Mel Gibson is the cinematic equivalent of Tom Jones: his speciality is full-on bluster, but there will always be a need for quieter, subtle moments, which he can’t manage quite so readily. And so the calmer, scene-setting first half of Gibson’s World War II-set Hacksaw Ridge – which requires plenty of subtlety and nuance – is sadly little more than a boringly-adequate collection of war film cliches: we get the brief glimpse into a (partly fabricated) home life, where only significant rows between young Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) and his father are seen, and innocent first dates evolve into marriage within the space of a couple of minutes; we get the run through boot camp, after conscientious objector and pacifist Doss has realised that he can serve his country by saving the lives of soldiers, and thus enlists in the US Army (it’s very Full Metal Jacket-lite); and we get a subsequent court case involving Doss, which has a faint whiff of A Few Good Men about it.
Suddenly – via the age-old transition of fresh-faced grunts eyeballing grizzled, injured or dead compatriots as they swap places on the front line – we’re on to the meatier second half, which is where all the restaged conflict footage sits. In real life Doss served in Guam and the Philippines, earning the Bronze Star for helping wounded soldiers under fire, though none of that appears in Hacksaw Ridge. He subsequently distinguished himself during The Battle of Okinawa, reportedly saving the lives of 75 US soldiers despite being injured four times by enemy fire himself; so his achievements are the stuff of legend and well worth enshrining in a big Hollywood movie. Gibson is on surer footing as he recreates the ferocious battles on Okinawa, which we already know is something that he can do very well. Though concentrating for the most part on the experiences of Doss, he also includes long sequences of battlefield chaos in which the sheer amount of explosions, blood, screams, gunfire and entrails goes a little way towards illustrating the hellish nature of warfare for those of us who will hopefully never have to experience it. It’s visceral, tough cinema but, as plenty of critics have commented, the director’s glee at getting to make this punishing hour of violence is palpable. What this means is that on the one hand you have a gripping sixty minutes of faux-combat to salivate over, which I enjoyed in the moment; however, on the other hand, it is difficult to escape the uneasy feeling that washes over as you watch yet another highly fetishised slow-mo shot of someone burning Japanese soldiers alive with a flamethrower. Is this not supposed to be a film about a pacifist? In seeking to emphasise Doss’s resistance to killing, Gibson is way too happy to revel in all the carnage, and as such in my opinion fails to do justice to everything that Desmond Doss stood for. But he does bluster very well indeed, and well done to Vince Vaughn for not sucking for the first time in ages. (***)