Caught a matinee yesterday of the profoundly moving Mel Gibson/Andrew Knight/Robert Schenkkan feature HACKSAW RIDGE (2016), in which Mel Gibson (and no need to tear into him in the comments; I’m talking about the movie alone, on its own terms, please and thank you) channels his martyr complexes into the most potent ode to pacifism in mainstream American cinema history.
by and © Stephen R. Bissette
Adhering to, and cannily inverting, all the traditional war movie tropes dating back to silent WW1 era, Gibson and his creative team on both sides of the camera have forged something quite uncanny, and yet absolutely straightforward and classical in its simplicity of narrative direction, emotional arcs, direction, kinetics, and heart.
As the Iraq Veterans Against the War organization noted about a different recent war film (Peter Berg’s LONE SURVIVOR, 2013), Hollywood has perversely refined a form of ‘war pornography’ in the wake of Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and TV series like THE PACIFIC: all-enveloping hardcore-violent war movies that unfold experientially, subsuming their messages into pretending they’re non-political tracts. Gibson/Knight/Schenkkan follow suit but keep their humanist message front-and-center throughout, carefully delineating their West Virginian biographical focus on Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield, exceptional here) from childhood through his teen and young adult life, before his heroism as an American pacifist combat medic—the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor, whose extraordinary personal convictions and religious beliefs are communicated here without preaching. Doss refuses to even touch a firearm—lending this a contemporary relevance in NRA-ruled America that cannot be underestimated or overstated—and the movie wisely makes that path its unflinching heart.
The cast is uniformly excellent, as is the ensemble playing, but I have to single out Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths as Doss’s parents. Weaving especially—as Doss’s embittered, alcoholic, abusive WW1 vet father—delineates all the ravaged complexity of his character with authority, in a role that so easily could have tipped into caricature. Kudos.
Gibson’s staging of the incursion on the Maeda Escarpment (so-called “Hacksaw Ridge”) in the Battle of Okinawa is as vivid, graphic, terrifying, and harrowing as anything ever onscreen. And yet, Doss and his selfless dedication to saving lives—as many as he was able—isn’t lost for a nanosecond amid the carnage; Doss, his spiritual struggle and path, never is subsumed or deviated from. We’re also rewarded (also true to the contemporary genre template) with coda interview footage with the real Doss (who died in 2006) and some of the vets whose lives he’d saved.
I can’t help but add: just as Clint Eastwood’s nods to his mentors Don Siegel and Sergio Leone shaped aspects of his own directorial career, it’s fascinating to me to see the echoes (conscious, here) of Gibson’s acting career in the films he’s directed. Here, a major (and appropriate) visual and emotional reference to a key moment in MAD MAX 2/THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981) finds Gibson embracing and amplifying one of George Miller’s memorable stagings—with Gibson incorporating that nod as an elegant grace note. Well done, almost exquisitely so.
The only film I can compare this to in a lifetime of viewing war films (as son of a vet who served in four branches of the service, I was taken to damn near every American war movie made after 1961) is Cornel Wilde’s BEACH RED (1967).
Highly recommended, wish I’d seen it with my (late) Dad.