Three hundred years on from Silence and Andrew Garfield is still being persecuted for his religious beliefs. He is even still wrestling with his conscience and contemplating his relationship with God: ‘I pray to God and I like to think he hears me, it ain’t a conversation’. Indeed, one scene sees the army send in his fiancé, channelling Liam Neeson, to convince him to give in: ‘It’s pride and stubbornness – don’t confuse your will with the Lord’s’. No, this isn’t Silence 2: Still No Word from the Man Upstairs, this is Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge.
Based on the true story of a ‘conscientious co-operator’ and his time serving as a combat medic the Second World War, Hacksaw Ridge follows Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) from his home in Virginia to the cliff of Hacksaw Ridge and the Battle of Okinawa. Growing up has been a mixed bag for Doss; his father (Hugo Weaving) is an embittered and aggressive veteran of the First World War, whilst he is haunted by the memory of a childhood brawl which almost left his brother for dead. Through it all, Desmond is brought up a Seventh-day Adventist and it is this faith, combined with such scaring experiences, that will eventually shape him into becoming the man who, on enlisting for the Second World War, does so on the condition that he will not touch a firearm. It’s a paradigm of contradiction but Doss, a pacifist, is insistent. He leaves behind his home, his future and fiancé because ‘With the world so set on tearing itself apart, it don’t seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together’. Thus, as the obstacles pile up – not least, an attempt by Vince Vaughan’s Sergeant Howell to have him committed – and are overcome, an incredible story unfurls.
Thirty minutes into Hacksaw Ridge and I was perplexed. This was not the tour de force, return-to-form, Gibson masterpiece that I was expecting from the wealth of critical acclaim that had preceded its arrival to the UK. In fact, this was more akin to a film I’m certain I once saw with my Grandma on Channel Five some many years ago. Based on the warm hued, saccharine (dare I say: cheesy?) pre-war love story that was the opening, the film was surely heading towards a conclusion in which Doss would return home from the war to an orchestral suite whilst the ghost of his deceased brother watched from the door of their old family home. Incidentally – don’t look up that Channel 5 film with its horrendously mawkish ending. To be fair to it, Garfield was winning and well supported in the role. Likewise, the odd lovely scenic backdrop made it a visually palatable watch enough. Yet the film did little to ease my awareness of its clichés as it transitioned to the requisite army base, gruff commander (Vaughan) and tick-box montage. True, a smattering of pretty decent shots and a touch of flair were an improvement but still nothing extraordinary.
Then: Okinawa. It’s fair to say that I was almost won over.
We know that Gibson does visceral; we’ve seen Apocalypto. We know he does battles, a la Braveheart. To cut a generic review build up short (because even critics often cliché), Hacksaw Ridge‘s attack sequences are something else. Explosive, intense, ensanguined and unrelentingly torrid in its brutality, there can be no end to the list of appropriate adjectives to describe just how impressive the cinematography and editing are here. If only it were a different film. For all its infrequently outstanding qualities, Hacksaw Ridge just doesn’t manage to reach anywhere near its potential. When it comes to the fighting, it is strong work but equally it’s hard to escape the feeling that this is why Gibson chose the project in the first place. In these sequences he loses sight of the film’s powerful central conceit – a pacifist on the front line – sidelining Garfield until the dust is beginning to settle and his side of the story comes to the fore. That his story is an inspirational one is in no doubt. That Gibson hampers it with cliché and a grating of parmesan is also sadly the case.
Hacksaw Ridge has its moments and it is worth your time, but disappoints ultimately because it’s not the film it might have been. Decent, but no Saving Private Ryan.