It has been over ten years since his last directorial feature, but his new offering Hacksaw Ridge could mark Mel Gibson’s triumphant return to Hollywood. The film is a brutal, engrossing and uplifting war epic that pushes both its characters and its audience to their emotional limits.
The true story presented on screen is of Desmond Doss, portrayed here by Andrew Garfield, an American Army medic in World War 2 who, due to a combination of fervent Christian beliefs and personal trauma, refused to use or even carry a weapon. Despite this perceived limitation, Doss rescued 75 injured soldiers at Okinawa and became the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor.
The film is split into three distinct sections; first we see Doss as a youngster in Virginia, exploring the woods and fighting with his brother under the inebriated supervision of his First World War veteran father (played superbly by Hugo Weaving). He meets his future wife and the seeds of his pacifism are sown. After signing up to the Army, he moves to South Carolina to attend Army training, before finally shipping out to Japan.
As necessary as Doss’ backstory is in providing context for his actions as an adult, the first two-thirds of the film have a very perfunctory feel, with the main narrative points hastily laid out. There is an overwhelming feeling that the facts have been pared down to the bone in order to stuff them all into the 139-minute running time, which doesn’t always compromise the film, but makes for a narratively simplistic first act.
Once Doss joins up with his fellow recruits, his beliefs make him an instant outcast. Garfield’s performance is outstanding and he perfectly embodies Doss’ ‘outsider-ness’ with everything from his soft, Southern twang and folksy charm to his wiry frame. This becomes markedly clear when put next to the ever-so-slightly clichéd soldiers in his squadron (there is An Italian One, A Handsome One, A Nasty One), who are all bravado and rippling flesh. Sam Worthington and Vince Vaughn provide Garfield with excellent support, especially Vaughn's as a foul-mouthed drill sergeant who injects some unlikely humour into proceedings.
By the time that Doss has overcome the various obstacles of basic training, mostly put in his way by his fellow soldiers, the audience is firmly behind him and shares his faith. Which is crucial, because once he steps ashore at Okinawa, as his idealism is put to the ultimate test.
The vision of the battlefield that Gibson presents is a hellscape, an endless and confusing sea of mud and blood, diametrically opposed to the neatly manicured lawns of the army base or the sun-kissed peace of Virginia. In fact, everything about the film’s final act is a jolting left turn from what has come before, thanks to some of the best battle scenes of recent memory. Hacksaw Ridge properly flexes its muscles at this point, with Gibson orchestrating a symphony of whizzing gunfire, tumbling corpses and eviscerated limbs. There is a staggering amount of gore on screen, and the camera goes out of its way to capture every detail, from rats nibbling on the mouldering bodies of the dead to fountains of blood and exposed organs.
It makes for gruelling viewing and you might find your fingernails are thoroughly chewed by the end of the first salvo. There is method behind the mayhem however: with the majority of the film serving to reinforce Doss’ innocent but passionate convictions, the final third serves to challenge everything that he, and by extension the audience, have put their faith in.
The film’s climax is heartrending, intense and soaked with religious imagery. In one scene, Doss stands, stripped to the waist and haloed by sunshine while blood, mostly that of others, is washed from his battered body. It may not be subtle, but it is surely effective and that is representative of the film as a whole. The theme of faith and conviction triumphing over insurmountable odds breaks no new ground, but behind a bold and endearing performance by Garfield and supremely effective direction from Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge flourishes as a slice of war cinema of the highest quality.