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Hacksaw Ridge

Year: 2016
Production Co: Cross Creek Pictures
Director: Mel Gibson
Writer: Robert Schenkkan/Andrew Knight
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughan, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Robert Morgan, Richard Roxburgh

I'm sure I'm not the first person to use the phrase 'Saving Private Gump' to describe this film, but it's hard not to think this weirdly bisected story that could have come from two completely different directors.

As I heard it described, the first half is indeed like a cross between a hallmark channel TV movie and a gilded Nicholas Sparks romance potboiler. 1940s-era rural hick Desmond (Andrew Garfield) goes through every possible good-hearted-simple-folks cliché you can point a stick at, from his aw-shucks outlook on his friends and family to his charming and overeager winning of the girl (Theresa Palmer).

Desmond's seeing his friends go off overseas to serve in World War II and despite his strict religious beliefs against handling a weapon, he's determined to do the same – against the wishes of his father who knows what hell war is and has taken to the bottle to drown out the guilt at surviving when so many of his own friends didn't.

One minute it's all bales of hay in fields, small-town girls in gingham dresses and farmers waving at their neighbours from ancient pickup trucks (there are probably no scenes specifically depicting those images, but the film evokes memories like them after so successfully applying a specific tone).

What seems like a minute later, we're panning across a charred landscape strewn with guts, blood, limbs missing their bodies and bodies missing their limbs that's more confronting than most exploitation horror films.

We're viewing such gleeful carnage – with the same tactile camera movement a lot of directors reserve for gliding across a beautiful female body – because Desmond has fought the army on his principles and won, being assigned to the front lines as a medic and not forced to carry a rifle or kill anyone, just like he wanted.

The front line is the titular cliff in Okinawa, where the Japanese have dug in tight on the plains above and which the Americans have to reach by climbing a rope frame to the top, guns blazing while they try to force the Japanese back and ultimately take the island.

Gibson's too good a director to not do good filmmaking, but that doesn't necessarily translate to a good movie. The three simple acts (Desmond grows up, he trains while he fights the army on his stance, then he joins the battle) combine to form a story you could write on a stamp and there's nothing inherently wrong with that, it's all just a bit too on the nose. The script treats Doss as such a perfectly lovable and beatific figure – he's even carried off the battlefield when he gets injured looking like Christ, lying on a stretcher with arms outstretched – it becomes hard to swallow after awhile.

When Gibson finally takes a break from cramming such schmaltzy characterisations down your throat, he seems determined to out-Spielberg Saving Private Ryan for realistic and heart-pounding war movie action. The last hour of the film on its own would make an effective showreel for an up and coming Michael Bay. In fact, with a short crawl at the beginning explaining how Doss joined up and won the right to not carry a gun, the battle portion would have made an effective movie without all the golden-lit scene-setting.

It seems like the perfect metaphor for what we all think we know about Gibson himself – a lovable man Hollywood is rediscovering its mojo for, but prone to fits of violence and outburst. When he points his camera at the war scenes on top of the cliff, it's so excited to show you the visceral horrors of war he's like a video nasty director from the early 80s, only with lots more money and talent.

It's also a topical game of spot the Aussie with Hugo Weaving as Desmond's drunkard World War I vet father, Luke Bracey as the bully in his platoon, Richard Roxburgh as an army lawyer, growly Sam Worthington at his growliest as Doss' company commander and Rachel Griffiths as his mother.

But here's the deep philosophical conundrum at the heart of most Hollywood action movies and this one in particular – for a movie about a principled belief against violence, Hacksaw Ridge sure loves violence, fetishising and almost sexualising the blood, bullets and bravado of it to a degree that borders on porn.

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