In Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson continues to present an alternative world-view to filmgoers. It is one at odds with almost all that emanates from Hollywood, but, nevertheless, is one that finds a welcome reception in the real world, where family and marriage, patriotism and courage, faith and self-sacrifice still form part of the daily lives of people of good will, and where these things still matter…
Hacksaw Ridge is the latest film from Mel Gibson. It is a welcome return to form for Mr. Gibson whose output as a director, although infrequent, has proved as provocative as it is passionate. It is a work with a pronounced world-view, one at odds with many of today’s filmmakers.
Maybe this is because there are two ‘Mel Gibsons.’ In the 1970s, Mr. Gibson came to fame in his native Australia as a television actor. By the 80s, he had become a major movie star via Cult Cinema offerings such as the Mad Max series, and big-budget Hollywood fare, such as the Lethal Weapon franchise. His acting career, thereafter, has been that of a Hollywood Superstar, able to pick and choose across genres what roles he played and with whom he worked. By contrast, his directorial output is more distinctive. To date, it consists of only five films: Man Without a Face; Braveheart; The Passion of the Christ; Apocalypto; and, now, Hacksaw Ridge. His first film aside, Mr. Gibson’s subject matter and its storytelling has been truly cinematic. As a director, Mr. Gibson is comfortable with tales told on a grand scale, stories of personal belief, bravery, and self-sacrifice.
This latest movie, Hacksaw Ridge is the true story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist conscientious objector during World War II, who not only enlisted voluntarily but went on to become a decorated war hero, without as much as carrying a rifle, let alone firing one. As a medic, again and again, he prayed: ‘Just one more, Lord,’ as he returned to the battlefield to rescue wounded comrades: saving, some estimate, the lives of as many as seventy-five soldiers. In this film, Mr. Gibson has wisely played to his directorial strengths. And, as in his other films, the narrative centres around one individual caught up in a personal drama played out against a larger backdrop, in this case war. One of Mr. Gibson’s strengths is to take the personal and project that against such epic backdrops. It sounds straightforward; it is not so simple to effect. That’s why so many of today’s ‘epics’ are little more than video games transferred on to a wider screen. The current over-reliance on special effects, to the detriment of plot and character, testifies to how few filmmakers are able to exploit the possibilities of visual storytelling on this larger scale.
Inevitably, this latest movie from Mr. Gibson speaks of something that resonates in his psyche. The Hollywood star has had a troubled relationship with the Catholic faith, yet this seems not so much to be with any doctrinal issues—although Mr. Gibson did seem to be enamoured of Sedevacantism—as with a lifestyle as wild as it has been unpredictable. In and through it all, however, one suspects that Mr. Gibson’s struggle is not with the faith as much as with what its demands. When all is said and done, in his films, and unlike the majority in Hollywood, Mr. Gibson takes faith seriously.
In Hacksaw Ridge, and through this Catholic sensibility, Mr. Gibson deals with some of his favourite themes: love and faith, patriotism and bravery, conflict and self-sacrifice. And, perhaps, as expected, his treatment of the Christian faith of Doss is respectful, without any apology or mitigation. On screen, we watch Doss not only witnessing to his faith when all around are trying to pressure him into going against his conscience, but we also see him reading the Bible—his small pocket-sized version, a constant companion throughout the film. We also watch as Doss prays, both privately and publicly. That the hero of the piece is carrying a Bible as well as openly praying is, in the climate of today’s Hollywood, a minor miracle in itself.
That leads us to Mr. Gibson’s relationship to Hollywood. As stated earlier, there are essentially two ‘Gibsons’ at work in that town. There is the actor whose work is largely run-of-the-mill Hollywood fare, often more successful at the box office than with critics, and whose work is not defined by any particular genre or theme. The other Gibson is the critically acclaimed director of films that challenge the Hollywood view of the world. In that sense, and in a real way, Mr. Gibson’s films are counter-cultural.
Of course, The Passion of the Christ is the clearest example of this. When it was being filmed Hollywood insiders endlessly joked about what they saw as a cinematic folly of immense proportions. The smile was soon wiped from their faces, however, when money flowed into box offices across the globe as the crowds flocked to see it. The Passion was, and no doubt still is, a deeply personal statement by its director. In making it, and on account of its global success, Mr. Gibson kick-started a renewed interest in Sacred Scripture amongst Studio Heads. Soon after, they were found poring over the Good Book before going on to make—with mixed fortunes, both theologically and at the box office—such cinematic fare as Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings.
If looked at closely, there appears to be a spiritual motif running throughout Mr. Gibson’s output as a director. Braveheart is a deeply Catholic film, not least in its portrayal of Pre-Reformation Scotland—and, as a result, a shock to some Scots upon its release in 1995. The 2006 Apocalyto is also deeply Catholic, if in a more obscure sense. The barbarism of the Pagan Maya is fully set forth, making the arrival of the Spanish ships bearing a Cross upon their sails all the more telling, if also deeply controversial in today’s politics. Hacksaw Ridge is Catholic too, despite its main protagonist being Seventh Day Adventist. It is Catholic in its treatment of family and marriage, and in its portrayal of faith and courage. In addition, it has echoes of Catholic Priests who became war heroes as well as heroes of the faith—men such as Frs. Willie Doyle, Emile Kapaun and Vincent Capodanno, from the Great War, the Korean and Vietnam conflicts respectively. Men whose courage on the battlefield was in no way diluted by their Christian witness, and whose example caused many to reflect on the deeper meaning of self-sacrifice.
In Hacksaw Ridge, Mr. Gibson continues to present an alternative world-view to filmgoers. It is one at odds with almost all that emanates from Hollywood, but, nevertheless, is one that finds a welcome reception in the real world. This is the world where family and marriage, patriotism and courage, faith and self-sacrifice still form part of the daily lives of people of good will, and where these things still matter.
Republished with gracious permission from the St. Austin Review (July/August 2017).
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