Mel Gibson’s latest directorial outing, Hacksaw Ridge, is a memorable World War Two biopic of Desmond Doss. Private Doss (as he is during the events of the film, he later became a corporal), was the only conscientious objector to receive America’s Medal of Honor during the War. The film has received six Oscar nominations.
Desmond Doss, as a religious conscientious objector who couldn’t take part in violence, went into battle as a combat medic and did so completely unarmed. This left him in the unique and terrifying position of being in the middle of one of the Pacific Campaign’s bloodiest battles without any means of defence. Desmond Doss was wounded four times on Okinawa and saved the lives of 75 infantrymen.
Doss is played by Andrew Garfield and this film following so quickly on the heels of his appearance in Martin Scorsese’s Silence signals a less light-hearted phase of his career on screen. The role of Private Doss on the blood soaked beaches of Okinawa certainly feels a long way removed from Garfield’s outings as Spider Man.
Mel Gibson’s directorship of this film definitely raised some eyebrows before release, his previous sketchy record as regards historical accuracy –in films like Braveheart- left some questioning whether he was the right director to take on this sort of unique, personal war story.
Gibson seemingly stepped up to the plate though, so much so Doss’s only child Desmond Doss Junior, told People magazine- “I grew up in a house where there was an endless stream of people coming through the door wanting to make a movie, write a book, etc. […] The reason he [Doss] declined is that none of them adhered to his one requirement: that it be accurate. And I find it remarkable, the level of accuracy in adhering to the principal of the story in this movie”.
That said it can’t be denied that the film has one or two slightly over-egged moments. One sees Doss dragging his wounded Sergeant (Vince Vaughn) speedily away from the battlefield and pursuing Japanese soldiers, on a length of fabric. The way this small sequence is shot, it’s frenetic speed and Vaughn’s clichéd declaration of “we’ve got company!” makes it a moment which lets the film down a little.
Elsewhere though battle scenes are some of the most visceral in recent cinema history and some credit has to be given to Simon Duggan, the film’s cinematographer. Duggan’s most remarkable previous work is arguably 2013’s The Great Gatsby which was also visually remarkable. While bringing Gatsby’s glamorous period parties to life will have taken a very different touch to effectively imagining the battlefields of Okinawa, it has to be said both are visually stunning. Every shot, explosion, slash and tumble feels real and tangible. While the battle’s actual combat in many ways is not the centrepiece of the film it is entirely necessary to frame Doss’s achievements and does so wonderfully.
In terms of Gibson’s directorial filmography this is definitely a plus point. Hacksaw Ridge isn’t perfect but it’s immensely watchable, it has gripping, grit-heavy action and tells a true story that’s nothing short of inspiring. Footage of Doss himself, and his former comrades, after the film definitely frames the film well and makes it a little easier to forgive Gibson’s very occasional slips.
By George Storr