The past ten years have not been kind to Mel Gibson. Previously, Gibson was one of the most popular actors in the world; he won an Academy Award for directing Braveheart, was considered a top action star, played the role of Hamlet, received the Officer of the Order of Australia, and was named People Magazine’s first ever “Sexiest Man Alive”. However, during a period of excessive drinking, failed relationships, and personal turmoil, Hollywood and audiences decided they wanted nothing more to do with the man they once held on such a high pedestal.
It’s been ten years since he directed his last film: the groundbreaking adventure, Apocalypto, which was praised by directors like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Spike Lee. Despite the industry-wide shunning he’s received, Gibson recently made his return to the director’s chair with Hacksaw Ridge, released today. While in many ways it strays from the epics Gibson normally crafts, the change in direction seems to have changed the minds of critics and audiences, as the film, its director, and its stars received a 10 minute-long standing ovation upon its premiere at this year’s Venice Film Festival.
Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield); a US Army medic and Seventh-day Adventist who volunteered for duty in WWII, despite also being a conscientious objector. Eager to help his country, but also morally opposed to war and killing, Doss refused to carry a gun or kill any enemies during his tours of duty, despite fierce ridicule and harassment from some of his fellow soldiers. While he served in the Battles of Guam and Leyte, the movie focuses on his heroic actions in the blood-soaked Battle of Okinawa. For over a month, Doss risked his own life time and time again, crossing enemy lines under the constant barrage of grenade, mortar, machine gun, and sniper fire, to retrieve the wounded and deceased. Despite receiving multiple wounds himself, Doss frequently put the injuries of others before his own, often patching himself up after everyone else had been tended to. He not only went above and beyond his duty as a soldier, he remained true to his religious beliefs while looking death straight in the eye.
For years, directors and producers have struggled to make a faithful film based on Doss’s heroic deeds. As Doss himself was devoutly religious, filmmakers have had a hard time of making a satisfactory war film with a pacifist main character. Few directors could proficiently portray the world of extreme violence and pious faith that Doss found himself in. Gibson’s work on The Passion of the Christ made him an ideal candidate for the job, but he ended up passing on the project twice; a decision he made with Braveheart before agreeing to direct. Ten years later Gibson relented and agreed to direct the film. That same month, Andrew Garfield joined the film in the starring role after connecting with Doss on such an emotional and intellectual level that he cried after reading the script (it’s also rumored that Gibson had been a fan of Garfield’s since The Social Network). Actress Teresa Palmer, who plays Doss’s wife Dorothy, also felt such a connection to the project that she sent in an audition to Gibson via iPhone.
Half of Hacksaw Ridge’s greatness lies in the dedication and emotion of actors Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Vince Vaughn, and Sam Worthington. Garfield put his heart and soul into his portrayal of such a complex character, and it’s said that his performance in the film left Doss’s son, who was present at the premiere, in tears. The other half is Mel Gibson directing a film the only way he knows how. Sure his latest film differs from the other movies he’s directed: The hero doesn’t kill anyone, he doesn’t have a tangible enemy to struggle against, and no dead languages are spoken in the movie. However, at the heart of Hacksaw Ridge lies the portrayal of the enduring human spirit and ferocious courage present in every Mel Gibson film. You have an ordinary person; a person of faith, struggling to do what they think is right despite everyone around them telling them they’re wrong. Someone who would put their own life on the line to save those bullies; not because they want to be seen as a hero, but because they know it’s the right thing to do. Someone who realizes that, sometimes, the fiercest warrior is the one who chooses not to fight back. Someone that may not reflect the person we are, but who we all aspire to be, even if we have to be reminded every once in a while. Find showtimes and tickets for Hacksaw Ridge here.