This year’s Venice Film Festival seems like a great comeback -- a return to the good old days of cinema, when it was simple and uncomplicated, when directors and writers believed in giving their audiences a good time. They were not expected to look at abstracts or break their heads over puzzling storylines or climaxes. We saw this trend with the opening movie, La La Land, which transported us to the days of melodious Hollywood musicals. Mel Gibson’s Out of Competition war film, Hacksaw Ridge, at the ongoing festival is a conventional, old-world story about a war hero that one has seen in a work like Von Ryan’s Express -- where Ryan is played by that great actor we called Frank Sinatra. There have been other movies like The Dirty Dozen, Battle of the Bulge and Where Eagle’s Dare, which spoke about the heroic exploits of the Allied forces during World War II.
Gibson -- after his rough times that included his anti-semitic outbursts -- made a comeback after 10 years on Saturday with Hacksaw Ridge -- which talks about the fierce battle that American troops fought after Pearl Harbour -- a do-or-die battle to capture Okinawa which would have ensured their victory over Japan.
In the kind of troubled times which America is passing through, Hacksaw Ridge tells us how easy it once was to be defined as a patriot. During the war, the Pacific region was a scene of devastation and destruction that saw hundreds of thousands of men dead in bloody battles. The push for Okinawa alone in 1945 saw 82,000 men killed. And Gibson’s work captures this conflict as no other film has. John Woo’s Windtalkers in 2002 and Terrance Malick’s The Thin Red Line earlier in 1998 pale in comparison to Hacksaw Ridge. The battle scenes here are mind-blowing, and look so eerily real that one felt that one was watching the actual war from a stand high above.
Andrew Garfield -- who plays the hero, Desmond Doss -- is brilliant in a role that is gripped by a moral question. He is poorly educated, a Seventh-Day Adventist, who will not work on a Sunday even if the enemy were to be peering into his bunker. Hailing from rural Virginia, his principle is clear--he is okay with war, but not killing, and so he would not so much as touch a rifle. That would go against his faith. But he is prepared to go into the war zone as a medic -- never mind the humiliation and the prejudice he has to endure from his regiment.
But Gibson shows us how Doss even while refusing to handle a gun, goes into the field, saving 75 men single handedly in what became a heroic record. Doss was extraordinarily brave -- belying his regiment’s dig of he being a coward.
There is, of course, a story about why he becomes anti-killing. As a boy, he nearly kills his brother, and later his own father--turning points in his life that see Doss become a man of peace. The actual Doss died only in 2006. Hacksaw Ridge is a true story, and Gibson says that without flinching, in the movie’s opening credits.
Gibson also weaves in a love story. Doss falls for a pretty nurse, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), and this hardly ever distracts the primary plot, which is quite clearly the tale of Doss’ strange courage that takes him to the war front, the only man who goes there without a weapon.
Watch trailer of Hacksaw Ridge here:
Gibson, the Oscar-winning director of Braveheart, told a press conference soon after his Hacksaw Ridge was shown: “Doss’ struggle is singular. He is in the worst situation possible. He goes into the struggle with faith and conviction. He does something supernatural. That inspired me. As storytellers we want to tell those stories... To go into a battle zone like that. I think the Japanese called it a steel rain, with the artillery and the lead that was flying around, to go into that armed with only your faith, your faith has to be strong indeed... That’s an undeniable part of the story that I just find really inspiring. Doss just conquers everything.”
Gibson also felt that much more needed to be done to stop suicides by soldiers returning from wars.
“I hate wars. But you have to love the warrior and give him homage and honour… Our warriors need some love and understanding. I hope this film imparts that message.”
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Venice Film Festival.)