It’s been ten years since Mel Gibson last helmed a film, having only had sporadic acting work since Apocalypto and his very public, racially charged meltdown. Clearly, just performing hasn’t been enough for him, and Hacksaw Ridge is a release of a decade of pent-up creative energy. Starting as a fun but conventional romance story, and moving into a relatively breezy boot camp section, Hacksaw Ridge really takes flight when Gibson is let loose on the combat scenes. Some of most brutally intense war scenes I’ve ever seen bring the World War 2 Pacific Theatre to life in a profoundly distressing, but also exhilarating – and even uplifting – way.
Hacksaw Ridge covers the extraordinary true story of Desmond Doss (played here by Andrew Garfield), the first conscientious objector to ever win the Medal of Honor. Devoutly religious and valuing human life above all else, Doss enlisted in the army as a medic despite his refusal to carry any sort of weapon. Naturally, this earned him ridicule from his fellow Privates and all their commanding officers, but at Hacksaw Ridge in Okinawa, he proved himself a near-inhuman hero. Saving 75 wounded men after the rest of his company had pulled back with nothing but a jury-rigged pulley system and incomprehensible bravery, it’s a wonder that his story hasn’t already been told cinematically.
Neatly divided into three acts, the first third of the script struggles to fully sell the family segment – the childhood origins of Desmond’s convictions feel rather contrived. Very charming performances from Garfield and Teresa Palmer as Dorothy Schutte (eventually Dorothy Doss) mean that the romantic side of things work a lot better, funny and touching in equal measure, with a wonderfully shot hilltop kiss closing this segment out with panache. Once we move into the military arena, Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan’s script becomes more entirely sure-footed, the various men of Desmond’s company likable and distinguishable.
As soon as Desmond (and by extension, the audience) comes to regard these men as a makeshift family, though, he is forced to reveal his pacifist stance. His subsequent rejection by his platoon is painful, especially as Garfield’s performance as Doss is just so friendly. But his sticking to his values, even in the face of insults, beatings, and threats of jail time, wins everyone over eventually, from hardass rifleman Schmitty (Luke Bracey) to Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn). Their growing respect is heartening and cathartic to witness, and makes losing them in sudden showers of gore all the more shocking.
Gibson is not one to shy away from gruesome suffering, and the hellish conditions of the war in Japan prove a perfect match for his directorial sensibilities. Bar a couple of egregious uses of obvious CGI, the combat here is an all-out assault on the senses. Masses of flesh explode around Doss and his men while bullets and bombs deafen them and us. It’s properly terrifying stuff, and there’s no easing the audience into it. The first taste of combat is utter chaos, comparable to (and taking inspiration from) Saving Private Ryan’s D-Day scene, but with the intensity sustained for an even longer period.
With the scale of the carnage, you find yourself wondering why medics were even brought along. Just a few men in charge of so many lives seems ridiculous in its impossibility, but Gibson makes sure that Doss’ actions prove his worth early on. He’s got a way with the wounded even when under heavy fire, keeping them calm long enough to get them safely to a safe zone where they can be properly treated. Establishing Doss’ skill and bravery is crucial, as his actions following the American withdrawal defy belief.
Finding a near-bottomless well of strength through his faith, Doss saves soldier after soldier. As more men make it down from the ridge to safety, Gibson and his cinematographer Simon Duggan frame Doss in ever more heroic ways, and provide a nice visual echo of his and Dorothy’s kiss as the camera swirls around him at the ridge’s precipice. Music swells as Doss prays for the strength to find ‘just one more’, over and over again, and there’s no skimping on the religious imagery. It’s soul-stirring in its sincerity, raising the battle-pummelled spirits of the characters and the audience.
Desmond Doss was the very definition of a real-life hero; he hurt no-one while risking his life to save dozens of others, and any film that covered his story would be hard pressed to do him justice. Yet Gibson’s comeback directorial effort manages it, a stomach-churning piece of combat cinema giving way to an inspiring account of one man’s bravery, all of it conducted and filmed brilliantly. Although the home front stuff might feel like filler, Hacksaw Ridge’s battle sequences are some of the best ever put to film, a virtuoso blood and thunder display from Mel Gibson, proving that even after ten years away, he can still be one of the most viscerally effective filmmakers around.