After seeing Mel Gibson’s films, here’s one thing we can gather: he likes his religious served up with lots of violence. Despite his making The Passion of the Christ, deep down he’s an Old Testament guy–an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. In Hacksaw Ridge he tells the story of a pacifist with one of the most bloody battle scenes ever put on film.
But here’s the thing–it’s a great battle scene, and to show anything less violent would be a disservice to those who fought. Like Steven Spielberg’s Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan, Gibson’s Okinawa will go down as difficult but brilliant filmmaking. The only problems is that the battle only takes up the second half of Hacksaw Ridge.
Andrew Garfield stars as Desmond Doss, a real man who shunned violence. We see him hit his brother in the head with a brick as a child and feel bad about it, and he later takes away a gun from his drunken father (a very good Hugh Weaving) and swears from then on he will never touch a gun. When World War II breaks out, he feels it’s his duty to serve, and wants to be a medic. But it turns out to be a medic you have to pass rifle training.
So we get old-fashioned scenes of Garfield being treated with contempt by his platoon-mates and his superiors, notably Vince Vaughn as his sergeant and Sam Worthington as his captain. Oh, and his platoon are standard-issue 1940s diversity, white-style: Italian, Pole, guy from Brooklyn, guy from Texas. Everyone will misjudge Doss as a coward, and everyone will look at him slack-jawed as the film ends.That and a sweet but inconsequential romance with a nurse (Teresa Palmer) make Hacksaw Ridge eye-rolling in its early stages, the kind of film they don’t make anymore for a reason.
But then, after Doss is given permission to become a medic without holding a weapon (Weaving, a World War I vet, pulls a string), and the men try to take the titular place, the film goes into a place of horror and nightmare. They have to climb a rope ladder up a cliff and face the Japanese on top. By the time Doss and his colleagues go up, the Allies have been repulsed six times, but must take it. And so we see viscera–intestines, bodies blown to bits, stray legs, caved in faces, rats eating dead bodies, men set ablaze by flamethrowers, you name it. My sister asked me if her fourteen-year-old son should see it, and I warned her, it’s not for the faint of heart, even today’s kids.
Gibson knows how to do this. He doubles down on the viciousness of Braveheart, and even surpasses the gore of Passion of the Christ, which I liked but found one of the most violent films I’ve ever seen. You could either say he’s a stickler for realism or a sadist, or maybe both.
In any event, Doss, sans firearm, manages to drag 75 wounded me to their safety. I’m not sure of the message though–did his faith carry him through, or was he incredibly lucky, for surely there were many men with faith who died on that ridge. What matters is that along with cinematographer Simon Duggan and editor John Gilbert, along with fine work by Garfield and Weaving, Gibson has made half of a very good film.