Just when you’re ready to write Mel Gibson off as a drunken old anti-semite who can’t even get a cameo look-in when his biggest franchise is revived and whose action movies are getting perilously near the Steven Siegel non-theatrical route … he comes back with a big auteur movie that reminds you he’s an uncommonly interesting, contradictory director with a genuine set of obsessions. I still find Braveheart, his biggest hit, insufferable … but The Passion of the Christ gets to the heart of the sado-masochism inherent in Christianity with a real fervour and Apocalypto is some sort of pulp grand guignol anthropoligical masterpiece. This WWII film – which has parallels with Randall Wallace’s Vietnam Gibson movie We Were Warriors – is bluntly about religiously-inclined pacifism amid a level of gory horror that suggests an EC Comic or Herschell Gordon Lewis reimagining of Saving Private Ryan or Clint Eastwood’s Iwo Jima movies. It’s almost an answer film to Eastwood’s American Sniper, with an equally all-American hero who refuses to pick up a rifle – not knowing the (true) story going in, I was sure that this would follow the Sergeant York/Friendly Persuasion route and have a moment where Seventh Day Adventist combat medic Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) had to kill to save a comrade or himself, but Gibson carries through without such melodrama and the one moment where the hero takes a rifle turns out to be a feint as he uses it to rig up a makeshift stretcher to drag a NCO (Vince Vaughn) to safety under heavy fire.
It opens in the hell of war, with many human torches blundering around an Okinawan hill, then flashes back to the childhood of Doss – who has a troubled, WWI vet drunken Dad (Hugo Weaving) – and his courtship of a nice nurse (Teresa Palmer) before getting into a sustained sequence of his clashes with the army he has volunteered for about his firm commitment to conscientious objection. Of course, he suffers joshing and then bullying … and the authorities try to get shot of him through section eight or court martial before accepting anyone as willing to stick by his principles under pressure as he is ought to be useful and train him up as a medico. Then, in the meat of the film, we’re in Okinawa in 1945 and Doss’s battalion is trying to capture a mountain that’s repulsed wave after wave of invaders, cutting them up like hacksaws. Under fire and in extremis, Doss saves dozens of injured men by hauling them out of the dirt and lowering them down the cliff … but Gibson also goes for gore with astonishing violent spectacle as men are whipped off their feet by multiple bullet hits and the Sgt Rock-like Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) shields himself from rifle fire by using the limbless torso of a dead man or one-ups the usual war movie cliché by covering a grenade with an enemy’s body. In making a WWII movie, Gibson returns to Hollywood modes of the era – the platoon consists of random stereotype guys from all over the country with contrasting accents and attitudes – but also looks to the kind of muscular filmmaking Sam Fuller, Robert Aldrich, Cornel Wilde and Don Siegel deployed in their post-war versions of the conflict. A key moment in the battle here replicates the climax of Fuller’s Hell is for Heroes as a satchel full of bombs has to be thrown into the slit of a pillbox machine gun emplacement that has been mowing down advancing troops.
Gibson, whose films as a director always seem to end in ritual executions, even includes the seppuku of the defending commander … though earlier his men surrendered in a kamikaze move to become suicide bombers in the midst of the Yanks (a contemporary touch in a film which has few of them). Filming in Australia, Gibson casts a lot of his countrymen – Worthington, dullest of leading men, again shows (after The Keeping Room) that he’s a solid character actor and Weaving makes a fair fist of the abusive yet proud father (Rachel Griffiths is underused as Doss’s Mom, though). Like Eastwood, Gibson is often seen as a conservative, shoot-first kind of guy but their films also show a strong anti-war sentiment even as they deliver inescapably exciting, shocking material. This has patches of crudity, sentiment, outrageous symbolism (Garfield crucified again on a stretcher) and incoherence, but that’s what you expect from Mel – who also crafts very vivid images (here, using high-def video in a way I’ve not seen before), wrestles with important subject matter and manages an adrenalin rush that’s hard to resist. Written by Robert Schenkkan (The Quiet American) and Andrew Knight (Spotswood).