Hacksaw Ridge must be the most quintessentially Mel Gibson-y film that Mel Gibson has ever made. Like so many of the projects he has had a hand in, it features plenty of rigid Christianity, plenty of entrail-splattering violence, and zero subtlety.
It even harks back to his youth in Australia: most of the actors are Australian, and it was shot in New South Wales. The one Gibson trademark that’s missing is the craziness that has enlivened so much of his work both in front of and behind the camera, from his live-wire performance in Mad Max to his ancient dialogue in the last two films he directed, The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto.
There’s nothing as exhilaratingly eccentric as that in Hacksaw Ridge. Maybe Gibson was feeling chastened by the scandals that have followed him since Apocalypto came out a decade ago: the racist and anti-Semitic outbursts, the drunk-driving, the starring role in Jodie Foster’s awful comedy, The Beaver. Whatever the reason, he proves with Hacksaw Ridge that he can still make an efficient Hollywood epic which is as stirring, and as gruesome, as Braveheart.
The film tells the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a pacifist and Seventh-day Adventist who served courageously as a US army medic in World World Two, despite his refusal to pick up a rifle. The screenplay, by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan, traces his pacifism back to an incident in his picturesque childhood in rural Virginia when he clonked his brother on the head with a brick, and then, afraid that he might have murdered him, dashed over to a framed picture containing the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” See what I mean about subtlety? Another factor is that his father (Hugo Weaving) became an alcoholic after he lost his friends in World War One, a trauma which the film conveys by having him slugging whiskey in an army cemetery.
It would be harsh to call the film ‘Hackneyed Ridge’, but not too harsh
The depiction of Desmond’s romantic life is even more old-fashioned. From the moment he catches sight of a winsome nurse (Teresa Palmer), lit like an angel, and wearing a perfectly tailored and laundered white uniform, it’s plain that she will turn out to be as loyal, virtuous, and loving as he is. Sure enough, after one of those film courtships in which the woman addresses the man by his full name (“Are you going to help me, Desmond Doss?”), the young sweethearts are engaged. It would be harsh to call the film ‘Hackneyed Ridge’, but not too harsh.
The film doesn’t get much more sophisticated when Desmond joins the army and meets his new buddies at training camp. One of them is a cowboy nicknamed Tex who is first seen practising lasso tricks. Another is a drill sergeant (Vince Vaughn) who, like every other drill sergeant in the movies, seem to have spent as much time in an improv-comedy class as he has in a warzone. But as hokey as this part of Hacksaw Ridge is, it’s also spirited and entertaining, and it raises some interesting issues: does Desmond deserve to be on a battlefield if he won’t carry a gun? Will he endanger his comrades if he can’t defend them? And how do his pacifist principles square with the knowledge that his fellow troops will slaughter as many enemy soldiers as they can?
Well, we soon find out. After an hour or so, Desmond and company arrive at the titular Hacksaw Ridge in Okinawa, where they have to scale a sheer cliff-face and then charge through a smoky, blasted wasteland towards the waiting Japanese. What follows may not be the best battle scene ever, but it’s certainly the one in which the most faces and limbs are turned to raw mince. As well as getting the adrenaline pumping, this relentless carnage demonstrates just how bold Desmond’s pacifism is.
In one breathless set piece, he dashes through a warren of dark tunnels, dodging Japanese soldiers, and there’s a real frisson in knowing that, for once, we’re watching an action hero who can’t resort to a dagger or a pistol or even a punch in the face. He just has to keep running. It’s clear that, rather than being the coward that some of his comrades had accused him of being, Desmond is a genuine braveheart - and that’s even before he puts himself in danger, again and again, so that he can drag wounded soldiers away from the frontline and back to safety.
Beyond the novelty of a war film about a pacifist, and the fact that the remarkable events it depicts really happened, Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t have many surprises. There is no ambiguity, no questioning of Desmond’s beliefs, and no complexity to his wholesome, all-American character. Another director would surely have made a more challenging, intelligent version of his life story. But no other director could have made a more sincere one. As clichéd as it is, Hacksaw Ridge passes muster because it is so uncynical about the man it memorialises. Gibson’s reverence, for soldiers and for hardline Christians alike, is disarming.
Still, the film would have been better if it hadn’t been quite so hagiographic. It’s one thing to have Desmond slap away a grenade that’s just been thrown at him, but having him deflect another one with a Maradona-like kick immediately afterwards is a little too reminiscent of Garfield’s most famous character, Spider-Man. By that point in Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson had already convinced us that Desmond was a hero. There was no need to make him a superhero, too.
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