Like many others I’m sure, I was hesitant to watch Mel Gibson’s new film Hacksaw Ridge. I’d seen the trailer and it looked like a fairly ridiculous (you know the bit I mean – kicking and slapping away grenades) and standard war film. But the critics were pretty consistent; it’s not a masterpiece, but it is definitely worth your time. So I gave it a go and I really enjoyed it – up until the last twenty minutes or so.
I was hesitant because Mel Gibson is pretty strange. Not because of all the crazy personal stuff (although that is extremely strange and won’t be mentioned here), but because of the movies he makes: Braveheart (1995), The Passion of the Christ (2004), Apocalypto, and now Hacksaw Ridge (full disclosure: I have not seen The Man Without a Face, so I have not mentioned it here). Bear with me. (Spoilers for Hacksaw Ridge ahead).
Personally I often find war films problematic. Partly because so often they seem ubiquitous, and partly because they don’t always seem to adequately deal with their subject matter. Full Metal Jacket on the one hand is a good example of a war film that shows the horrors of war (with a fair amount of humour), whereas something like Fury for me was much more like a glorification of war, violence, and shows the armed forces as a boy’s club. Saving Private Ryan gets a pretty perfect balance. Braveheart is overly long and occasionally self-indulgent, but pretty well balanced. It’s fairly liberal with the truth and, although primarily a war film, does feature religion and Gibson’s standard saviour protagonist.
Religious films are also problematic. Balanced religious films are much less common than balanced war films. You tend to get mainstream films that are critical of religion (Spotlight, The Magdalene Sisters, Sausage Party, Doubt) and then on the opposite of that religious films that are made with a religious agenda. I tried to watch one of these once, A Matter of Faith, but had to turn it off when the father got to his daughter’s university to debate her lecturer on this existence of evolution (this really was the plot). More balanced films that aren’t particularly criticising or promoting tend to be the more historical: Aronofsky’s excellent, and underrated, Noah and The Last Temptation of Christ. Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ probably fits well into the last category.
I enjoyed The Passion of the Christ and it seemed to be fairly focused on portraying a realistic telling of Christ’s last days. There was a lot of criticism at the time that it was very Catholic centric (and Gibson was accused at the time of anti-semitism because of the film). This would at first appear to be Gibson’s most religious film. But, by being a fairly simple (if, perhaps, biased) historical film that happens to be about religion, The Passion of the Christ is not necessarily overwhelmingly religious.
Gibson’s Apocalypto is genius and unprecedented. If perhaps you had been too distracted by the content of his previous films to see what a great film maker he can be, then Apocalypto should convince you. Which, unfortunately, does not mean it is not flawed. Whilst perhaps not particularly historically accurate and potentially pro-colonisation, depending on how you read it, the integrity of the film making and the sheer thrill of chase film set in a jungle makes these problems – if not forgivable – then forgettable.
So, Hacksaw Ridge is a return to both war and religion for Gibson, and a surprisingly good one. The trailer made the concept and the story itself look weak, but throughout the film the dawning that these are real(ish) events has quite an impact – it feels inspirational that someone could save so many people and be involved in war whilst standing by the beliefs and not partaking in the violence.
Richard Brody from the New Yorker took issue with the violence in the film, calling it pornographic. He’s definitely not wrong, the amount of violence and they way that it is filmed seems completely at odds with the message of non-violence from the protagonist. But for me the real issue with the way in which the film forced the religious message.
But unlike other films about religion I’ve mentioned, Spotlight and Doubt for instance, which are ideologically anti-religion do not let their persuasion get in the way of the story telling. The story itself is what leads you to the ideology, if you choose to see it, rather than needing to hammer in the ideology as Gibson does in Hacksaw Ridge.
There are two points that I felt really stuck out as guilty of this: when Doss sends someone back for his bible, and the shot at the very end of Doss on a stretcher. As if Doss would want someone to murder people and risk their life just to retrieve his bible and the final shot when he is being transferred on a stretcher at the end, floating in the sky and the camera moves as if he is ascending to the clouds was too much for me.
In the last 20 minutes the film stops being about a man who happens to be religious, doing a great thing, and instead hands the credit for the actions of the man to his religion and God. The pushing of the religious message, coupled with the amount of violence and the way it is shown, appears completely at odds with what Doss achieved as a conscientious objector. Whenever a film is made that tries to force a message rather than tell a story, the story suffers. Hacksaw Ridge is certainly watchable, and the story of Desmond Doss is truly incredible, but Gibson makes his best films when he leaves the preaching alone.