Mel Gibson hurtles out of the darkness of some of his more recent well-publicised career and personal faux pas, dragging Sony’s botched reboot Spider-Man Andrew Garfield with him, in a tough, brutal, take-no-prisoners story of real-life Second War heroism which has already pointed both star and director in the direction of this year’s Oscar ceremony. Whether Hacksaw Ridge is really worthy of such high acclaim is debatable for now; if nothing else though it serves (alongside his turn in Scorcese’s lumbering Silence) to salvage Garfield’s career and is almost certain to wipe Gibson’s smeared slate clean. For now.
But in truth Hacksaw Ridge actually is a terrific film, albeit nothing we’ve not seen before in a handful of more measured and thoughtful war movies across the last decade or so. War is Hell, Gibson seems determined to remind us; and remind us he does in a second-half which pitches us right into the middle of a bloody, ferocious and apparently interminable battle between the US Army and the Japanese at Okinawaka, a conflict from which the audience will emerge as shell-shocked and psychologically battle-scarred as any of its luckless participants.
Hacksaw Ridge is based on the true life story of Desmond Doss (Garfield), a devoutly-Christian pacifist who is determined to do his ‘bit’ for the US War effort by enlisting, despite the fact he’s an avowed conscientious objector. He’s not scared of war, he just won’t pick up and fire a rifle. But he’s happy to be pitched into the field of battle as a medic. The US Army aren’t quite so convinced and spend an age trying to crack his resolve by intimidating him, allowing him to be beaten up by his fellow recruits and, finally, by court martialing him. This first half of Hacksaw Ridge is actually rather quaint and comfortable, the old story of the soft-spoken outsider trying to hang on to his beliefs and his humanity in a Man’s World of uniforms, guns and barely-repressed violence. Garfield sails through it with gusto, the good ol’ boy who just wants to marry his sweetheart and live a quiet life and would rather not run around firing guns at strangers, even in the field of combat. Eventually – because this is Hollywood – Desmond wins his own personal battle and finds himself right there in the frontline when his company is pitched into combat, climbing a vertiginous cliff colloquially known as Hacksaw Ridge atop which, often hidden in the mists or in dug-outs, are an apparently-endless tide of kamikaze Japanese soldiers. The carnage is awful, breathless, bloody and exhausting; through it all weaves Desmond, trying to give solace to the injured as their bodies are almost blown apart and managing to somehow stay alive as all around him turns into a very vivid vision of Hell itself. When the battle ends, Desmond chooses not to escape the battlefield with his fellow-survivors, but rather he wanders around the wastelands, constantly under sniper fire, and saves seventy-five bloodied, bullet-ridden, half-destroyed men – including his once-gnarly Sergeant (a career best turn from the usually-boorish Vince Vaughn) – and manages to get them back down the escarpment to the safety of their own camp. This is the act of magnificent heroism which, in real life, earned Doss a Medal of Honour.
The extraordinarily vivid Apocalypto showed how comfortable Gibson is in depicting gruesome relentless violence and Hacksaw Ridge, whilst never quite as excruciating, pulls off much the same trick and the last half of the film is its real strength. Gibson seems restless during the more meandering, soap opera mechanics of the first half-hour and it’s likely that the audience will be waiting for the good stuff to kick in too. Needless to say that when it does, it’s worth waiting for. Sitting right up there with Saving Private Ryan for bringing the true, cold horror of warfare and life in the front line to the screen, Hacksaw Ridge is worth the price of admission for its second hour or so alone. In truth its human drama isn’t really that much of a chore, it’s merely that the story is ticking boxes we’ve seen ticked before in action/war films and the combat sequences are so painfully well-executed and powerful that it can sometimes seem as if two entirely different films have been bolted together. But there’s no doubt that this is confident, striking, film-making and if it merely serves as the final step in Gibson’s rehabilitation and allows him to forge ahead with his new career as a director of true vision and power, then we can forgive Hacksaw Ridge its occasionally drift into mawkishness and sentimentality and we’ll most likely quickly forget them when the terrible, blood-chilling massacre begins. If Hacksaw Ridge is a flawed masterpiece, its flaws are really very minor indeed.
HACKSAW RIDGE / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: MEL GIBSON / SCREENPLAY: ANDREW KNIGHT, ROBERT SCHENKKAN / STARRING: ANDREW GARFIELD, SAM WORTHINGTON, LUKE BRACEY, TERESA PALMER, VINCE VAUGHN, HUGO WEAVING, RACHEL GRIFFITHS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Expected rating: 7/10