Last week I noted that Paul Verhoeven’s impressive Elle was his first film in 10 years; coincidentally, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge is also the first film he’s directed in a decade, the last being Apocalypto, after which he was engulfed in personal scandals. The warm reception given to his new film in Venice a couple of months ago could indicate that he’s been forgiven or, more likely, it could just be a pretty good movie.
As just about everyone must know, Hacksaw Ridge, though set in America and on the Japanese island of Okinawa, was almost entirely filmed in Australia, thanks to the government’s tax arrangements. This explains why, apart from British actor Andrew Garfield, who plays Desmond Doss, the central character, and Vince Vaughn, who plays a drill sergeant, just about every actor on screen is an Aussie, all of them convincingly playing Americans.
You might have thought that, 70 years after the end of World War II, every story from that conflict had found its way to the screen in one form or another, but of course you’d be wrong. Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of Doss, who grew up in a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and who embraced the faith of Seventh Day Adventists in response to seeing his alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving), a veteran of the Great War, abusing his long-suffering mother (Rachel Griffiths).
In terms of narrative, these early scenes are fairly conventional but they’re necessary to establish the background of a man who would become a most unlikely hero. His courtship of Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a sweet-natured nurse, is handled in much the same way it might have been in a film made 50 years ago, but that is a compliment; these scenes feel convincingly of their era.
When America enters the war, Doss is conflicted. On the one hand he’s patriotic and determined to serve his country, but his faith will not allow him to fight or even to bear arms. Nevertheless he enlists and finds he has to battle the military establishment and even be subjected to a court martial before he can be — reluctantly — accepted as an unarmed medical orderly.
These preliminaries take about an hour of screen time, but they’re a necessary background to the events that occur on Okinawa, on the chillingly named Hacksaw Ridge. This is where Gibson ups the ante, filming scenes of warfare and conflict with a graphic realism that would never have been acceptable at the time.
As a director, Gibson has always embraced scenes of violence (as evidenced by Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ) and the horrific explicitness with which he stages the film’s lengthy central battle sequences is frankly confronting. It’s not simply the graphic nature of the images — severed limbs, entrails and the like — but also the confusion, the noise, the chaos and the fact that the sequence is so long. This has to be one of the most distressing sequences I’ve experienced in a lifetime of filmgoing.
Garfield gives a superb performance as this unlikely hero, and there’s strong support from Vaughn (in one of his best roles), Sam Worthington, Richard Roxburgh and others. Visually the film is exceptional and full credit is due to the army of Australian technicians and crew who worked on it, led by NZ-born, Australianbased Simon Duggan, the cinematographer.
As director, Gibson’s approach is bold and fearless; this represents his best work to date behind the camera.
The film ends with footage of the real Desmond Doss, filmed in 2003; it’s a reminder that this almost unbelievable story is, indeed, true and that Doss must be remembered as one of the war’s greatest heroes. Gibson’s film will ensure that this brave man’s memory lives on. The local connections continue with The Light Between Oceans, a stylish screen adaptation of the acclaimed first novel by West Australian author ML Stedman, which she wrote in 2012. Like the character played by Hugo Weaving in Hacksaw Ridge, Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) has been traumatised by his World War I experiences. Back in Australia from Europe, he is given the position of lighthouse keeper on Janus, an island off the West Austra- Hacksaw Ridge (MA15+) National release The Light Between Oceans (M) National release