The events at Hacksaw Ridge are the high point of Gibson’s filmmaking, but they are also the stuff of nightmares
Mel Gibson’s return to Hollywood, after a ten-year break brought on by several bouts of very bad behaviour, is, by most standards, a success. While the direction of Hacksaw Ridge never quite takes on the soaring highs of Braveheart (1995) and Apocalypto (2006), it succeeded remarkably well at the box office, and was nominated this year by the Academy for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for Andrew Garfield who plays the role of Desmond Doss, the deeply religious combat medic who saves so many lives at the deadly Hacksaw Ridge during the Battle of Okinawa in World War II.
The story of Desmond Doss is the story of what religious fervour, coupled with natural human compassion, can accomplish. Gibson himself as a devout Catholic has been guided by his faith, producing films that illuminate the bravery that can be bolstered by absolute conviction in a higher power.
Hacksaw Ridge starts off with the classic tropes of a biography, sketching out the key points in Desmond Doss’s life that shaped his character. Reductive, amateur, and frankly, snooze-worthy, these opening scenes thankfully give way to some better story-telling where the characters are finally allowed to breathe, and do surprising things that help the otherwise predictable script along.
Doss’s alcoholic veteran father (played by the ever great Hugo Weaving), and his lovely fiancée Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) evolve gratifyingly through the first half of the film from cardboard cutouts to three-dimensional human beings, as do Doss’s rowdy counterparts in the 77th Infantry Division, with their characters, initially crudely sketched out in the tradition of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), but later becoming memorable in their own rights; breaking hearts as they die during the frightful first onslaught at Hacksaw Ridge.
Doss, who refuses to bear arms in faithfulness to the tradition of the 7th Day Adventist Christians, is initially ridiculed by all, taunted as perhaps even feeble minded in his insistence that he wants to serve as a medic, even while refusing to fire a rifle. His sheer conviction along with surprising support from his father and fiancée get him through to active duty where his heroism is awarded by the Medal of Honour, the highest recognition for bravery in the American Army.
The events at Hacksaw Ridge are the high point of Gibson’s filmmaking, but they are also the stuff of nightmares. The taking of Hacksaw Ridge is to be watched through half-closed eyes, such is the carnage. The heroism of Doss is therefore particularly striking in the context of these events.
I will not elaborate on the actions that made Desmond Doss so famous, they are the denouement of the film, unspeakably moving, and quite frankly bewildering without an understanding of the man’s immense faith in God. It begs the question of whether that kind of courage is possible without some belief in a higher power. I will leave it up to you all to decide.