When Mel Gibson directs a film he somehow contrives to make it a game of two halves, to quote the accident prone sports commentator, David Coleman. Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge is exactly that. The first half is an old fashioned, quaint, pack-in-the-clichés army drama, wild eyed drill sergeant and all, and the second is a blood soaked killing field.
Braveheart has a similar construction. The first thirty minutes has the quality of an old BBC Scotland schools broadcast in acting and story telling, then the writer Randall Wallace gets inspired by historical detail and the drama is given real impetus.
I still regard Apocalypo Gibson’s best work by far, gripping, original, beautiful and bloody to witness, and a fine metaphor for the futility of all-consuming hatred and war. That too begins with a montage of idyllic life in a tribal village but it’s far more interesting than anything depicted before. The unexpected twist in the coda tells us no matter how cunning a tribe is in battle there’s another tribe smarter than you and twice as powerful. “Let us return to the forest and start anew,” says the battle weary warrior to his wife and child.
Hacksaw travels from the Elysium North to Hades South in two hours hacksaw a fitting title for the carnage we witness. This is a film at war with itself. Which makes sense, because it’s story is about a man at war with himself, and when you think about it, perhaps Gibson too is a man at war with himself. He’s fought the vagaries of Hollywood studio authority, the need to be seen a serious actor who can play Hamlet, (he did, part shot outside Edinburgh) doubts about the existence of God, a battle with booze and temper, all conflicts manifest in the subject matter he chooses.
The Passion made him a very rich man. Loyal Catholic Latinos went to see it six or seven times boosting his box office takings ten fold. He’s a filmmaker wealthy enough to make his own movies with his own money, and commission others, which he does regularly.
The film is based on a true story. It was shot in Australia; the real Hacksaw Ridge is only about 30 feet tall. Tall enough, you might think, but the one in the film is three times that height. This is what’s called creative license, it heightens the drama, but it makes nonsense of one man lowering 75 wounded men to the ground by rope in one night.
Okinawan authorities don’t promote the site. The island is still stunned by the bloody legacy of a conflict imposed by rulers 950 miles away in Tokyo. Up to a quarter of its population died over a few weeks known as the “rain of steel”. Over 90% of the buildings were razed and fields were left laced with mines, corpses and spent ammunition.
The main character actually existed, Dawson Doss, the kind of religious fundamentalist a lot of people take a body swerve to avoid, myself included. He was a Seventh Day Adventist whose religious beliefs prevented him from carrying a gun, eating meat, or working on a Saturday.
“With all the killing going on what’s wrong with trying to save a few lives?” Doss won the Congressional Medal of Honour for his actions as a medic during the WWII battle for Okinawa. He proved himself one hell of a brave soldier.
For his part Andrew Garfield gives us a memorable performance, if somewhat derivative of his recent religious adherent, the rookie priest in Scorsese’s Silence. He is far better in this movie, more focussed, more comfortable with the simplicity of the character.
As with William Wallace, Gibson gives us Doss’s back life in the film’s first hour, a sunny existence of moral certitude played out in a small leafy town in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. As played by Garfield, Doss is a pleasant, naïve, sheltered young man, who struggles with a tortured, alcoholic father, (Hugo Weaving from the Matrix movies) a former First World War veteran, a convenient symmetry if true.
Doss struggles with a degree of poor education. After nearly killing his brother with a brick as a child, Desmond finds God in a wall poster, the emotional discovery not an unknown attraction for confused adolescence, one that soon evaporates when adult life teaches the Gospel is an impossible code by which to live. But Doss never deviates from his beliefs.
From that portrait you expect Doss to be the last person to enlist in the army, but like his brother, he does, and refuses to touch a rifle. At this point the plot collapses into cliché. In barracks he meets a group of characters straight out of The Dirty Dozen. There’s the psychopathic bully rejected by his mother, a mouthy Italian from New York, a Texan fancy with his lasso, the guy who looks like Lurch from the Adams family, a handsome narcissist who loves to parade in the buff nicknamed “Hollywood”, everybody except the serial rapist in the shower. Understandably, the odd man out, Doss gets beaten up as a ‘coward.”
Despite his scrawny frame, Doss aces all his training, save for the rifle part much to the bewilderment and fury of his company’s hard-ass drill sergeant with a heart, a plausible Vince Vaughn delivering the de rigueur arse-kickery with an above-it-all attitude, and their practical-minded, impatient Sam Worthington his captain.
The sergeant screams in Doss’s face, “I have seen stalks of corn with better physiques. Makes me want to pull an ear off, Private! Can you carry your weight? Stay away from strong winds!”
Doss wants to be a non-combatant medic and faces a court marshall to test his wacky beliefs expecting to be thrown out of the army. Since we know he gets to fight at Hacksaw Ridge there’s not much tension in that scene, but it does hold our attention, even after his faithful girlfriend, (Teresa Palmer) and father turn up to speak on his behalf, and we expect to see his granny, his primary teacher, his old pal, and his dog as well.
So, we are shown an extended prologue to implant in our minds the dogged character of a simple man with simple beliefs, and for the most part it is effective.
When the platoon reach Okinawa, all hell breaks loose, and all beliefs and certainties are as clay in a rain storm. Any illusions about heroism and combat are torn to shreds like the soldier’s bodies. The scenes of combat battle are horrific and mesmerising, a case of the pornography of violence. Pieces of human fly every which way; heads and torsos explode like a melon hitting tarmac. If Spielberg set the industry standard for killing in Saving Private Ryan Gibson moves it to an intensity unknown before.
Critics aver Gibson has never had a good-taste filter when it comes to violence but in my book that makes him dangerous as a filmmaker. I acknowledging there’s a large element in the graphic scenes of the pornography of violence, particularly when it’s slowed down. Some of the battle scenes in Hacksaw Ridge are shockingly graphic. I lost concentration a few times in the idealised predicable first half, never in the gruesome second half.
There is purpose in Gibson’s vision of Hell. We get no exhilaration from all this carnage. He is showing us the real horror of incessant, wave after wave of graphic, shocking murder in the name of war. And it works.
The spectacle highlights Doss’s outstanding achievement, saving countless wounded men, from foxhole to foxhole in the middle of the battlefield, with no thought of his own life, a target for the Japanese waiting to take a shot at him.
In the middle of that nightmare Gibson gives us the game of Christmas football between German and British soldier, when, caught in a tunnel, Doss blunders into a wounded Japanese and tends to his wounds. This is the moment of pacifism writ large.
It is difficult to know what Gibson is asking us to believe: war is hell? Well, we knew that already. There is humanity in the midst of killing? True, the most hated man is capable of the most generous of acts. There is a hackneyed slow-motion charge at the enemy, so is it, war can be glorious, the US army a great army? Or is it God is the answer to making a wimpy soldier a hero in battle?
As a filmmaker, I think Gibson is trying to articulate there is something fundamentally irreconcilable about Doss’ love of peace amid a justified war. Somehow, the director has made a film that can contain that contradiction, that is and remains irreducible. He breaks his own movie apart. If I’m correct in that interpretation then Gibson achieved what I think he wanted to achieve. He makes us think. Just don’t forget to wear your tin helmet.
- Star rating: Three and a half stars
- Cast: Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn
- Director: Mel Gibson
- Writer: Robert Schenkkan, Andrew Knight
- Cinematographer: Simon Duggan
- Composer: Rupert Gregson-Williams
- Duration: 2 hours 19 minutes