After a ten-year absence out of the wilderness, Mel Gibson returns to the directing fold in Hacksaw Ridge. A lot has been said about his directorial work with critics outlining Braveheart as being his best. But I would disagree – Apocalypto is his best. It’s a visceral, cultural and brutal film centred around a man’s bravery to re-join his family amongst the changing tribalism of the world.
While Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t quite live up to as Gibson’s best film, there’s certainly enough about it to give it its due.
“I don’t know how I’m going to live with myself if I don’t stay true to what I believe.” – Desmond Doss
There’s a sense of irony with Hacksaw Ridge and that comes directly from the lead star Andrew Garfield. He’s starred in two films back to back dealing with faith. In Martin Scorsese’s Silence, he played a Jesuit Priest. In Hacksaw Ridge, he plays Desmond Doss, a seven-day Adventist and a WWII army medic who served in the Battle of Okinawa. While there’s comparisons to be made between the two films in terms of style and making faith the centralised subject matter, Garfield delivers more of a straightforward performance in Hacksaw Ridge than the challenging internalisation and thought-provoking Silence.
Hacksaw Ridge has its heart in the right place but gets off to an uneven start and in some respects you could accuse this film as being Oscar bait.
Like any biopic there’s always a starting point, introducing our main protagonist to their ideals, their thoughts, their fears and their sense of justification. In Hacksaw Ridge, it’s no different. We learn that Desmond’s father, Tom Doss (Hugo Weaving) is a war veteran and an alcoholic who lives an endless, punishing cycle of grief, anger and regret of his friends dying in war and takes it out upon his family, most notably his wife Bertha (Rachel Griffiths). We get insights into Desmond’s faith and his justification for not picking up a weapon after an incident with his brother Hal. Last but not least, we get insight into Desmond’s personal relationship as he falls hopelessly in love with nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), his eventual desire to join the war effort and his subsequent military training where he refuses to conform to the rules of using a weapon.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with what I’ve described. It is rudimentary clear-cut of a foundation you can get from a film. However it’s very clunky in its execution. It will feel jarring and disconnected as if you’re watching another film entirely. Without thinking too much, it’s heavily reliant on saccharine melodrama that naturally ticks all the boxes that appeals to an award friendly crowd. As a result, characters come across as one-dimensional and predictable. It can’t escape the feeling that the thin plot is being stretched out for every inch of its life to justify each frame of film.
You want to understand more about Desmond because at the end of the day the story is about him and his bravery. It’s unlike anything you’ve heard before. A part of me wonders whether structurally the film would have benefited by focusing more on his war achievements. His personal life from his upbringing to his military training can be integrated as flashbacks, resulting in a more direct and focussed film.
But here’s the thing. Despite the flaws, Gibson does manage to find a harmonious balance. When Desmond Doss finally gets his moment to shine, the incredible war scenes seal the deal.
“With the world so set on tearing itself apart, it don’t seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together.” – Desmond Doss
There’s a part of you when watching a war film when you have to comprehend a reality.
Hacksaw Ridge finds itself in the same company as Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers and The Pacific. They are incredibly empathetic, putting the audience into the shoes of a soldier. Every movement is like a lottery in whether you lived or died. It showcases the inhumanity and brutality on what two opposing sides can do to one another. While films and TV shows can paint a realistic enough picture, somehow that will never be enough to convey an incomprehensible experience.
To go into war has to be the hardest decision made by an individual, knowing the risk they face. But to do this without a weapon to defend himself, that’s bravery and courage personified.
The battle scenes in Hacksaw Ridge is reminiscent to the First World War and The Battle of the Somme. Artillery bombardment was used to soften the enemy by making a clear path for the ground infantry. But they underestimated the enemy. The German army built dugouts and bunkers to protect them from the shelling and when the time came for the British and the French to attack, they were ready and waiting with their machine guns.
Gibson doesn’t shy away from the brutality of war. Hacksaw Ridge is given a horror movie vibe similar to the tension-filled opening of Saving Private Ryan. There’s a sensory desensitization about the experience as you’re powerless to look away. It’s relentless as war doesn’t provide an opportunity to mourn or provide certain contemplation. Everything is reactionary and as much as war is a physical exertion, it’s a psychological one as well. The battlefield is covered in fire smoke and debris, an almost mystic and atmospheric appearance where the enemy is impossible to see. Scenes of rat covered dead bodies or dismemberment showcases the ferociousness of the encounter. Some soldiers didn’t fire a round from their weapon, brutally gun downed by the opposition before having that opportunity. Confident men reduced to nothing but shells, fearfully unable to deal with the destruction they see. If you thought the battle wasn’t harrowing enough, you have bodies used as human shields in order for soldiers to progress forward.
But in Desmond Doss you have the empathetic contrast against the brutality. The uneven beginning is given context, serving as the light of innocent beginnings to the nightmarish darkness of war. But most importantly, because of his faith and his pacifist beliefs makes his achievements breathtakingly remarkable. Every rescue he performs is with a sense of dread. Garfield as Doss becomes a World War II Spider-Man as he hides, sneaks and crawls to answer the call of the vulnerable. Yet he does the unthinkable. He saves a life and goes back for more…75 times! He received the Medal of Honor for his actions in October 1945.
I guess God only knows the amount of strength both mentally and physically to undertake such a task. As much as it’s difficult to contemplate, you can’t help but feel in awe of it. Faith has played a big part in Gibson’s films going right back to The Passion of the Christ and in the story of Desmond Doss, he’s demonstrated a story that depicts the bravery of the human spirit. Doss was unique, a conscientious objector who wanted to save life and his belief was not reserved simply for the American soldiers. He helped saved the Japanese soldiers as well, momentarily seeing past the justification of war by identifying with the essence of life.
I guess the only criticism with Hacksaw Ridge (which is similar to The Pacific) is how one-sided the story is. Of course it’s from the perspective of the main protagonist but once again we have a film which paints the Japanese as simply bad people because of their relentless, kamikaze killing and their sheer numbers. War affects both sides, something that Flags of Our Fathers / Letters From Iwo Jima got right.
But nevertheless, in Garfield’s performance you have the emotional arch in Doss from his training where he’s bullied and punished because of his religious beliefs to the heroics on the battlefield. You have the changing of perspectives where he was viewed as an outcast, not belonging to his army regiment despite excelling in every test possible except one to earning respect amongst his colleagues and commanders. Courage and bravery has no boundaries and the flaws doesn’t take away the overall intent and enjoyment of the film. In fact Hacksaw Ridge serves as a good introduction on the Battle of Okinawa and Desmond Doss for further insight and research.
For his first film after a ten-year absence, Mel Gibson is certainly back to winning ways.