The Wars On Film Special Edition: HACKSAW RIDGE

Mel Gibson's latest directorial work rises above its script.

But those who trust in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. Isaiah 40:31

These words and the three verses that precede them are the opening lines of Hacksaw Ridge, the war biopic that is Mel Gibson’s first directorial effort in 10 years (which he has mostly spent in “Hollywood Jail” for reasons well documented that we will not be discussing here) and his particular brand of insanity has been sorely missed. The choice to open with the film’s star Andrew Garfield reading lines of scripture over a sequence of battlefield carnage is not a subtle one, but the truth is that no one has ever accused Gibson of being subtle. It does, however, greatly inform the film that follows.

Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Corporal Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who enlisted in the Army during WWII and served without ever once firing a shot. Citing intense religious belief and personal conviction, Doss refused to carry a rifle into battle, feeling that to do so and take a human life would be a violation of those beliefs. Instead Doss served as an Army Medic where he distinguished himself and saved the lives of 75 of his fellow soldiers who were left wounded on the field of battle following an American retreat in the Battle of Okinawa. The film tracks his story from his childhood in Lynchburg, Virginia through to his heroics in the battle of Okinawa.

As I said before, this film is not subtle. I have previously referred to Gibson the director as “Psycho Spielberg” because while Spielberg often drowns his audience in emotion and sentimentality, Gibson prefers to repeatedly bash them over the head with it until he achieves his desired result. While this may sound like an insult, it actually is not for the most part. Just as Spielberg is a master of his craft, Gibson too is undeniably one of the most gifted filmmakers we have when it comes to imparting emotion and gravitas into a moment. There is one key difference between Spielberg and Gibson, though. Spielberg, while incredibly gifted when it comes to shooting action and violence, does not typically use it as one of his primary tools. Gibson, however, absolutely loves it. Watch any Mel Gibson directorial effort and you will quickly notice that not only does the man have a gift for shooting violence and gore, he absolutely revels in shooting it. It is, to put it quite simply, his thing. When you walk into a Mel Gibson film, you should expect two things: 1. It will state it’s themes openly, both early and often, and 2. It will at some point contain sequences of some of the most hyper-real and disturbing violence that you have ever witnessed. Hacksaw Ridge takes both of these to the extreme.

The script for Hacksaw Ridge is, to put it nicely, less than amazing. The dialogue often feels forced and routinely veers into incredibly cheesy cliché. Many of the lines uttered by various characters feel like poor first drafts of famous lines from other war films. Subtlety is nowhere to be found at any point in the proceedings and the cast themselves sometimes look uncomfortable delivering the lines. For whatever reason, the script is substandard. For a lesser director, that would be a death sentence, but not for Mel Gibson. Gibson, through the use of movie magic, mines every last scrap of gravitas he can out of line after cringe inducing line. He consistently pulls out every stop to ensure that said poor script at no point derails or undermines the story he is telling. This combined with game, if sometimes inconsistent performances by the leads elevates the opening hour of the film which focuses on the childhood of Desmond Doss, his meeting and courting of his wife Dorothy (played brilliantly by Teresa Palmer),  and his fight to be allowed to run into fire without a weapon by his side. As all of these plot points occur prior to the combat scenes that are Gibson’s bread and butter, they represent a portion of the story where the poor script could have easily sunk the film. Luckily, Gibson’s direction of the quite moments rises to the occasion and manages to keep the film afloat until we reach the war. The childhood scenes are informative and the romance is surprisingly endearing and heartfelt. It is, however, Doss’ fight to serve his country while refraining from carrying a weapon that Gibson spends the bulk of his energy dramatizing in the first half of the film. We are treated to moment after moment in which Doss repeatedly faces opposition to his steadfast refusal to fire or carry a gun. We see him mocked, beaten, and eventually put on trial for refusing to follow his superior officer’s orders to pick up a gun and while at times it is overwrought, it is undoubtedly effective in establishing the stakes and interpersonal dynamics that Gibson will play with in the back half of the film.

While the first half of the film requires a herculean effort by Gibson to keep it afloat, it is in the second half that he truly cuts loose and shows off the skills that make him such a singular filmmaker. The Battle of Okinawa as depicted in the film is a veritable hellscape. It begins with an artillery barrage from the sea that thundered with such force that I’m fairly certain it blew out one of the speakers in the theater I was in. As Doss’ infantry regiment moves in to attempt to take the battlefield from which the film draws its name, they must walk past the charred and mutilated corpses of their fellow soldiers. Entrails and limbs are strewn throughout the field.  The first shot of the battle rips through the face of one of Doss’ fellow soldiers without warning and suddenly the nightmare has begun.  The sights and sounds of the battle overwhelm the sense. I feel very safe in predicting that a Best Sound Mixing Oscar is all but in the bag for this film, as the cacophony that erupted from the speakers was unlike anything that I had ever experienced. My seat shook and my ears rang as explosions and gunshots rang out as the battlefield descended suddenly and sharply into utter chaos. This combined with the utter carnage onscreen resulted in a visceral experience that I imagine was unlike anything that has been witnessed in a theater since Saving Private Ryan made its initial theatrical run. It is however not the initial battle that turns out to be the film’s finest moment however, for that is reserved for what immediately follows. That is the sequence in which Doss runs alone through a rain of artillery fire to save soldier after soldier, each time praying “Please God, let me save one more”. It is then that the significance of the line of scripture quoted at the film’s outset becomes clear. Each time after lowering yet another one of his fellow soldiers to safety, we witness Doss call upon his savior for strength so that he might save yet another life. As I said before, it isn’t subtle, but it is definitely effective as it is one of the most moving and emotionally raw moments I have seen on film in quite some time.

I would be remiss if I capped off this review without acknowledging some of the brilliant work done by various members of the crew of Hacksaw Ridge. Cinematographer Simon Duggan does a brilliant job framing and depicting the chaos of the battlefield, even if the occasional shot did leave me scratching my head. John Gilbert’s editing is sharp and always manages to secure the appropriate feel for a given scene. It is the work of composer Rupert Gregson-Williams however that I most wish to highlight. Gregson-Williams’ score is a true work of art and is masterfully utilized throughout the film to heighten and intensify the film’s most powerful emotional beats. When it crescendos to its peak near the end as Doss runs once again into a hail of fire to save another man it results in a moment so powerful that you are almost compelled to leap to your feet in triumph.

Hacksaw Ridge is not a perfect film, the script could have used a few more passes and there are multiple moments in the first half of the film that do not exactly sing. That being said, it is an emotionally powerful and singular work of cinema that encapsulates everything that Gibson is as a filmmaker. He uses every move in his expansive bag of tricks to craft an experience quite unlike anything else you will see in a theater this year. I wholeheartedly recommend it.