Director Mel Gibson
Starring Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving, Teresa Palmer, Luke Bracey, Vince Vaughn
Released 22nd May 2017
A near ten minute standing ovation at Venice last year started the momentum that culminated in Oscar nominations and a couple of wins for Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson’s first film as a director for ten years. A lot of water – and events – had flowed under his personal bridge and this set the seal on his Hollywood re-habilitation.
It’s a true story of heroism, of Desmond Doss who, although he volunteered to serve in World War II, was a conscientious objector and refused to bear arms. It nearly cost him his liberty, as he faced a court martial for disobeying orders but intervention from an unexpected source meant that he could still serve without bearing arms. He became a medic and perhaps the most celebrated one in the American army, rescuing 75 men during the battle of Okinawa without firing a single shot. And that number included several enemy soldiers.
Gibson’s essential directorial style hasn’t really changed much since Braveheart. It’s still soft centred in a Hollywood kind of way, but Hacksaw Ridge is a film of the proverbial two halves and the second one shows something rather different. The first part is pretty much devoted to Doss’s (Andrew Garfield) backstory – his upbringing and the influences that lead to his religious beliefs, plus the romance between him and his eventual wife, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). His home life, despite a strong religious conviction, is less than happy, with his World War I veteran father (Hugo Weaving) finding that the bottle doesn’t help him forget his traumas from that time.
Desmond, however, is determined to do his duty and signs up for the Army, but to be a medic. Not that the Army is sympathetic or supportive. He passes all his training with flying colours except for rifle competency, endures bullying from superior officers and fellow soldiers, yet stands his ground. And, eventually he finds himself at one of the bloodiest battles of the War, rescuing 75 men without firing a shot. He became the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal Of Honour.
As we move from his home life to his training, Gibson gives us hints – rather in the style of Paul Haggis – of what’s to come. At one point, his sergeant (Vince Vaughn, playing against type) asks him if he can carry his own body weight. Yep, that’ll come in useful later. And he’s also pilloried for making a mess of tying one particular style of knot. But what he’s tied will put in an appearance later on as well. Let’s face it, Gibson isn’t going to waste time showing us this if it isn’t significant.
Once training is over, the film changes radically – in tone, appearance, style and impact. We’re plunged into the battle scenes, which come as a massive shock after the softer focus we’ve enjoyed so far. Now it’s all about the heat, blood and brutality of battle – chunks being shot out of soldiers, monstrous flame throwers turning men into blazing silhouettes and the wince making reality of maggots and rats among the corpses. Gibson doesn’t spare our sensitivities here and it means the second half of the film is bang on target, emotionally and authentically.
It’s also where Doss comes into his own, as does Garfield’s performance. Most of the American troops have retreated, but Desmond is like a man possessed. Repeatedly uttering his mantra of “just one more”, he goes in search of injured comrades, reassuring them that he’ll “fix them up” and sending them down the line for medical treatment. It’s a tense, involving climax and, by the time he leaves the battlefield, he’s near collapse himself from physical and mental exhaustion. It’s also Garfield’s finest hour and the culmination of one of his best roles to date, the fulfilment of the promise he showed ten years ago in his breakthrough and BAFTA winning role in Boy A.
After his time in the wilderness, Gibson is most definitely back and those Oscar nods and wins confirmed it. He’s made a film that’s part old-fashioned Hollywood, part powerful war drama – and very much anti-war. Put the two together and what you have is a crowd pleaser, one with a stand-out performance from its leading man, a strong moral compass and some excellent action sequences. And those positives are so good, you almost forget the negatives.
Verdict: 3.5 – with an extra half for Garfield!
Hacksaw Ridge is released on DVD on Monday, 22 May 2017 and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 25 May.