Hacksaw Ridge has been widely touted as a “redemption” for Mel Gibson after his spectacular fall from grace that began in 2006. If there is any truth in this rather glib idea, Mel hasn’t taken the meek-and-mild route. In fact there are two Mel Gibsons at the helm of this movie – the old-fashioned Hollywood sentimentalist and a very 21st century connoisseur of screen violence.
Gibson established his credentials as a director of extreme violence with Braveheart (1995), and his two subsequent projects, The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Apocalypto (2006) were astonishingly brutal. In Hacksaw Ridge he lifts the intensity even further with some of the most heart-stopping battle scenes of all time.
The film also provides ample scope for Gibson’s religious preoccupations, featuring a hero, Desmond T. Doss, who refuses to carry a gun because it contradicts his beliefs as a Seventh-Day Adventist. Desmond is frequently found praying, consulting his Bible, and making spoken appeals to the Lord. This provides a useful ambiguity, allowing the film to be interpreted as an anti-war statement while providing enough bloodthirsty thrills to satisfy the most demanding sadist.
Andrew Garfield, taking another stride away from Spider-Man, plays Desmond as a consummate hillbilly sustained by his faith in God. Gibson makes sure we understand the roots of Desmond’s convictions by showing us how his early encounters with a drunken father (Hugo Weaving) and a fight with his brother (Nathaniel Buzolic), leave him with a distaste for violence.
When Desmond falls hopelessly in love with nurse, Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), his awkwardness is painful to watch. It’s his sincerity and good-heartedness that wins her over, although viewers may find him too goofy for comfort.
Because Desmond’s greatest desire is to help others he cannot stand by in the wake of Pearl Harbour, as his peers join the army. He enlists with the intention of becoming a medic, aiming to save lives, not take them. This leads to a catastrophic stint at training camp where his refusal to carry a weapon causes him to be victimised by his fellow soldiers, and almost gets him court-martialled. The ordeal proves that Desmond has a will of iron beneath that hokey exterior.
The star turn here is Vince Vaughn’s Sergeant Howell, who makes the ritualistic humiliation of his charges into a comedy routine. Both he and his superior, Captain Glover (Sam Worthington), are alarmed at the thought of a conscientious objector in the ranks, even though Desmond claims he’s more of a “conscientious co-operator”
Despite the obstacles in his way, we know Desmond will make it to the battlefield in Okinawa that gives the film its name. When he gets there, everything goes ballistic.
To compare the combat sequences in this film to even the most powerful scenes from the era of John Wayne, is like putting Otto Dix’s paintings of the trenches of World War I alongside a Victorian battle scene by Lady Butler. The troops’ first sight of the ridge is one of unadulterated horror. A blackened wasteland pitted with craters and gullies caused by artillery fire, it is littered with eviscerated corpses and body parts. As the soldiers advance towards the enemy they walk over hands, heads, spooled intestines, feasting rats and grinning skulls – not in moody black-and-white, but ghastly colour.
The confrontations with the Japanese are explosive and terrifying. One feels the ferocity and desperation on both sides, as bodies are riddled with bullets, arms and legs torn from torsos, figures wreathed in sheets of flame. The score, by Rupert Gregson-Williams, which seemed merely intrusive when it underlined every action in the first part of the film, now becomes an integral part of the drama.
Everything moves so quickly and with such force it’s as if we are in the midst of the battle, experiencing the same visceral shocks as the soldiers.
The film was previewed by groups of veterans in the United States, who claimed it was the first time they’d seen a movie that captured their own experience of combat. It suggests there’s nothing heroic about war. We see a prolonged, senseless slaughter as men charge towards guns and get mown down, or shot in the back as they flee. A head raised above a trench gets pierced by a bullet. A grenade takes out an entire group.
As the American battalion is forced back off the ridge, only Desmond remains. For an entire night he will comb the battlefield, avoiding Japanese patrols while retrieving the wounded and the dying. He ties each soldier to a rope and lowers him to the foot of the ridge. “Just one more, Lord,” is his mantra.
It’s incredible but true. Although a few characters have been invented, and some of the scenarios fine-tuned for added drama, the movie sticks closely to the historical record. In the course of one night, Desmond Doss rescued 75 soldiers who would otherwise have been left for dead. Throughout that long vigil Gibson never lets the tension slacken. Inwardly we keep urging Desmond to get down off the ridge and save his own skin. When the credits roll and the lights go up, you feel relieved to have made it out in one piece.
Directed by Mel Gibso
Written by Andrew Knight & Robert Schenkkan
Starring Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Sam Worthington, Vince Vaughn, Luke Bracey, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Nathaniel Buzolic
Australia/USA, rated MA 15+, 131 mins