Review: Patrick Compton (9/10)
There are some film directors whose visual style is readily apparent. Sam Peckinpah’s signature was slow-motion death as his Western gunslingers blasted each other with shotguns; it’s now become apparent that Mel Gibson’s authorial fingerprint is an almost voluptuous obsession with violence and death.
This first became apparent in his magnificent Scottish drama, Braveheart (1995), but the tendency became controversial in his almost pornographically violent depiction of Christ’s arrest and crucifixion in The Passion of the Christ (2004). Apocalypto (2006) was also extremely violent and there are a number of scenes in his latest film, Hacksaw Ridge – his first in 10 years – which don’t spare the audience’s sensibilities.
But now, after years of being frozen out of Hollywood for anti-semitic and homophobic remarks, it looks like the Aussie bad boy is back in favour. This war movie, which many will see as inspirational, is based on the life of Desmond Doss who won a Congressional Medal of Honour for bravery during the battle for Okinawa in 1945. The movie has already been nominated for awards in this year’s Golden Globes ceremony and Oscar glory may follow.
The unusual element in this story of remarkable heroism involves the fact that Doss was a Seventh Day Adventist who believed, literally, in the sixth commandment “Thou shalt not kill”. This didn’t stop him from patriotically volunteering for military duty after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour, but we quickly learn that his service had to be on his terms. Doss insisted that he wanted to serve as an unarmed army medic, saving lives rather than taking them, and initially it was a combination that the army could not countenance.
In the first half of this 139-minute film we are shown key scenes from his youth in Virginia as well as his toxic experiences during army training. He was abused during training, called a coward and a conscientious objector (though he preferred to call himself a “conscientious co-operator”) and eventually faced a court-martial. He survived all these trials, met and married his sweetheart, nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) and was packed off to Okinawa with the US marines as the Pacific war approached its grisly climax.
The entire story is rooted in war. In the early scenes, we are shown how Doss’s father, Tom (Hugo Weaving), has become a violent, self-hating alcoholic following his devastating experiences on the Western Front during World War One. It is Desmond’s interactions with his father, as well as a near-tragic incident with his older brother, that encourages him to eschew all violence.
The second half of the film, which focuses on the bloody American assault on Hacksaw Ridge which culminates in the conquest of the island, represents a litany of horrors. My question, as Gibson showers us with mutilated bodies, death by flame-throwers and other such abominations, is whether all this almost aestheticised death undercuts the movie's higher moral purpose.
The horrors – and heroics – of war have recently been emphasised in such films as Steven Spielberg’s marvellous Saving Private Ryan, but even that film lacks Gibson’s consistent emphasis on the worst that war can do. In these dreadful circumstances, Doss’s series of rescues, under intense fire, of wounded American and even some Japanese soldiers is one of war’s most glorious achievements.
There are a number of fine performances, with Andrew Garfield (who gained early fame as Spiderman) outstanding as the stubborn, solitary medic who refuses to carry a firearm and is prepared to undergo all the traumas of warfare without any means of defence, except perhaps his beloved Bible. Vince Vaughn, almost typecast as a comic actor, gives an interestingly sparky performance as Doss’s sergeant-major during training and commanding officer on Okinawa while a collection of lesser-known actors are all convincing as Doss’s comrades.
Working from an original script by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan, Gibson has created a complex drama, both brutally violent and achingly tender, a terrible war seen from the perspective of a pacifist who nevertheless judges the war to be a just one.
Gibson’s own strong brand of Catholicism often seems to guide his hand as he shows a pacifist inspiring the men with whom he is engaged in combat. There are moments, indeed, when Gibson seems to be suggesting that the American assault is a case of Onward Christian Soldiers.
The film which opened on December 30, is currently being screened at Gateway, The Pavilion, Suncoast, Watercrest and Midlands Mall. - Patrick Compton