Directed by: Mel Gibson.
Written by: Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight.
Starring: Andrew Garfield (Desmond Doss), Vince Vaughn (Sergeant Howell), Sam Worthington (Captain Glover), Teresa Palmer (Dorothy Schutte), Luke Bracey (Smitty), Hugo Weaving (Tom Doss), Rachel Griffiths (Bertha Doss), Ryan Corr (Lieutenant Manville), Richard Roxburgh (Colonel Stelzer), Luke Pegler (Milt 'Hollywood' Zane), Richard Pyros (Randall "Teach" Fuller), Ben Mingay (Grease Nolan), Firass Dirani (Vito Rinnelli), Jacob Warner (James Pinnick), Goran D. Kleut (Andy 'Ghoul' Walker), Harry Greenwood (Henry Brown), Damien Thomlinson (Ralph Morgan), Robert Morgan (Colonel Sangston), Nathaniel Buzolic (Harold "Hal" Doss), Ori Pfeffer (Irv Schecter).
No matter what else you can say about Mel Gibson – and lord knows, you can say a lot – you have to admit that the man knows how to film mass violence on screen. I’ve been mixed on almost all of the films he has directed – from Braveheart to Passion of the Christ to his latest, Hacksaw Ridge – mainly because I think the dramatics in his films is often confused, or because Gibson seems to be contradicting the message of his own movies with the focus on the mass levels of blood he shows. Yet, it’s also undeniable that there are images in all of those films that stay with you – haunt you even. The heroes of Gibson’s directed movies flirt with the line between belief and fanaticism – they seem to almost be actively courting death, even as they preach against it. Gibson’s films seem much like the man himself – torn apart, at war with themselves. Like their creator, the films are religious, but prone to violence. This makes all of his films interesting to watch and consider – even if they don’t quite hold together.
Hacksaw Ridge is about Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) – a Seventh Day Adventist, who enlisted in WWII even though he was a pacifist, and would refuse to carry a gun. What he wants is to be a medic – to help the other soldiers who will be fighting, thinking that this could be his way to serve, even if he cannot take another man’s life. Doss arrives at his beliefs honestly – his father (Hugo Weaving) was a WWI veteran, forever haunted by the war, who doesn’t want either of his sons to join, and preaches non-violence – while at the same time, is a violent drunk, prone to beating his family – and even threatening them with a gun. Doss has seen this violence first hand, and doesn’t want a part of it. He runs afoul of his superiors during basic training – who, not unreasonably, wonder what use Doss could be for them if he will not carry a rifle. His superiors – and others in his company – try to convince Doss to leave – so as not to put them in danger, but he refuses. Eventually, he wins the right – and ends up with his men in Okinawa, in a brutally bloody, violent battle – where, of course, Doss proves himself to be braver than anyone with a gun – as he saves man after man long after everyone else has retreated.
Hacksaw Ridge is neatly divided into three acts – of Doss’ life before the war, his life in basic training, and finally his the battle of Hacksaw Ridge. The early scenes, set in his small Virginia town are almost impossibly idyllic – like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life, in his sweet relationship with his future wife (Teresa Palmer), to his faith, and everything else. There are punctuations of violence in these scenes – at the hands of his father, but even those we don’t really see how violence he can be until later in the movie in flashbacks. These scenes reminded me of something like the early scenes Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July – but in Stone’s film, the impossibly idyllic scenes had a point – that life in America was only ever that idyllic in the mind of his teenage protagonist, not reality. In Gibson’s version, it really does seem that idyllic.
The scenes in basic training are interesting. We’ve become accustomed to these as well – including that of the profane, bullying drill sergeant – here played by Vince Vaughn, who of course, gives them all nicknames. When the men find out about Doss’ religious convictions – his refusal to pick up a gun, they respond the way we think they will – they are angry, they cruelly mock him, and eventually, they even beat him up. Yet, you can tell that they all sort of admire him as well – they don’t want him around because him being there make themselves feel smaller, somehow less moral. They are dealing with the real world, and Doss is dealing with something on a higher level.
The battle scenes are among the bloodiest you will ever see in a movie. If Gibson just wanted to outdo Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan on pure bloodshed alone, that he accomplished that. This is a movie that before a shot is fire, has close-ups of corpses being eat by rats and maggots, men with their guts hanging out after being torn in half by gunfire. When the violence actually begins, things get worse – bodies are set on fire, heads explode, guts are spilled, etc. It is among the most violent battle sequences ever put on film – and its filled with the kind of slow-motion, attention to detail (or fetishization) that Gibson does so well. Gibson cannot resist his baser urges in these battles sequences – he cannot rise to the level of Doss, as he really does love showing the violence in all its gory details. Doss is so committed to preserving human life that he even attempts to save some of the wounded Japanese soldiers he finds. But because Gibson is locked onto Doss’ perspective, he is unable to make the Japanese anything other than an unstoppable force, constantly coming at the Americans with blood in their eyes. That’s regrettable – but makes sense. What makes less sense is Gibson showing the Japanese commanding officer – a character we’ve never seen before – committing seppuku in gory slow motion. There’s no reason why it should be in the movie – other than the fact you know Gibson couldn’t help himself.
Ultimately, I think Gibson is like the other soldiers who fight alongside Doss – utterly in awe of him and his beliefs, yet unable to follow them himself. All of this makes Hacksaw Ridge a completely and totally fascinating film to watch – and even more fascinating film to think about and debate. It is a film full of contradictions and flaws, but I cannot shake it.