If you’re looking for a film to inspire you this November, Hacksaw Ridge is it. Receiving a rare, solid 10-minute standing ovation at its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, and high praise from critics, Hacksaw Ridge could be Gibson’s redemptive comeback – his first popular success since the glory days of Braveheart (1995).
Hacksaw Ridge is based on the true story of American army medic and 7th Day Adventist, Desmond Doss, who single-handedly saved the lives of 75 men during the Battle of Okinawa in WWII, without using any weapons. After an early childhood accident, the 6th commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ powerfully embeds itself in young Doss’s psyche and he commits himself to it unwaveringly. When World War Two reaches the shores of America after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, Doss is driven by patriotism to sign up to the army, despite his beliefs and his resolve to never touch a gun. He is determined to save lives, not take them, stating ‘while everybody is taking life I’m going to be saving it, and that’s going to be my way to serve.’
This somewhat delicate position causes him to be scorned after enlisting in the armed forces. Doss is “not a real man” but a coward in the eyes of his platoon mates and officers. As a conscientious objector – a person who for reasons of conscience (moral or religious) objects to bearing arms or serving in the armed forces – Doss is initially being brutalised and threatened by those around him and faces the prospect of being court-martialed. However he holds steadfast to what he believes to be right, knowing that if he can’t stand up for what he believes in, he won’t be able to stand up for his army comrades and country. After a trial, the army court judge decides that Doss is ‘free to run into the hell-fire of battle without a single weapon to protect yourself.’
When he says ‘hell-fire’ the judge was not exaggerating. The Battle of Okinawa was considered one of the bloodiest battles of WWII and when Doss’s commanding officers call for a retreat after days of brutal warfare, Doss stays behind. All through the night and into the next day Doss goes out to the decimated battlefield finding, carrying and lowering wounded men to safety, one by one. His ability to locate his brethren in the dark and his enormous reservoirs of strength to carry them from the field would see Doss awarded The Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman.
BAFTA Award winning actor Andrew Garfield delivers an intense and beautiful performance as Private Doss, who struggles through an internal battle – doing what’s right by his religion and values versus the dictates of military law. ‘There wasn’t any hesitation when I read the script’ says Garfield. ‘I think it’s rare in this world to have someone that is so tuned into themselves, tuned into that still, small voice inside, so that no matter what is thrown at them, they know what they can do, and what they can’t do.’
Because it was filmed largely in Australia, it gave a raft of Australian actors the opportunity to take centre stage – including aspiring actors Luke Bracey (Point Break) who plays Smitty Ryker, a soldier who befriends Doss during battle, and Teresa Palmer (Warm Bodies) who plays Dorothy Schutte, a nurse and Doss’s love interest in the film. Performing alongside Bracey and Palmer are seasoned Australian actors Hugo Weaving, Sam Worthington and Rachael Griffiths.
So what makes a hero? Made as a tribute to Doss’s rare form of courage, Gibson hoped the story ‘would inspire a rallying call in the hearts and minds of each and every audience member.’ This is not the first time Gibson, a zealous Catholic, has introduced the question of religiosity into his films – from The Passion of the Christ, a bloody and brutal movie about Christ’s execution to Apocalypto, where Mesoamerican tribes are enslaved and dragged to a crazed Mayan city where they are sacrificed to the Gods, all before the arrival of the Spanish on the shores; presumably the point here is to show that Mayan civilisation was brutal and on the edge of collapse pre Christianity. In any case, having a religious centre is no impediment to the film’s success. It has become a feature of Gibson directed movies that the action is intense and engaging and always serving to underscore the relationships rather than overpower them with pyrotechnics.
Hacksaw Ridge is in cinemas from November 3