UPDATE, WRITETHRU with press conference comments after 4:53 AM post: Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson’s fifth directorial effort, and his first since 2006’s Apocalypto, screened for the press this morning at the Venice Film Festival. Applause greeted the World War II pic inside the Sala Darsena, and reviews are strong — the word “comeback” has been used more than once. Equal parts faith-based film and horrors-of-war action drama, Hacksaw tells the story of real-life hero Desmond T Doss, a conscientious objector who saved 75 men in Okinawa without firing or carrying a gun. Andrew Garfield as Doss leads a cast that also includes Sam Worthington, Vince Vaughn, Luke Bracey, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths and Teresa Palmer.
Gibson told the press corps this afternoon why he was moved by Doss’ tale. “To have an ordinary man do extraordinary things in incredibly difficult circumstances is the makings of legendary storytelling. His struggle is singular — in the midst of Hell on Earth, he goes in armed with nothing more than faith and conviction. He does something extraordinary and supernatural, really, that inspired me,” the director said.
Scripted by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight, the movie has a sort of throwback quality, yet remains technically very much of today. I asked Schenkkan, who spent 10 years working on the project, about the old-fashioned tone and he suggested there were two reasons: Doss’ complete lack of irony and his heroism on the battlefield which is not at all contrived.
The film is laid out in two parts. After opening with a brief glimpse of flaming, flying bodies on the battlefield, the story quickly retreats 16 years earlier to Doss’ childhood with his brother (Roman Guerriero/Nathaniel Buzolic), loving mother (Griffiths) and abusive WWI vet father (Weaving). From the outset, it’s clear religion plays a big part in the boy’s life — particularly following a harrowing incident of roughhousing gone wrong. As a young man, Garfield’s now resolute pacifist develops an interest in medicine, and a crush on a nurse, Dorothy (Palmer). And then, he enlists.
Gibson takes Doss through Basic Training and introduces the men with whom he will go into battle, including Vaughn, Worthington and Bracey. But he’s bullied and not going anywhere until he convinces the military that he belongs there, despite his refusal to touch a gun. Doss believed that while the war was justified, killing was nevertheless wrong. Ultimately, he was allowed to serve as a medic.
From the bucolic hues of Lynchburg, Va and boot camp, the action shifts to Okinawa and the impossibly threatening Hacksaw Ridge of the title. Doss’ battalion must scale a wall a hundred feet high and then advance against Japanese soldiers who have resisted all other attempts to take the stronghold, resulting in scores of American casualties.
The battle scenes bear Gibson’s signature and are fresh, (very) gory and great spectacle (even at 8:30 in the morning on a Sunday). They’re also tense and moving — particularly as Doss seeks out the men still breathing amid the carnage, while also trying to avoid enemy fire. He later became the first conscientious objector awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The Guardian gave the film four stars, saying Gibson has “absolutely hit Hacksaw Ridge out of the park;” The Telegraph calls it “fantastically moving.” One Italian outlet has called it “poignant and effective.” As Deadline has previously reported, the film tested through the roof in the States.
Doss’ pacifism contrasted with the violence of the battle scenes, along with themes of redemption, are shaping up as talking points. In Venice today, Gibson said he hopes to get a message across. “There are such things as just wars, but I hate wars. But you have to love the warrior and give him homage and honor him. I hope it honors people who have gone into conflict and sacrificed so much and suffered… A lot of attention needs to be paid to our warriors; they need some love and understanding. I hope this film imparts that message. If it does nothing but that, that’s great.”
Garfield added with regard to the current state of the world and how the film relates, “It’s a pretty wild time we’re in societally speaking. There are violent uprisings and separation and warring ideologies that are plaguing our planet right now. Doss is a wonderful symbol of the idea of ‘live and let live’ no matter what your value system is.”
Lionsgate is showing its faith in Hacksaw by opening domestically in the heart of awards season on November 4. Expect the faith-based base and adults seeking action and emotion to climb the Ridge. The pic opens opposite fanboy destination Doctor Strange and kid pic Trolls. Offshore dates are not yet widely confirmed.
Bill Mechanic, David Permut, Brian Oliver, Terry Benedict, Paul Currie, Bruce Davey, William D. Johnson and Tyler Thompson produced Hacksaw through Cross Creek Pictures, Demarest Media, Pandemonium, Permut Presentations and Gibson’s Icon Productions. IM Global handles world sales on Hacksaw which sold out in Berlin last year.
Earlier asked to sum up his current relationship with Hollywood in one word, Gibson replied to laughter, “Just one word?” Then, he added, “It’s the same word everyone uses in relation to Hollywood: survival.”