Morphing from strained melodrama via disconcertingly comedic asides into one of the most stomach-churning, brutal depictions of combat ever seen on a big screen, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (2016) is a strange but potent beast. Shortcomings may dog its early going, but there’s no doubt that the elaborate staging of the assault on and attempt to wrestle command of the titled Ridge is one of the most pulsating, stirring set-pieces in cinema history. It provides an assault on the senses whilst being uncomfortably entertaining throughout.
On the downside, there are some jarring moments in the character-establishing first third of the film which begins with the childhood of Desmond Doss (Darcy Bryce) on a day when his constant play-fighting with brother Hal takes a nasty turn. The resultant serious injury that Hal suffers truly opens Desmond’s eyes up to how easy aggression can lead to dire consequences in an instant. The boys’ parents, Tom (Hugo Weaving) and Bertha (Rachel Griffiths), seem to have strayed in from a million wartime and other domestic dramas. Tom’s a former soldier himself, haunted by the loss of the friends whose graves he regularly visits to pour salt into all his old wartime wounds. A stray drop or two of alcohol also plays a part into contorting his mind with a strain of poisoned bitterness. Bertha is a commendably salt-of-the-earth type, shapeless but decent, determined to hold the family together even as the odds against it grow more imposing.
We then fast-forward to the young adulthood of Desmond (now played by Andrew Garfield) and his embarrassingly schmaltzy courtship of pretty and preposterously unattached nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). A series of scenes which are cringe-worthy for their triteness, simplicity and painful conventionality follow, before Doss almost immediately decides to follow his conscience and the lead of his brother, and enlist to become an army medic. Scenes of Doss’s time in training are treated with an equally jarring, weirdly comedic tone. The introduction of Vince Vaughn as hardnosed Sgt Howell begins a section of the film that will have you pondering a ludicrous fusion of R. Lee Ermey with Sgt. Bilko. Of course, it’s Doss’s reluctance to ever take arms that raises most controversy and almost sees him railroaded out of the army before he ever sees time on a battlefield. His religious convictions generate mistrust, anger and contempt from fellow soldiers and officers alike who are adamant that Doss will be detrimental to their cause.
But this story of Doss’s contribution to the saving of multiple lives on Hacksaw Ridge without ever firing a bullet in anger is one of remarkable heroism. The hand-to-hand warfare is portrayed with startling authenticity, initially hitting audiences like a thunderbolt of electricity and never letting up thereafter. It’s both increasingly difficult to watch or look away from as men on both sides are shot down like ducks in a shooting gallery. Gibson doesn’t shy away from showing the true horror and chaos of these insane, frenzied, fugue-like back and forths, the extreme physical effects of humans being torn apart like rag dolls shown with a horrifying clarity. But amidst the carnage, Doss reveals cunning and courage as his burrows far and wide to retrieve wounded soldiers who would otherwise have been abandoned to horrible fates, either dying in agony or delivered a fatal blow by Japanese survivors.
Rupert Gregson-Williams’s score – the best of his career – contributes another pulsating, stirring emotional subtext to what is a mesmerisingly uncomfortable snapshot of war’s paradoxical nature, bringing courage and camaraderie to the fore even as it grinds itself down to ever more unpalatable chunks of abject futility. Gibson, never a director to let an opportunity to examine the painful associations of a bloodletting influence his artistic ambitions, as Braveheart (1995), The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Apocalypto (2006) can attest to, has made a ferocious contribution to the sub-genre of war cinema. With a startling lead performance from Garfield as the moralistic but resolute warrior that Doss becomes, and strong work from an ensemble amongst the military ranks (especially young Australian Luke Bracey as Smitty Ryker), Gibson has forged a tale of humanistic endeavour amidst the most inhumane conditions imaginable and it’s almost impossible to remain unmoved by this boldly cinematic tale.