The older I get the harder it is to watch graphic war scenes in films. Or maybe it is because I see how perilously close we are to another global war. Whatever the reason plenty about Mel Gibson’s (The Passion of the Christ, Braveheart) latest film behind the camera affected me. There were tears aplenty. For a variety of reasons. It was touching, moving, sad, inspiring, and frightening. You sit there wondering how we human beings ever let things get that bad. What is worth sending young men off to endure the horror that is war? Nothing! The best part of the film is that it reminds us that even in the darkest of times when humans are acting atrociously there are bright lights. Bright lights like Desmond Doss.
Growing up in rural Virginia in a family in which your father (Hugo Weaving – Matrix, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) is a man damaged by his participation in World War I and an abusive alcoholic is tough. After some lessons early in life about the damage that violence can have, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield – The Amazing Spider-Man, The Social Network) decides that he will never raise his hands in violence.
This becomes tougher when Desmond decides to enlist in the U.S. army in order to go off and fight in World War II against the Japanese. He just wants to go over and be a medic and is told he will not have to carry a gun. This does not turn out to be true as his superiors, Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn – The Break-Up, Wedding Crashers) and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington – Avatar, Clash of the Titans), do all they can to encourage him to go home. He perseveres and ends up with his unit on Hacksaw Ridge.
Hacksaw Ridge is a vitally important area that the Americans have not been able to drive the Japanese back from. If they take that ridge they can then take Okinawa and eventually defeat the Japanese. This step is crucial, but the Americans keep getting driven back and losing a lot of men. Desmond’s unit is next up. They face an enemy who knows the terrain very well and has found hiding places above and below ground. Going into the battle as someone his fellow soldiers see as a coward, Desmond emerges as a true hero who demonstrates that you don’t have to wield a gun to help in war.
This is a film about war. Showing plenty of horrific gore and violence in order to better illustrate its message. The flying limbs, oozing blood, exploding bodies, and spilling guts are hard to watch. Many out there will have to look away for respite. Gibson films all this in high definition and uses plenty of slow motion to make it even more marking. The message in all that is that having faith even during these times will provide you with the courage you need to do what is right. The spiritual side of the film is there though not so heavy handed that it will turn off the less religious viewer.
Religion and violence. These are the two subjects that have preoccupied Mel Gibson throughout his career. They stand together here – filmed in a crystal clear way. With Hacksaw Ridge has he accomplished the impossible and made a film about war and at the same time, peace? Gibson shows his strength as a director in this film; he is unflinching in the face of grit, gore and violence. The battle scenes here are some of the best ever committed to film. They are imbued with an almost manic appreciation of what goes on in war. The hissing of bullets flying, the rivers of blood flooding battlegrounds, loudness of bombs exploding, the vivid colours, and the screams of agony. What we see here assaults all our senses. It is so vivid that you swear you can almost smell all the blood, rotting bodies and burnt skin. Death is everywhere and overwhelming. Nauseating yet thrilling. Clearly shows his attraction and near reverence of violence. Gripping cinema that signals Mel Gibson’s comeback. Might even earn him an Oscar nomination.
We have all seen many war films and even many about World War II, so what does Hacksaw Ridge bring to us? It for one of the first times presents what all soldiers do in war as something very close to miraculous. It is amazing that under the worst conditions that these young men can do what they learned in training. Soldiers who are able to function under these conditions should be looked at as heroes. All of them. Plus it is a look at the psychological damage war inflicts upon those involved. PTSD is finally being acknowledged. This film shows its origins. Helps us in an almost concrete way understand how the damage is done to those who live through war.
Don’t expect much of a backstory for any of the characters in the film. We don’t really get to know why anyone acts the way they do. Sure, small things like the father being wracked with guilt over the fact that his friends are buried while he is still alive or that Desmond almost killed his brother Hal (Nathaniel Buzolic – from television’s The Originals) when they were just kids are divulged, but character development is not the forte of this film.