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Ten years have passed along with much uncomfortable tabloid scrutiny since Mel Gibson’s last film as director, Apocalypto. Back in the saddle with Hacksaw Ridge, he once again proves himself a muscular storyteller who knows exactly how to raise a pulse, heighten emotion and build intensity to explosive peaks. Themes of courage, patriotism, faith and unwavering adherence to personal beliefs have been a constant through Gibson’s directing projects, as has a fascination with bloodshed and gore. Those qualities serve this powerful true story of heroism without violence extremely well, overcoming its occasional cliched battle-movie tropes to provide stirring drama.
Whether the Lionsgate release, opening Nov. 4 in the U.S., can come close to the popular appeal of a recent war movie like American Sniper will be interesting to watch, since Hacksaw Ridge examines the experiences of a World War II American soldier who served his country by saving rather than taking lives. In a fully inhabited performance, Andrew Garfield plays Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, after he remained behind when his battalion was forced to pull out the during a tricky stage of the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, single-handedly carrying 75 wounded men to safety.
American playwright-screenwriter Robert Schenkkan, who chronicled the theater of war in this same region in HBO’s 2010 drama series The Pacific, penned the script with Australian TV writer Andrew Knight. The movie doesn’t always tread gently as it underscores the anomaly of a self-sacrificing pacifist in an environment where bravery is more often measured according to the number of enemy kills notched on a soldier’s gun belt. But Gibson and his screenwriters bring unquestionable conviction and sincerity to a story that honors a different and no less noble brand of valor.
Born and raised in Virginia in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Desmond is introduced as a scrappy kid who knocks his brother out cold in a fight, almost causing serious injury. That episode serves as a cautionary lesson, and he grows up with deeply etched moral codes, a devoted Seventh-day Adventist. Desmond’s father Tom (Hugo Weaving) is a mean, abusive drunk, irreversibly scarred by his time in the First World War, and the loss of the buddies with whom he enlisted. When Tom turns his anger on the boys’ mother, Bertha (Rachel Griffiths), Desmond grabs hold of a pistol and steps in to stop him. Thereafter, he swears never to touch a gun again.
In these early scenes Desmond also meets pretty Lynchburg Hospital nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), declaring almost instantly that he’s going to marry her. At the same time, the uneducated young man develops an interest in medicine, after his quick thinking at an accident scene saves a boy’s life.
Defying their father’s wishes, Desmond’s brother Hal (Nathaniel Buzolic) enlists to fight after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, and Desmond follows soon after. But training camp proves tough for him when he insists on his constitutional right to serve strictly as a medic, refusing to comply with mandatory rifle training. That confounds Captain Glover (Sam Worthington), who instructs Desmond’s immediate commanding officer, Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn), to make life hell for the young soldier, aiming to squeeze him out of the Army. His fellow soldiers interpret Desmond’s principles as cowardice, generating aggressive hostility, especially from tough-guy Smitty (Luke Bracey).
These scenes wade into familiar territory, with Vaughn’s character recalling countless overbearing screen drill sergeants who break in their men with mocking humiliation and physical punishment, while Worthington’s characterization doesn’t go much beyond gimlet-eyed appraisal and gravel-voiced disdain. But Garfield gives Desmond an ironclad will, refusing to be swayed from his determination to serve on his own terms — even insisting on his right to observe the Sabbath.
Military hearing scenes to determine if Desmond’s offenses are grounds for court-martial are pretty much pro forma for the genre, with a little too much Statement Dialogue, though the intervention of Tom on his son’s behalf, and the loving support of Dorothy from the sidelines, fuel the film’s tightening emotional hold.
The action then explodes into gut-wrenching combat in the riveting second half, after Desmond’s battalion ships out to the Pacific. The rocky escarpment that gives the movie its title vaguely recalls the landscapes Desmond scrambled over as a boy. If the troop can take the strategic Japanese stronghold, they can take Okinawa.
