Director: Mel Gibson
Length: 2hr 19m
The return of Hollywood sleaze Mel Gibson to the film industry after his 10 years of shamed exile is a divisive one, many saying the infamous drunken outbursts that smeared Gibson’s name with that of disgrace and humiliation should be enough for Hollywood to never forgive him. However, with an admirable array of nominations for this year’s award season, including six Oscar nods, it seems that is exactly what Gibson has managed to pull off. Gibson’s last directing ventures showed a passion for violence and brutality, in the biblical epic The Passion of Christ (2004) and the gory action-adventure Apocalypto (2006). So I was intrigued as to what Gibson could have found so gripping in the story of Desmond Doss to use it as his daring return onto our screens, and how he could make it stand out in the bountiful canon of WW2 films. Yes, Mel delivered on the battlefield, but Hacksaw Ridge is more than just another bloody war film. It’s a heart-warming testament to an outsider, whose determination to stick by his beliefs lead him to become the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor, without firing a single shot in the war.
Andrew Garfield plays Desmond Doss, a deeply religious Seventh Day Adventist whose pacifist morals entail refusing to touch a gun, leading to obvious complications after enlisting for the US army. I was initially perturbed by Garfield’s portrayal of the character, especially his twangy Forrest Gump-esque voice, however I slowly warmed to his goofy smile and awkward demeanour and have to admit, Garfield exceeded my expectations. The supporting characters also contained more depth than I anticipated, including Hugo Weaving as Doss’ drunken father suffering from WW1 survivor’s guilt. What could have been a flat and unnecessary character is made into so much more than just another abusive drunk, but a broken shell of war who does not wish to see his son suffer the same fate.
The film starts 16 years before the main action of the film, in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, where we learn Doss’ renunciation of violence arose from an incident in childhood where he almost killed his brother by hitting him on the head with a brick. Fast-forwarding a few years, the kind-natured Doss now shows a passion for helping others, and the love story that blossoms between Doss and a beautiful local nurse (Theresa Palmer) is endearing, if a slight cliche. It’s almost laughable to see this weedy, caring boy so determined to enlist, and I found his stubbornness to pick up a weapon during training just as infuriating as his peers, despite his good intentions. The other soldiers mistake his actions as cowardice, and under the encouragement of the alpha male Sergeant, Vince Vaughn, try to force Doss to leave the army. Eventually his determination compels others to abide his eccentricities, and Doss is sent to Japan to fight the battle for Okinawa.
If the storyline on the homefront lacked grit, Gibson really comes into his own once the blood starts to flow; the nightmarish scenes of unforgiving destruction at Hacksaw Ridge reminiscent of that of Saving Private Ryan. His take on frontline warfare is graphic and hard-hitting. Doss can only watch as his fellow soldiers are torn apart by the relentless torrent of bullets from the Japanese, able to do little under the conditions as a medic who refuses to fight. It is after the allies are forced to retreat and Doss is left behind on the corpse ridden battlefield, that his heroism begins to shine through. Working alone, Doss managed to save the lives of over 70 injured men left stranded on Hacksaw Ridge through an awe inspiring determination and strength of spirit I can only marvel at.
Despite the powerful punch of Gibson’s violent battle scenes, its flaw lies in the subsequent weakened emotional response to the deaths of characters. What Mel clearly intended as one of the emotional climaxes of the film, the death of soldier Smitty, lacked depth in its quick, impassive delivery. This may have been Mel’s intention, to convey the brutal and impersonal nature of dying in war. Or perhaps the supposedly climatic death lacked emotional weight for me because I couldn’t justify Doss’ response of anguish and mourning for a character who had bullied Doss from the beginning, an action I felt wasn’t forgiven by a somewhat lacklustre apology the night before his death. This is a true testament to the unfailingly kind character of Desmond Doss, that he cares so much more deeply than the majority of us ever would about others, no matter how they have treated him. The film ends with excerpts of tapes of the real life Doss and other characters, and I was pleased to see the true Desmond was just as good natured and humble, if not more, than Garfield portrayed him.
Hacksaw Ridge has all the punch of your classic war film, full of courage and camaraderie with a refreshing moral twist. Gibson is back doing what he does best, and delivers with such heart and vigour that I must conclude his talent outweighs his misdemeanours. If he continues to direct films such as this, let us hope we don’t have to wait another 10 years before his next contribution to Hollywood.