There was probably an insightful, sensitive movie to be made about the World War II experiences of conscientious objector Desmond Doss, but Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge isn’t it. It’s unsurprising that a number of reviewers have independently indulged the wordplay Hackneyed Ridge, an effective summation of the ridiculously over-the-top, emotionally shameless theatrics Mel indulges, turning a story that already fell into the “You wouldn’t believe it if it wasn’t true” camp into “You won’t believe it anyway, because it’s been turned up to eleven” (and that’s with Gibson omitting incidents he perceived to be “too much”, such as Doss being shot by a sniper after he was wounded, having given up his stretcher to another wounded man; certainly, as wrung through Mel’s tonal wringer, that would have been the case).
Perhaps Mel should stick to making subtitled features, the language barrier diluting the excruciating lack of nuance or subtlety in his treatment of subject matter. On the other hand, perhaps it’s simply the unfamiliarity of instilling uplift that has called him out. Apocalypto was, after all, a classic action movie, a chase to the death that never let up once it got going, and before it got going was relentlessly grim: powder for the keg.
The Passion of the Christ, which I didn’t care for, was undeniably consistent in approach, pace and content; it was exactly the torture-porn gospel he intended, for better or worse. Hacksaw Ridge, when we’re finally thrown into the heart of the battle, is a predictable war-porn slaughterhouse (anyone familiar with his previous three directorial efforts should be well-prepared), so underlining the confused, conflicted statements Gibson is making, and one might suggest, if one wanted to play cod-psychologist, the confused, conflicted impulses he’s battling within.
The early part of the picture is played out in the sickly, capitalised character beats of an Oliver Stone or Spielberg war picture – I’m thinking the patriotic earnestness of Ron Kovic, or the hometown sincerity of Tom Hanks – lathered with the most cynically treacly score imaginable from Rupert Gregson-Williams, one that attempts out-manoeuvre the most in-your-face of John Willliams contributions to those directors.
Andrew Garfield, 33 but easily convincing as 23, which makes a change, I guess, is absolutely aw shucks, good ol’ Southern boy too-good-to-be-true, in the lead role; he’s entirely effective, doing exactly what his director wants and hitting those marks with aplomb, but it makes the character entirely flat. That, and the undiluted stream of cheese-infested dialogue. The formative events Desmond encounters are of an entirely cartoonish nature: his adversity to violence as presented by two defining incidents; his rose-tinted romance with nurse Dorothy Schuttle (Teresa Palmer, very good).
So, when he eventually makes it to basic training and reveals his damned conchie colours, it’s taken as read that there’s going to be no sudden retrenchment of approach. If you have a character as undiluted as Desmond, varnishing every element around him is exactly the wrong way to go. Vince Vaughn’s R Lee Ermey-lite drill sergeant provides a measure of light relief at first (and credit to Vaughn, he’s really trying to be convincing in the role, even if he’s hopelessly un-). But the caricatures around him, from Sam Worthington’s captain who becomes a dyed-in-the-woll convert to the Doss cause (Worthington is consistently bland, as per usual, which actually kind of works – someone needed not to be going for it here), to the harshest fellow-enlistee-come-greatest-pal (Luke Bracey – surprisingly good, given how abjectly awful he is in the abjectly awful Point Break remake), simply lay on the clichés.
All of which makes the battlefield carnage something of a blessing. There’s much less talking for starters. And Mel’s really in his element. Having spent all this time avowing the man of peace, he can really go to town on the flying entrails and exploding innards that are really what a war film’s all about. There’s the merest flash of Nazi propaganda footage, probably put in just so he couldn’t be seen to be ignoring his Achilles heel (well, one of them), but this being Okinawa, his focus can fortuitously rest on the faceless hordes of brute Japanese, depicted as rampaging multitudes of xenomorphs straight out of the James Cameron movie.
There’s been criticism of the depiction of the Japanese, the few moments of character given to a frightened man Doss attends to and an officer committing hara-kiri. Which is fair to an extent, certainly given the balance the perhaps unlikely Clint Eastwood afforded the Pacific campaign in his two pictures (of which, the Letters from Iwo Jima was far the superior), but it’s also in keeping with a picture that’s relentlessly crude in its depiction of everything, from religious conviction to romantic love to lovingly-captured exploding bodies, dismembered bodies, ignited bodies (Mel loves his flaming Japs). Always remember: if in doubt, bring on the carnage in glorious slo-mo. It’s more edifying, gratifying and downright thrilling that way.
