Dir. Mel Gibson
Screenplay. Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan
In 2004, documentary filmmaker Terry Benedict released The Conscientious Objector, which detailed the life and service of Desmond T. Doss, the combat medic who survived the Second World War but who refused to bear arms. Footage from Benedict’s documentary appears in the final few minutes of director Mel Gibson’s latest film Hacksaw Ridge, with significant and dramatic moments the film has dutifully portrayed recounted by the actual people involved. I found this brief section to be the most insightful and emotive in presenting Doss’ remarkable story, for unfortunately the preceding two hours and twenty minutes was a mess of tonal inconsistency and confused, formulaic story-telling. While taking nothing away from the facts of Doss’ remarkable service record, his personal struggle against the military institution and in the Pacific War, Gibson’s rendering becomes a beatification of Doss that reduces any moral dilemma or nuance in its depiction. As such, while Hacksaw Ridge has none of the piety of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan necessarily or the regressive, bloodthirsty jingoism of Eastwood’s American Sniper, Gibson still spins Doss’ own seemingly simplistic religious and moral certainty into the film’s fabric to create a dull, even nauseating, biopic.
After opening to dead bodies, torn limbs and burning flesh strewn across the battlefield, Gibson flashes back to Doss’ troubled childhood. Raised by an abusive father (Hugo Weaving) who is struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt after the First World War, Doss begins his moral education when he almost fatally injuring his older brother. Jumping again to the future, the plainly handsome and simply principled young man (Andrew Garfield) meets the love of his life, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), at a hospital. An uncomplicated romance ensues though the onset of America’s involvement in the Second World War draws Desmond into the central moral crisis- a desire to serve his country and a firm, religious conviction that he ‘shalt not kill’. Will he survive the war with his pacifist convictions intact? From the outset, despite hindsight, there is little doubt laid in the mind of the audience and Gibson, with screenwriters Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight are disinterested in revealing more than two dimensions in their depiction of Doss. As such the early sections of the film are awash in sunny hues, corn gently moved by the wind and the Virginia mountains, all so idyllic and homely- fertile ground in which Doss’ simple religious convictions grow. These halcyon backdrops, only tempered slightly by his father’s drunken abuse, emphasise the ridiculous, even retrograde portrayal of the romance between Dorothy and Desmond. ‘You’re the most beautiful creature I ever did see’ Desmond tells Dorothy dreamily under soft-light of a movie theatre projector, which was just too sickly and embarrassing for words, reminiscent of Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump.
Moving speedily to Doss’ ordeals during his military training, there is a bizarre mix of comedy routines and turmoil. While these scenes generate some tension as Desmond comes up against complaints with petty attacks on his masculinity and sincere concern in the brutal conditions of war, they are often undercut by cliche plotting and two dimensional characterisations for the supporting cast. The conflict between Doss and his main persecutor Smitty Ryker (Luke Bracey) inevitably becomes a friendship that both vindicates Doss and, right on cue, serves as Smitty’s death sentence. It is a pity, as the film’s best scenes are undoubtedly when Doss is tested the most for his pacifistic beliefs. Yet the downplaying of any nuance, dilemma or questioning of Doss’ principles, who endures all this with an almost saint-like grace, especially when they reach the eponymous ‘Hacksaw Ridge’, I found to be almost aggravating in its mundane simplicity and virtuousness. This was not even true for the real Doss, as evidenced in Benedict’s documentary interviews, when he faced a pronounced moral crisis in the possibility of killing Japanese soldiers to save his comrades.
While Garfield’s boy-ish good looks and charm brings youthful innocence and sincerity to the role, I fear he is getting typecast as he plays yet another idealistic and religious young man sent on a moral mission to Japan. Joking aside, Garfield again proves he can depict physical and emotional suffering with enough conviction but he is hampered by the screenplay’s shallowness and stupefying lines. As such, he is certainly watchable but this is not really a standout performance, save its appeal to grandiosity and heroism. Vince Vaughan is notable as the brash, mocking but ultimately dedicated Sergeant Howell. Drawing on his comedic talents to bark and quip effectively as the drill sergeant, Vaughan also brings an emotional depth to the otherwise perfunctory war-film role. When Doss refuses to leave the company after being forced out on a technicality, there is an recognition and admiration in Vaughan’s eyes for Doss , his distinct features becoming avuncular and soft. The other soldiers are only given names particular to their physical features or ethnicity, with only ‘Hollywood’ Zane (Luke Pegler) noticeable for a perplexing and misplaced nude scene. Weaving also gives a credible performance as Doss’ tormented, alcoholic father though this performance is overladen with Gibson’s heavy cinematography that prevent the character from being truly uncomfortable and tragic.
Which brings us to the major flaws in Gibson’s film- the tonal inconsistency created by Simon Duggan’s cinematography and the confusion in the film’s narrative structure. During its protracted length, the film leaps back and forward along Doss’ timeline, sometimes inexplicably. Scenes move rapidly between rose-tinted, honeyed ‘nostalgia’ to soberness and then shocking intensity. The battle sequences in Okinawa are visceral and disorientating, certainly apt in their bloodiness and sheer brutality, as soldiers are literally dragged away from their dismembered body parts. The slow build up once Doss’ battalion come over the ridge and stalking warily through the fog is certainly palpitating, but all to often these sequences descend into absurdity and exaggeration such as the baffling moment when a soldier lifting a dead torso like a shield then charges, gun blazing, into the enemy. In the end, these sequences just become repetitive and desensitising as Gibson appears to force them to become longer and more grotesque during each renewed assault. While it could be argued as suitable to make the two parts of these films seem so at odds with each other- Doss’ home-life and the Pacific War, it almost feels as if they belong in two separate films.
There is no reconciliation of this separation either, as the film concludes with Doss stretchered down over the escarpment. He hovers over the battlefield with swelling, portentous orchestration and slow-motion — angelic and martyr-like. Such an image epitomises Gibson’s approach and reveals the fundamental issue with this latest work, though perhaps this could already be seen in his earlier Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ. While it is evident that Gibson and the screenwriters have deep admiration, perhaps even reverence, for Doss’ conviction and achievements, this unwillingness to find deeper nuance or conflict only makes Hacksaw Ridge hagiographic and, as such, uninteresting to watch.