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“Dear Lord, help me get just one more” – Hacksaw Ridge and the hellfire of combat

There follows a review of Mel Gibson’s triumphant return to the director’s chair Hacksaw Ridge. If you are looking for a review that will psychoanalyse Gibson you will be disappointed. I am entirely unqualified to go there, and will stick to discussing the actual film. Which is terrific. If you have followed Gibson’s fall from grace (and who hasn’t?) you can see Hacksaw Ridge and draw your own conclusions as to whether it is the work of a man actively seeking redemption or not. 

Hacksaw Ridge is only the fifth film as director from Mel Gibson and it has been ten years since Apocalypto his previous. This new picture, a war film, shows that Gibson is anything but rusty. It is a heartfelt film that continues his fascination with themes of belief, faith and extreme violence.

The film is based on a genuinely extraordinary true story. Desmond Doss was a Seventh Day Adventist whose religious convictions (he refused to carry a weapon) saw him labelled a ‘conscientious objector’ during World War Two. However, out of a feeling of duty he enlisted in the army determined to become a medic.

Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight’s script takes Doss’ story and give it a clearly delineated three act structure. Act one is set pre-war and centres on Doss’ familial relationships and his charming romance with a young nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer). Act two shows Doss’ experiences in training, facing bullying and opposition to his determination not to touch a rifle. Act three is simply total war.

The early sections of the film are Capraesque in their idealised depiction of American small town life, and presentation of a salt-of-the-earth, common-man hero. Cinematographer Simon Duggan bathes every scene in a golden autumnal glow and Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score is lushly romantic. But like the Frank Capra films that it references, the apparent wholesomeness masks a darkness. Doss’ father (Hugo Weaving) is a veteran of the Great War and his experiences ruined him. He is now an alcoholic and abusive father and husband. Doss himself has an early experience as the perpetrator of violence that personalises his religious commitment to non-violence.

There is no doubting that his faith has outlined Doss’ convictions, but they have been shaded and coloured in through his personal experience. Andrew Garfield brings just the right amount of wide-eyed enthusiasm, decency and intelligence to his role to make Doss’ naivety about how the Army will treat his convictions not play as stupidity. The character is not Forrest Gump, he isn’t an idiot savant, he just expects to be treated with dignity and respect.

The boot camp section of the film piles on war movie cliches. Vince Vaughan plays Sgt. Howell torturing raw recruits with acidic quips and withheld leave passes. The performance is from a lineage that includes Christopher Walken in Biloxi Blues, and R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. Actually Vaughan is excellent in the part, developing the more hard edged performance he showed in True Detective but delivering some very funny lines.

When his refusal to even hold a rifle becomes clear, Doss is instantly targeted by Howell and the unit’s commanding officer Captain Glover (Sam Worthington). The men are turned against him, and he eventually faces a court martial. That Doss surmounts these obstacles is not really a spoiler, the film opens with a brief flash forward to him in battle, and the entire film is predicated on the dark gravitational pull of war.

If the tone of the review to this point seems negative this is not a true representation of my opinion. Yes, there are elements of cheesiness and the boot camp section is comprised of cliches (yes, there is a training scene of men crawling through mud under barbed wire; yes, there is a forced march in full gear; yes, there is a bit where the drill sergeant kicks over someones bed and then accuses them of keeping a messy bunk) but the film is never dull, and as it moves into its extended final act the purpose of these elements becomes clear.

Gibson and screenwriters Schenkkan and Knight have set up what feels like a very classical war movie but with a central character completely atypical for the genre. Some critics are praising Gibson’s skill at orchestrating carnage whilst calling the overall dramatic arc of Hacksaw Ridge cornball. To do so is to I think undervalue the skill and the intelligence with which this film has been achieved.

The warm glow of the film’s first act, and the familiarity of the second does nothing to prepare the audience for the third. As the film shifts to the Pacific theatre Doss’ unit arrive at Hacksaw Ridge. The Ridge is a central defensive point that American forces must take to push on to the island of Okinawa and ultimately the Japanese mainland. Practically the entire final hour of the film consists of a series of battle scenes that play out with almost no respite between them, forming one continuous vision of a hell on earth.

The intensity of these scenes is at least the equal of the Omaha Beach sequence of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Bullets tear through flesh, bodies are turned into meat, flamethrowers turn the landscape into an approximation of hell. And to even reach this, soldiers must first climb a 400 foot cliff via a rope ladder.

The battle sequences are bludgeoning, edited for maximum impact, drenched in blood and gore. Into this crucible Doss runs, without any means of defence, delivering aid and morphine to the wounded. Without stretcher bearers, he must carry injured men on his back across the battlefield. These scenes are as harrowing and intense as any war film I have ever seen. It may be tempting to think that Doss’ actions and the intensity of the fighting have been exaggerated, but the medal citation given to the real Doss for his actions on Hacksaw Ridge makes sobering and frankly awe-inspiring reading.

Mel Gibson has never been, and I sincerely hope will never be, a subtle filmmaker. Gibson has the un-ironic sentimentality and political conservatism of classic Hollywood filmmakers like Capra and Ford. But he also has the demonstrable attraction to and immense skill in the depiction of extreme violence of Sam Peckinpah. Hacksaw Ridge is a perfect blend of these apparently contradictory elements the director has produced to date. The head on collision of sentiment and gut spilling carnage hasn’t been as impactful since the late eighties/early nineties heyday of John Woo.

Also like Woo, Gibson is clearly attracted to the theme of faith. Western audiences seemed to think Woo’s use of dove symbolism was there because it looked cool, but actually Woo really meant it! Gibson’s depictions of faith and belief have tended to be a little on the nose for our irony loving culture, and I confess I had difficulty with his The Passion of the Christ, a relatively straightforward version of the passion made notable through the deployment of dialogue in Aramaic and eye-watering levels of Fulciesque gore. I much prefer the more questioning approach of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, although this film is really no less a genuine faith based picture.

With that last comparison in mind it is somewhat ironic that Hacksaw Ridge is being released right after Scorsese’s film Silence (in the UK, the situation is reversed in the US). There are similarities between the two films, both star Andrew Garfield, and both are at heart about the testing of faith in extremis (and at the hands of Japanese antagonists). While Scorsese’s dense and intellectual film targets the head. Gibson goes straight for the heart and the guts. This time, I preferred Gibson’s vision.

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