Director: Mel Gibson
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Sam Worthington, Vince Vaughn, Luke Bracey, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths
Despite being a divisive man, Mel Gibson is an undeniably talented filmmaker. After a tumultuous decade that has seen his standing in Hollywood severely diminished, he returns to the directors chair with Hacksaw Ridge, which tells the true story of Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honour after he single handedly dragged 75 wounded from the World War II battlefield that gives the film its name.
After the Japanese attack Pearl Harbour, young Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) feels compelled to enlist and do his bit for the war effort. However, as a devout Seventh Day Adventist, and having grown up with an abusive, alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving), Doss is vehemently opposed to violence. Having previously entertained the idea of becoming a doctor were it not for his lack of schooling, Doss enlists as a medic in a combat battalion, figuring that with all the people doing their best to take life it might be worth having a few doing their best to save it.
At basic training, Doss’s pacifism is interpreted as cowardice, and he must struggle to earn the respect of his compatriots. Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn, bringing some humour to a character that could easily have been a boring rehash of the sadistic drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket) and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) have little sympathy for his stance, warning his compatriots: “Do not look to him to save you on the battlefield.” They try to force him out, and when he won’t drop out of his own accord, he is court-martialled for disobeying a direct order. After winning the right to run into the hellfire of battle without a single weapon to protect himself, Doss and his battalion are deployed to Hacksaw Ridge, a nightmarish but strategically significant battlefield atop a 100 foot cliff.
Like Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ before it, Hacksaw Ridge is a film about conviction and courage, in this instance conviction and courage inspired by a strong faith. On the battlefield as he recovers bodies, Doss repeats the mantra-like prayer, “God, please help me get one more.” Gibson, while a great storyteller, has never been a particularly subtle one, and Hacksaw Ridge definitely opts for overstatement rather than understatement in getting its message across. There are many scenes of slow-motion heroism backed by Rupert Gregson-William’s rousing orchestral score and Doss even gets a halo moment when it is his turn to be stretchered from the field. This is a film of big emotions, and one which is obviously hoping to impact its audience on a deep, spiritual level. The screening I attended was preceded by an advertisement describing this as a film that could change your life and directing people to the website FaithofDoss.com.
However, when the story arrives at the battlefield at Okinawa it explodes into bloody spectacle. The cinema literally shakes with gunfire in battle sequences every bit as furious as any put on film before. But even at its most frantic, we never lose our bearings. We always know what we are looking at and where we are. The amazing control in these sequences is a testament to Gibson’s skills as a director of action. He has cultivated a visceral approach to violence that is on full display here. Where the violence of a Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez is highly stylised, Gibson’s approach is just as graphic, but far more brutal. When the Americans mount their first assault on the ridge we see heads torn through by bullet fire, limbs blasted off, bodies blown in half. They are harrowing scenes. But while there might seem to be a slight incongruity when a film that celebrate’s a man’s commitment to pacifism descends into an orgy of violence, in fact the fury of the depiction of violence on the battlefield only serves to heighten the impact of Doss’s decision not to retaliate.
Shot in Australia, in and around Sydney, Hacksaw Ridge boasts a predominately Australian cast (though all playing Americans), with solid performances from Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths and Teresa Palmer as Doss’s loving fiancé Dorothy. It is Andrew Garfield though, who has just a hint of a young Mel Gibson here, who carries the film. Garfield brings a boyish charm and rural politeness to Doss which contrasts beautifully with the ferocity of his inner determination and courage.
Many have chosen to interpret this film as a personal act of atonement on Gibson’s part, but ultimately, Hacksaw Ridge isn’t about Gibson, no matter how large his shadow looms over it. Hacksaw Ridge is about Desmond Doss and it is a fitting tribute to the faith and conviction of the man.
Review by Duncan McLean
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