And much of it works: the visceral quality of the battlefield is palpable. But it’s also impossible not to be pulled out of the proceedings by the artlessness of the emotional assault, by that score, by movie-movie moments where, rather than attempting fidelity to the events-as-were, Mel embroiders.
Did Desmond really kick a grenade away as if he was scoring the winning goal in the Premiership league final (he did kick it away, but I doubt with such cinematic bravura)? Did he really pull his sergeant to safety on a bit of tarp while the latter gunned down swathes of fiendish enemy, as if he were auditioning for a stunt sequence in The Living Daylights? Mel frequently crosses the line from suspension of disbelief into unintended hilarity, and with it the fabric of the picture is torn asunder (talking of which, the real Doss was one of those who volunteered to go up the ridge and hang the cargo net. As for the reason the Japanese didn’t just cut down it down, rather than being extraordinarily sporting, it appears it was tactical).
Perhaps the apotheosis of this is the scene in which Hugo Weaving (unable to extricate himself from walking, talking cornball functionality his character, but doing his commendable best, Mr Anderson), in his WWI corporal uniform, shows up at his son’s court-martial to deliver a vital letter from his old commanding officer (and all that after Desmond’s had to miss his wedding: the logjam of calamity!) Any lingering doubt that this is really quite a bad movie vanishes entirely at this point (and that’s way before we have the chortlesomely saintly imagery of Doss showering himself clean of all that grime and blood, and his final, Christ-like pose as he descends the ridge on a stretcher: no mention of his wounds leaving him ninety-percent disabled, mind). Hacksaw Ridge is, without insulting the many stellar pictures made during the ’40s and ’50s, resorting to a shorthand of character and convenience of plotting that you just shouldn’t be able to get away with today. And in many cases, you can’t, but this is evidently appealing to a certain audience, who are lapping it up.
They’re probably also as wilfully oblivious to the moral complexities of Doss’ decision to be a conscientious co-operator as the film’s director (I should stress here that I’m talking about the depiction of the movie character, rather than forming a conclusion on the actual person). On the one hand, he takes “Thou shalt not kill” to its logic conclusion and is a vegetarian (we’ll excuse the killing of plants, for the sake of argument). On the other, he believes the war was justified, and his acts frequently facilitate the deaths of the enemy (when Sergeant Howell takes out a soldier while Doss effectively acts as a decoy, or the aforementioned bobsleigh incident) or even his own colleagues (how many die aiding Doss in one of his foolhardy/daring rescue bids?)
Does “Thou shalt not kill” extend to making oneself actively complicit in the killing of others, be it condoning a war as righteous or supporting your comrades on the battlefield? Unfortunately, Mel doesn’t much care to dive into this. Desmond’s father tells him he thinks too much, but this isn’t readily apparent when Captain Glover attempts to impart basic utilitarian principles. But that does, kind of, fit, with a man who cites The Holy Book, which provides all manner of conflicting moral positions, such that it’s no wonder its adherents come out with all manner of conflicting (and sometimes enraged) positions.
I think it would have been quite possible to make a war movie dealing with many of these themes acutely and soulfully. Indeed, it has been done, by Terence Malick nearly twenty years ago now (The Thin Red Line), before he became a parody of himself. Alternatively, and as evidenced by the interview footage at the end of the film, the best vehicle for this story might have been a documentary; the real Doss recounting the incident where he washes the mud out of a blinded soldier’s eyes, who can then see again, carries way more impact than Mel’s dramatisation of the same (there is a doc, where this footage originated, Terry Benedict’s The Conscientious Objector, which is far superior, despite doggedly following the biographical doc rule book, complete with annoyingly instructive score).
As for Hacksaw Ridge’s place in the Oscar race, it has no business being up for Best Picture, but that’s not exactly unusual. One must content oneself in the knowledge that it could have been much, much worse; it could have been directed by Randall Wallace.