HACKSAW RIDGE, Australia/US, 2016. Starring Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Vince Vaughan, Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Luke Bracey, Matt Nable, Richard Roxburgh, Ryan Corr, Bill Young, Robert Morgan.
Directed by Mel Gibson. 140 minutes. Rated MA (Strong battle violence, blood and gore).
A very impressive war film, World War II, on the island of Okinawa in 1945. It is not an easy watch.
Headlines have noted that this is Mel Gibson’s comeback. The last film that he directed was Apocalypto in 2007 and, since the crises in his life, he has appeared in very few films as an actor. Hacksaw Ridge reminds us how well Mel Gibson can make films.
The opening immerses the audience immediately in the experience of war, close-up. rifles, mortars, grenades, flamethrowers and the camera in amongst the soldiers capturing instant death, capturing harrowing wounds, the horror of flames and fire.
But, then the film goes back 15 years and takes us to the blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia to the Doss family. It should be added that the film will return to the close-ups and immersion in the war sequences at the end of the film. While the Americans do defeat the Japanese, this is not quite a gung ho patriotic story but a sometimes horrifying portrayal of the physical and psychological damage done to all soldiers.
Hacksaw Ridge was filmed at the Fox Studios in Sydney and in New South Wales the strong Australian supporting cast all impersonating, quite effectively, Americans. Hugo Weaving is a sometimes brutal, alcoholic father of two young sons, prepared to give them beatings, but then turning on his wife, played by Rachel Griffiths. The film establishes the relationship between the two young brothers, rivalry in climbing the mountains, getting into fistfights and one hitting the other with the brick, suddenly shocked at the potential to kill.
It emerges that their father served in World War I, all his young friends being killed in action.
Then it is World War II, one son signing up to the anger of his father, the other, Desmond (Andrew Garfield in a fine performance), the brother who struck with the brick, has no wish to take up arms, even to touch a rifle, but feels compelled to enlist, wanting to serve as a medic, emerging as a conscientious objector, powerfully motivated by his faith and his Seventh Day Adventist religious practice. (It is interesting to be aware that Mel Gibson is still interested in religious themes, a focus on the Bible and texts and prayer.)
While there are some standard scenes of harsh military training and a surprising non-comic performance from Vince Vaughn as the harsh Sergeant, they serve as a context for Desmond’s commitment to the Army, willing to put up with the taunts of authorities and fellow-soldiers, some brutality on their part, the demands of his commanders to take up arms and the possibilities of a court-martial for his refusal.
There is an engaging romantic background to Desmond’s story, his encounter with the nurse, Dorothy (played with great charm by Teresa Palmer), portrayed with a pleasing blend of romance and humour.
Then it is off to the war, to Okinawa and the need for the Americans to scale a cliff-face, Hacksaw Ridge, and take it from the Japanese, with troop after troop of Americans climbing, facing the heavy artillery, and a wave of Japanese. Once again, and for a greater length of time, the audience is immersed in the close-up of action. The significant difference is the work of Desmond, present with the troops, helping with the wounded, and, eventually, carrying over 70 wounded to the top of the cliff and lowering them with a rope for medical care.
His overwhelmed fellow soldiers and officers admit that they were wrong in their initial judgment and condemnation of him. He was the first conscientious objector to receive the American Medal of Honor, with a final credits image of the actual Desmond’s receiving his medal from President Truman. After the audience’s sharing Desmond’s life and ordeal on screen, it is satisfying to see glimpses of him in real life, and his reflections even in his old age.
In 1999, Terence Malick directed The Thin Red line, about the conflict with the Japanese on Guadalcanal, vivid fighting with a background of meditative reflection. Hacksaw Ridge serves as an effective companion film.
Icon/ Dendy Release 3rd November
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting