When his name was announced as one of the nominees for Best Director at the 89th Academy Awards, one thing was abundantly clear: whether you like it or not, Mel Gibson is back. And with something of a bang, especially if you like a good old fashioned war movie. And you know what, I really do.
Hacksaw Ridge is based on the remarkable true story of Medal of Honor recipient Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a Seventh Day Adventist and conscientious objector who enlisted in the army but refused to ever hold a gun, despite being sent to the hellish theatre of war in the Pacific. The film has a two-part structure, in the same manner as Full Metal Jacket, with the first part dedicated to Doss’s struggles in basic training. He is mocked, bullied, and beaten for his beliefs. His fellow soldiers do not want him to be beside them in the field of battle.
Vince Vaughn as drill Sergeant Howell is the absolute standout performer in this section of the film, getting to let loose that motor mouth of his on the new recruits. Doss’s lanky and spindly frame comes in for much of Howell’s mirth, with lines like, “I have seen stalks of corn with better physiques. Makes me want to pull an ear off!”
As well as the boot camp scenes, Gibson also dedicates the first half of the film to Desmond’s relationship with Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) a nurse whom he hopes to one day marry. The depiction of their courtship is so conventionally romantic, heartfelt, and sweet, you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a film from a bygone era. To play it so sentimental is a real risk, but Gibson just about pulls it off, thanks to the excellent work of Garfield and Palmer.
The second half of Hacksaw Ridge however, is an altogether different beast. Doss has trained as a medic, and he and his fellow platoon are deployed to Okinawa, where they must secure the tactically crucial Maeda Escarpment aka Hacksaw Ridge – a sheer cliff face atop which the Japanese forces have taken root. It is here, amid the smoke and fire and carnage, that Gibson unleashes cinematic hell. What follows in the final hour of Hacksaw Ridge is pure combat horror – all flying limbs, spilling guts, and spraying arteries.
Once the chaos begins, this is typically unflinching stuff from Gibson. We know from his previous films that he is a director not averse to maintaining eye contact during scenes of brutal body horror – but nonetheless his staging of the battle is technically very impressive. Andrew Garfield is on equally fine form as the heroic pacifist, saving lives amidst all the death.
Predictable as hell, and hitting every emotional beat you’d expect, but hey, I’m a sucker for a good war film. It veers between mawkishness and searing brutality, but Gibson, after years in exile, remains a master of cinematic carnage.
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving Director: Mel Gibson Writer: Robert Schenkkan & Andrew Knight Released By: Lionsgate Home Entertainment Certificate: 15 Duration: 139 mins Release Date: 22nd May 2017