While anyone with a passing knowledge of WWII history will already know the outcome, the depiction here of the shattering reality of war is dizzying in its sustained visceral impact, barely allowing time to identify casualties in a whirl of panic, pain and split-second decisions. The devastation is already extensive and the ground strewn with bloody corpses by the time Glover and Howell consolidate the remaining troops for a renewed assault. Gibson’s robust skill as a conductor of large-scale conflict — which goes back to Braveheart — is as sharp as ever. But amidst the chaos, he takes time to register key moments in which even Desmond’s harshest persecutors are forced to reverse their low opinion of him.
Garfield’s fiercely driven performance through this extended passage makes this a deeply moving portrait of fearless, selfless heroism. He goes back, again and again, to administer morphine shots and retrieve the wounded, muttering a mantra-like prayer, “God, please help me get one more.” Depending how you feel about The Passion of the Christ, it might be easy to be cynical about Gibson’s emphasis on religion, from the tenacity with which Desmond clutches Dorothy’s Bible to the images of baptism and ascension amid so much death. But Garfield’s Desmond is every bit as human as he is holy, his suffering that of a man, not a saint. The extremely graphic nature of the violence onscreen makes his steadfast nonviolence all the more affecting.
Cinematographer Simon Duggan, editor John Gilbert and visual effects supervisor Chris Godfrey show great skill at combining the murky near-blindness of a combat scene, ripped apart by grenade blasts, bullets and flames, with jolts of chilling lucidity. Moments in which the screen becomes a canvas of human destruction, splashed in red, have an awful beauty that’s something to behold.
The big orchestral score by Rupert Gregson-Williams also serves to keep the climactic action surging forward. Gibson has never been a director with much use for understatement, and he’s in his element with the furious bluster of battle. But there’s no denying the effectiveness of the drama, or the resonant emotional notes as men like Glover, Howell and Smitty see Desmond through new eyes. And it’s hard not to read their humility as intertwined with Gibson’s own efforts toward rehabilitation after his widely chronicled personal struggles with rage.
The movie was filmed in Australia, which explains the cast’s strong local contingent, all of them convincingly playing American. Veterans Weaving and Griffiths bring troubled depths to their careworn characters, while Palmer makes what could have been just another decorative sweetheart role into a woman whose goodness, strength and loyalty make her a perfect match for Desmond. Also from the Oz casting pool, Richard Roxburgh shows up briefly as a military shrink, while Bracey’s imposing physical presence and charismatic appeal command attention whenever he’s onscreen.
But the film’s firm anchor, its moral compass and its considerable heart is Garfield, inhabiting his frontline position as both character and performer with extraordinary fortitude and grace.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Opens: Nov. 4
Production companies: Pandemonium Films, Permut Productions, in association with Vendian Entertainment, Kylin Pictures
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Vince Vaughn, Richard Roxburgh, Nathaniel Buzolic, Luke Pegler, Ben Mingay, Nico Cortez, Ryan Corr, Jacob Warner
Director: Mel Gibson
Screenwriters: Robert Schenkkan, Andrew Knight
Producers: Bill Mechanic, David Permut, Terry Benedict, Paul Currie, Bruce Davey, Brian Oliver, William D. Johnson, Tyler Thompson
Executive producers: David Greathouse, Stuart Ford, Eric Greenfeld, Len Blavatnik, Aviv Giladi, Lawrence Bender, Rick Nicita, Christopher Woodrow, Michael Bassick, James M. Vernon, Buddy Patrick, Suzanne Warren, Lenny Kornberg, Mark C. Manuel, Red O’Neal
Director of photography: Simon Duggan
Production designer: Barry Robison
Costume designer: Lizzy Gardiner
Music: Rupert Gregson-Williams
Editor: John Gilbert
Visual effects supervisor: Chris Godfrey
Casting: Nikki Barrett
Sales: IM Global
Not rated, 139 minutes
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