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Thursday 14 December 2017

A war film for strong stomachs

Mel Gibson's World War II epic is sickeningly violent, but very well made

Risking life and limb: Hacksaw Ridge starring Andrew Garfield is based on a true story
Risking life and limb: Hacksaw Ridge starring Andrew Garfield is based on a true story

Paul Whitington

Mel Gibson is obsessed with viscera. In Passion of the Christ he made the crucifixion look like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre; in Apocalypto, rival bands of 16th century Central Americans did unspeakable things to one another with sharpened sticks; and in Braveheart Gibson went the whole hog and had himself eviscerated. To Mel, it seems, the body is nothing more than a heaving bag of guts waiting to be burst by some passing maniac. But none of that matters if you believe in the one true God.

His hatred of the human form finds its fullest expression yet in Hacksaw Ridge, a harrowing film set partly during the notorious Battle of Okinawa. It's based on a true story, and one which presents Gibson with a gilt-edged opportunity to indulge his other great obsession - religious faith. Desmond Doss, played here with admirable conviction by Andrew Garfield, was a Virginia-born Seventh Day Adventist whose life was changed by a traumatising childhood event. After beaning his brother with a brick and almost killing him, young Desmond renounces violence entirely, a stance that complicates his decision to enlist in the US Army after Pearl Harbour.

Eventually, he's accepted, but his plans to carry no firearms and work as a combat medic are met with hoots of derision by his superiors at the 77th Infantry Division. Mistaking conscientious objection for cowardice, his captain (Sam Worthington) and drill sergeant (Vince Vaughn) begin persecuting Doss, and his comrades start attacking him as well. But Desmond holds his ground, and after a touch and go court-martial hearing, is allowed to serve as an unarmed medic with his unit in the Pacific war.

Some prize, for he was about to join one of the most notoriously bloody battles of the Second World War. In the spring of 1945, the sleepy subtropical Japanese island of Okinawa became the focal point of a fierce struggle between American invaders and imperial defenders. US Forces wanted an air base large enough to mount bombing attacks on Tokyo and other cities, while for the Japanese, surrender was not an option.

More than 200,000 soldiers and civilians lost their lives in an encounter so remorseless it convinced US commanders that a full-scale invasion of mainland Japan would cost too many lives, and that those new fangled atom bombs might be a better bet.

Desmond Doss and his unit become embroiled in the struggle to capture a barren plateau at the top of a steep cliff, known to the soldiers as 'hacksaw ridge'. Up top, the Japanese forces have dug a dense network of bunkers and tunnels, and each time the Americans scale the cliff, they're mown down by volleys of bullets and explosives. At first, Doss can only watch and duck as all around him comrades are killed, maimed or worse, but when all seems lost he will prove his worth in a remarkable act of heroism.

Hacksaw Ridge begins sedately, even tamely, and there's a stolid, TV mini-series feel to the way Gibson painstakingly constructs Doss's back story. He has a perfect sweetheart (Teresa Palmer) and a deeply flawed father (Hugo Weaving), a bitter drunk traumatised by his own experiences in the Great War. All of this is competently realised, but Mel really comes into his own once the blood starts flowing.

The nightmarish battle scenes on Okinawa are masterfully handled, and include some of the most sickeningly violent sequences I've ever had to endure. Heads and legs fly off, blood and innards hit the camera lens, we are presented with extant body parts human eyes were never meant to see. It's disgusting, but then so was the real battle, and Gibson's contention that this is an anti-war film seems a valid one. It's certainly put me right off the idea.

A man after Mel's heart, Doss talks to God as he's saving his comrades, and while the film's portrayal of him latterly has worrying messianic overtones, there's absolutely nothing wrong with the way Hacksaw Ridge is made.

Hacksaw Ridge

(16, 140mins)

4 Stars

Films coming soon...

Loving (Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Michael Shannon); Gold (Matthew McConaughey, Edgar Ramirez, Bryce Dallas Howard); Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (Milla Jovovich, Ali Larter); Toni Erdmann (Peter Simonischek).

Irish Independent

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