Milo garner reviews Mel Gibson’s war film, Hacksaw Ridge. Warning: spoilers!
Returning from his well-earned ten year exile from Hollywood, Mel Gibson is back in the director’s chair. On a modest budget of $40 million he brings to the screen the incredible story of Desmond Doss, a medic in the Second World War who not only went into battle without a rifle, but managed to save over 75 people in spite of it. Though Hacksaw Ridge succeeds in many ways, it doesn’t quite achieve the greatness it seems to be aiming for, but remains a riveting war film nonetheless.
Hacksaw Ridge takes its time to actually get to Hacksaw Ridge, a perilous battleground in war-torn Okinawa. But this is all part of the plan for Gibson, using pretty standard drama in the first act of the film to lull his audience into a false sense of security. As soon as Doss arrives at Okinawa, the tone of the film takes a sudden and effective turn – we are greeted with the dead and dying of the unit that had been fighting at Hacksaw before Doss and co., driven along the roads in their bloodied droves.
This foreboding is matched by the physical geography of the ridge itself – to scale it the soldiers have to scale an enormous climbing net, suitably dripping with blood. It is only when they get to the top that the film as advertised starts in earnest, with a quick descent into vicious and intensive battle. The battle scenes, rendered incredibly through a combination of great physical effects and passable CGI (despite the relatively low budget), are certainly the film’s highpoint and any claim to greatness would need to start here. Quickly cut together with all manner of creative shots, the battles are fierce, explosive, and at times overwhelming – a sense of chaos, fear, and death pervades near every frame.
Also worthy of note is the audio design, which pumps up the volume appropriately to give every gun shot and artillery blast a thundering reality, as opposed to the ‘flat’ audio often found in action movies. While watching the furious combat The Pacific comes to mind, yet Gibson’s version is even more violent – a calling card in his filmography. Following this battle the rest of the film is now content to stick to its literal guns and stop genre hopping – the remaining hour we’re presented with is an unadulterated war film, though one made unique through its focus on a character like Doss.
Doss, as the film took pains to establish, is a pacifist. So while the furious fighting consumes the scenery we are often looking out for him as he, the medic without a rifle, darts from soldier to soldier trying to save as many as he can. However, while exciting, there is a sense that Gibson fails to, or refuses to, engage with the Doss’ primary moral dilemma – that being without a weapon might not only endanger himself but others around him. There is a key scene where this could have been explored: while alone on the battlefield Doss finds his injured comrades set upon by a squad of five or so Japanese soldiers, and looks on helpless to stop them. But the scene is essentially rendered impotent by the numerical disadvantage Doss finds himself at – had there been two, or perhaps only one Japanese soldier, it would be distinctly clear that Doss would have been able to directly intervene to save the life of his compatriots. A dropped rifle could have even been in frame to emphasise his conscious choice to not save his ally through use of arms, but Gibson rather takes the easy way out and uses the scene for some good if unremarkable tension. It might seem a little cruel to question the choices of a bona fide American hero, and someone who likely would have done far less for his country had he taken up a weapon, but engaging with such questions would have elevated Hacksaw Ridge from being a pretty typical biopic to something more interesting.
Another key criticism of Hacksaw Ridge is found in its presentation of violence. Though suitably horrendous in its early stages – this is ostensibly a pacifist film after all – the final battle sequence changes tact a little. Here the pushback against the Japanese is glorified, as is the violence inflicted upon them. Several shots of the Japanese being burnt alive after a flamethrower scorches a dug out are unnecessary, and serve presumably for cathartic purposes. Again, this isn’t something unknown in war films, especially the simpler kinds, but it does question its pacifistic credentials.
The treatment of the Japanese in general also needs to be considered, and again Hacksaw Ridge comes up a little short, especially in comparison to its peers – TV shows like The Pacific or films like The Thin Red Line. Both tell very American-centric stories, but at times display that the Japanese, even if barbarous in their tactics, were indeed human, and that the Americans were capable of some evil too. In Hacksaw Ridge the only real interaction with the Japanese beyond the combat sphere is when Doss patches one up. This, however, seems more to prove Doss’ Christian purity than to comment on the humanity of the Japanese. In one scene following a battle we are, for example, shown a Japanese general committing seppuku, and the suicide is captured almost pornographically – this might have had some relevance, but we had never seen this general before, nor had he any lines. The scene was simply there so we, the audience, could enjoy seeing a Japanese soldier beheaded to represent their defeat in battle (captured in immoderate slow motion), even though the victory or failure of said mission wasn’t really the focus of the film at all.
This isn’t unusual of Gibson, considering his treatment of the English is films like The Patriot or Braveheart, but it does again pull Hacksaw Ridge out of competition for the upper echelon of war films. The battle scenes are incredible, and the acting great across the board, but in its simplicity, and indeed lack of subtlety (spy the scene where Doss is carried on a stretcher and the camera tilts up – heavenly) it rather joins the ranks of stirring and enjoyable war films that ultimately lack a cogent argument on war, or in Gibson’s case, pacifism and Christianity.
Featured image: Summit Entertainment