A decade after his last movie, Apocalypto, director Mel Gibson brings us this epic tale of war and unswerving religious conviction. Hacksaw Ridge also happens to be one of the best films of the year.
Gibson has mixed his usual ingredients to tell the tale of this real-life hero: Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), the solider who refused to kill. Yet, while we may find some of the director’s techniques familiar, Gibson has used them here with great aplomb.
The Second World War is raging. Our protagonist, Doss, is a young man with an interest in medicine who decides to join the US Army because he can’t stand the fact that his friends and family members are fighting it for him.
However, Doss is guided by an ethical conviction that makes warfare doubly difficult for him. As a devotee of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, he has vowed never to kill, nor to provoke violence of any kind. He refuses to even touch a weapon.
As soon as the young doctor enlists, he gets into trouble with his comrades and superiors who don’t understand how he can go into battle without a weapon. However, Doss ends up proving the strength of his convictions and becoming the first conscientious objector to win the US Medal of Honor.
Mel Gibson’s new film is, without a doubt, the war movie we needed. He recently said:
“Marvel movies have way more violence than any of mine, but you don’t care about the characters. It doesn’t matter that thousands of people are killed because you don’t see the true brutality of the violence or find out who has died.”
Hacksaw Ridge is an anti-war movie. It shows the absurdity of war. And yet, for us to see the true absurdity of war, the violence must be explicit.
Hacksaw Ridge contains scenes that wouldn’t look out of place in a zombie movie: from dismembered soldiers being used as human shields to a queasily slow-motion harakiri.
The film is not perfect: it uses predictable techniques to make you empathize with the characters, and it gets carried away with some of the action sequences.
The protagonist is also a highly contradictory character. He refuses to carry a weapon, yet is willing to allow others to kill for him, which makes him an accomplice to violent acts. However, it could be argued that the ambiguousness of the character’s morality matches that of the original Desmond Doss, who has also had his critics over the years.
Despite its flaws, Hacksaw Ridge is an outstanding addition to the war movie canon.
Gibson claims to make “the type of cinema that nobody else wants to make”. His stories usually feature iconic characters who defy the established order. After William Wallace, Jesus Christ, and Desmond Doss, it wouldn’t be a surprise if his next film were to feature Mahatma Gandhi. And yet, however noble his films, no one can forget the nature of the man behind the camera.
“You’re an embarrassment to me. If you get raped by a pack of n—ers, it will be your fault. I’m going to come and burn the house down… but you’ll blow me first.”
The million-dollar question:
Would you watch a film made by a man who said this to his girlfriend after breaking two of her teeth while she held their new-born baby?
Most of us would probably say no. And yet Mel Gibson – the critically-acclaimed director who packs cinemas with every movie he makes – was recorded saying exactly those words to his ex-girlfriend over the phone.
In one outburst, he said, about film critic Frank Rich: “I want to kill him… I want his intestines on a stick… I want to kill his dog.” He has blamed Jews for being “responsible for all the wars in the world” (as well as claiming they invented the holocaust). He called one of the female police officers who arrested him in 2006 “sugar tits”. And, just last year, he hit and spat on a photographer in Sydney while his current girlfriend, Rosalind Ross, apologized profusely.
To make matters worse, Gibson has always had trouble saying sorry. If he can get away with it – when there’s no recorded evidence – he denies everything. Whenever he gets caught red handed, he claims that his words are being taken out of context.”
There’s undoubtedly a certain incongruity in the idea of a Holocaust denier directing a World War Two movie. But what’s perhaps even stranger, is that this should be one of the best movies about the conflict for years.
Many people view Hacksaw Ridge as Gibson’s attempt to redeem himself. Parallels have even been drawn between Mel Gibson and the protagonist’s father, interpreted masterfully by Hugo Weaving.
Weaving’s character is a frustrated war veteran. An alcoholic male-chauvinist who beats his wife and children with total impunity and doesn’t show an ounce of empathy for anyone. However, beneath his harsh exterior a big heart is beating. He loves his family and would do anything for them, even though his traumatic past has twisted him into a guilt-ridden cynic.
Gibson doesn’t believe he needs to apologize to anyone. In an interview for El Periódico, he said: “Redemption doesn’t especially interest me. Personally, I don’t think I need it.”
Leaving it up to viewers to decide whether the director’s filmography can compensate for his personal mistakes, it’s also worth pointing out that Hacksaw Ridge is not the work of a single man.
Just as Desmond Doss’s pacifism counterbalanced the violence that raged around him, lamb-like Andrew Garfield is the foil to the brutality of Gibson’s vision. The actor succeeds not only in embodying the conscientious objector, but in helping us forget that behind the production is a deeply detestable person.
Alongside Garfield is a team of professionals, both in front of and behind the camera, who have brought this true story to life. And it could be argued that during these turbulent times we need stories like this more than ever. So, although we may be tempted to shun the movie because of Gibson’s involvement, it’s worth remembering that this is a collective work of art. Not buying a certain singer’s records because he’s a misogynist is one thing, boycotting a work of art made by a team of hundreds, all because of the man behind the camera, is perhaps a step too far.
Hacksaw Ridge is a fantastically entertaining exploration of religious conviction. And not even Mel Gibson can ruin that.