We’re Not in Kansas Any More:
When Mel Gibson’s four films as a director* culminated in his masterpiece, Apocalypto, it was obvious that he had emerged as a major force on the other side of the camera.
Then came his casting into the wilderness for the guts of a decade, an experience that – given his extreme Christian religious convictions — he may actually have embraced as some form of penance.
His fall from grace took place when it became decidedly unfashionable in cowardly Hollywood to work with him following his drunken rant about those who practice the Jewish religion. People lined up to cast the first stone, with self-righteous finger pointing and full page ads in Variety saying that they wouldn’t be seen dead in one of his pictures.
There were honourable exceptions such as his friend Jodie Foster, who cast him as the mentally ill lead in her disturbing film The Beaver; but generally speaking he was being written off. For myself, I just looked on him as a brilliant but flawed human being who got drunk; regretted that we would not now see his epic on the Vikings, which he had been due to direct; and in my mind wished him the best.
Gibson meanwhile, in a very non-Hollywood fashion, simply took himself off and – quietly and with no publicity – got himself sorted out.
Now he is back with a vengeance. Last year he reappeared as a leading actor in Blood Father and now Hacksaw Ridge has become his fifth film as director. And whilst it’s the one I personally responded to the least, it is certainly a clever move to pick this as a vehicle to drive back into Dodge in.
Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is an easy-going Seventh Day Adventist from Virginia, with a troubled family background. Whilst his parents are essentially decent people, his father (Hugo Weaving) has been severely traumatised by his stint in World War I, where he lost his three best friends. He is a burnt-out and alcoholic shell of a man whose wife asks her two boys to try to imagine as he was before his terrible experiences. Now he fears fresh agonies as his sons enlist in WWII.
It’s a different kind of role for Weaving and he pulls it off beautifully, giving us a performance that is painful and heartbreaking to watch.
He’s not exactly reassured when Doss informs him that he will be serving as a combat medic — but as a conscientious objector he has no intention of carrying a gun.
It doesn’t go down too well with the army command either, who do their level best to get rid of this nuisance, turning fellow soldiers against him and throwing out every dirty trick they can think of.
But Doss is a genuine hero, as he proves in the fiery Hell of the battles at Hacksaw Ridge in Okinawa.
This is a film that walks a tightrope at every turn and just about manages to keep its balance. The opening scenes of Doss’s Forest Gump-like courtship of Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) really are the stuff of soap-opera, in addition coming complete with a cue-heavy soundtrack from Rupert Gregson-Williams. Yet Gibson and his screenwriters Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan stay away from being overly preachy.
The basic training scenes (with Vince Vaughan as the tough but sympathetic Sergeant) will always be a problem for any filmmaker after the opening act of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. The rants of concentrated venom from a psychotic drill sergeant in the shape of Lee Ermey are by now embedded in our collective psyche. But again, Gibson pulls good, solid performances from his cast and has probably managed to deflect most criticism.
Hell on Earth
But it is when the fighting at Okinawa kicks off that he really comes into his own; because I have never seen anything quite like the way in which he films these protracted and bloody sequences. And I say that in full awareness of how powerful many such scenes have been in cinematic history.
Here we are just suddenly grabbed by the lapels and thrust into the chaos and madness, men going down in mid-sentence as bullets audibly crash through them. Stumbling over the bodies from previous fights, maggot infested and crawling with rats. Limbs being blown away by explosions.
And the flames. My God, the flames and raging fires are everywhere.
If there are a group of terrifying, awe-inspiring images that I will take away from this film then they are of the soldiers who wield the flame-throwers, striding across this seared and blasted Hell like harbingers of absolute insanity.
“We’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy”, Howell tells a petrified trooper.
You can say that again.
One thing: Don’t expect to see a balanced view of the Japanese here. They are ‘depicted’ – if that’s even the right word – as being devious, sadistic creatures straight out of a 1940s propaganda piece. And whilst there is a hint that some enemy wounded have been killed we don’t see this happen, as we do (and in very graphic detail) when the Japanese slaughter wounded Americans.
As chaos piled on chaos and atrocity on atrocity I began to wonder if Doss’s acts of courage were bravery or some form of insanity.
The interviews with the real participants which close the movie made me feel a bit ashamed of that reaction. But then, I’m just a normal person. These men of seventy years ago may think that’s what they were too; but they were not. They put their lives on the line so that we could have the small portion of democracy that we cling onto. And thinking of those awful deaths in another time, another place, we should do our own bit and fight even harder to make sure that they didn’t die for nothing.
Gibson’s films as a director:
The Man Without a Face (1993)
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
As of writing, and given the success of his latest film, Gibson’s Vikings project – Berserker – may be on again.
Hollywood may hate people who go on anti-Jewish rants; but it loves people who make lots of money even more.