Stephen Dillane and Eddie Marsan.

Hawick teacher Murray, born in 1837, worked on putting together the Oxford English Dictionary from 1879 almost until his death in 1915 at the age of 78.

He is the second Scot to be portrayed by Gibson on the big screen following his turn as Renfrewshire knight William Wallace, named as guardian of Scotland at a ceremony in Selkirk in 1297, in 1995’s Braveheart.

A trailer for the film can be seen at