Mel Gibson’s career as a filmmaker has not been overly marred by subtlety; The Passion of The Christ re-imagined torture porn as catnip for the Bible belt, the savage Aztec manhunt of Apocalypto probably works better without the English subtitles and now ‘Hacksaw Ridge’, a film which takes the phrase “war is hell” terrifyingly literally. Gibson’s filmography presents humanity as drowning in churning sea of violence and brutality, only finding meaning in the trials of those rare souls whose saintly endurance redeems them and the world around them. As a result the real question is why it’s taken Gibson until now to make a war film as the genre seems gift wrapped for his singular world view.
Hacksaw Ridge is based on the real life story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a World War II-era medic who was the first conscientious objector to win the Medal Of Honour. We are introduced to Doss in his poverty- stricken rural childhood nearly killing his brother with a rock during a fight, establishing both a connection to violence that Doss clearly has to battle to suppress and also to the biblical figure of Cain, metaphysically raising the stakes of his rejection of violence. That the film then takes over an hour to actually get to the conflict might sound strange on paper, but that hour crackles with violence from every corner: From Doss’s World War One veteran father to Doss’s brutal hazing at the hands of boot camp co-conscripts who respond to his refusal to train with a rifle with Neanderthal menace. However the film only truly comes into its own when the soldiers are first deployed in the battle of Okinawa, where Gibson presents the theatre of war as a cross between The Last Judgement and the most fevered imaginings of Hieronymus Bosch. Intestines coat the ground like gossamer and the sights of decapitations, eviscerations and disembowellings are only hidden by an ever-present curtain of reeking smoke that twitches prissily over the action, both adding to the hellish atmosphere and mercifully hiding the excesses from view.
Hacksaw Ridge never tops (or really makes any attempt to top) that first encounter, instead it focuses on Doss’s hallucinatory attempts to help the wounded, encountering elaborate suicides, tortured men and accidental deaths that could be passed off as unused woodcuts of a particularly visceral edition of Dante’s Inferno. Gibson’s maximalist symbolic style is almost certainly not for everyone. For him subtext is something exclusively for the film theorists; If you can shoot something as a direct allegory for Christianity (like soldiers washing the blood off themselves in symbolic baptism) then you take that imagery and you ram it down the audience’s throat. There is something to be said for this, something this bold and unashamed tends to be closer to The Fast and The Furious rather than bleak meditations on warfare, but it’s likely to turn off as many as it turns on. The film is unarguably moving and Andrew Garfield notches up another great performance on his belt (the parallels and opposites between his roles in Hacksaw Ridge and Silence are rather fascinating), not everything works; the assertion that Doss’s capacity for sin needs redemption is hard to engage with if you’re not burning with the same theological fervour as Mel Gibson (not something to be aspired to generally) and the scenes Doss spends with his fiancée are syrupy to say the least. Despite these problems Mel Gibson’s interpretation of the horrors of war is a powerful and primal piece of art.