Dir: Mel Gibson, 139 mins, starring: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Richard Pyros, Jacob Warner, Milo Gibson
Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge is one of the best Second World War movies since Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line. It is also a wildly contradictory affair, combining folksiness with a pathological quality. The bloodier moments here remind us of Gibson’s biblical preoccupations and of his extreme fascination with violence and suffering.
It’s rousing filmmaking with an exceptional performance from Andrew Garfield as a character who is both an all-American hero and another of Gibson's masochistic martyrs. Desmond Doss is a conscientious objector who thrives in battle. As if taking his cue from him, Gibson has made an anti-war movie which still somehow contrives to play out as a Boy's Own-style action film, full of courage, camaraderie, and derring-do.
In the final scenes in Okinawa, Gibson goes to enormous lengths to show the pity and squalor of war. There is, though, something fetishistic about the way he dwells on shots of characters having their brains blown out and limbs shot off or being incinerated by a flamethrower. Amid the carnage, Gibson throws in plenty of imagery also familiar from jingoistic old Hogan's Heroes-style war movies or from his own Mad Max films. We see characters kicking away grenades, camouflaging themselves in the mud, and whooping in adrenaline filled exultation.
Desmond is first encountered as a kid growing up in a small town in Virginia in the 1930s, scrapping with his brother, Hal. They're wild kids. Their father Tom (Hugo Weaving), a First World War veteran turned embittered and self-pitying drunk, leaves them to their own devices. He will sit idly by when they fight with each other. These early scenes establish that Desmond is reckless and courageous but a good lad at heart, appalled by his own capacity for violence.
Garfield plays Desmond as a young adult with a gawky Johnny Appleseed charm that makes you think of James Stewart early in his career. He is fast-thinking, intervening at one stage to save the life of an accident victim and then showing equal powers of improvisation when it comes to sweet talking the beautiful young nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) he decides he wants to marry.
These early scenes are idyllic but full of foreboding and foreshadowing. Desmond’s father Tom is the spectre at the feast. We know there are troubling times ahead from the permanently haunted look on his face, his abusive treatment of his wife (Rachel Griffiths), and his habit of going boozing in the local cemetery, smashing bottles on the headstones of his fallen comrades.
Gibson is reluctant to delve too deeply into the darker corners of Desmond’s upbringing or psyche.The youngster’s reasons for being a conscientious objector aren't very clearly expressed. His religious beliefs (he is a Seventh Day Adventist), his fury at his father, and his guilt at a childhood incident in which he almost killed someone are all factors.
At times, Desmond seems like a GI version of Eric Liddell, the runner in Chariots Of Fire who still manages to win a gold medal in spite of refusing to run on Sundays. He's a pacifist who won't bear arms but will contrive a way to become a war hero, even if it is as a medical orderly. There’s not a trace of squeamishness about him and he is far more comfortable on the battlefield than the soldiers he tends.
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Gibson deals with familiar subject matter – Desmond's ordeals in boot camp, his fight to win the respect of his fellow grunts – in sure-footed fashion. There is humour as well as pathos in the barracks scenes. Garfield has a Popeye-like resilience, bouncing back from every humiliation and setback with his good humour miraculously intact. There are strong character performances from Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington in stock roles as the tough but fair-minded officers who give him hell.
At times here, it’s as if we are watching an old John Ford movie, complete with the blarney, machismo and the sentimentality. However, the scenes on Hacksaw Ridge itself have a bloody, phantasmagoric quality far more lurid than anything found in Ford. It’s as if Gibson can't work out how far he wants to take us into the apocalypse.
In the face of chaos, the tone remains perversely upbeat. It isn't just Desmond's heroism which is startling but his inner conviction, which he shares with men bleeding to death, that there is some logic to what is happening and some prospect of salvation. He is the only one who shows even the tiniest sympathy for the enemy.
Hacksaw Ridge seems improbable in the extreme but is based on a true story. It demonstrates Gibson’s ability – also evident in The Passion Of The Christ and Apocalypto – to direct dramas steeped in bloodshed and extreme suffering. For all the portentousness and sometimes heavy-handed symbolism, the film has an energy which matches that of Garfield’s performance. Gibson’s achievement is to have made a rousing and optimistic movie about subject matter that could hardly be more grim.
Read our feature on Desmond Doss, conscientious cooperator, here.
‘Hacksaw Ridge’ is in UK cinemas from 27 January
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