Mel Gibson is not everybody’s favourite famous Aussie who was not born in Australia. He’s not mine either, but undeniably he knows his way around a movie set.
It’s been ten years since the fabulous Apocalypto, his previous outing as a director, and his latest has not veered from the quasi-religious, primal worldview of sacrifice, suffering and honour that is his guiding star.
Never shy of a gore fest – it’s not so much that he indulges in blood’n’guts as he revels in it – the violence is graphic in the extreme. But as an acceptable caveat, the film is about warfare, and soldiers do happen to get their legs blown off.
The hero, however, is different. Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) was a Seventh-Day Adventist who joined the military to be a medic. Because he refused to carry a rifle he was taunted and baited in the barracks, where the typically tough sergeant with a heart of gold (Vince Vaughn) tried to whip him into shape. Gibson sticks to orthodoxy in these early scenes of military training (which of the guys will be killed? you wonder) and corny home life with the heavy-drinking father who has been mentally scarred by WWI.
Desmond’s meeting with his belle, nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer, from Adelaide – shot in Oz, the cast is loaded with locals), is a classic love-at-first-sight moment as everything runs exactly according to how your standard war flick should. The heavy stuff arrives when the boys are sent to Okinawa and engage in fierce combat with the last-stand Japanese army.
Remarkably, what Desmond achieves is entirely factual. Throughout I was wondering whether his pacifist resolve would be compromised by a basic survival instinct and Gibson, who admires nothing more than courage under fire, provides plenty of crises – like Christ, Desmond is sorely tested. Unarguably, this is a movie charged with testosterone, but it’s balanced by compassion and love. In the end I was extremely moved by it, which was the last thing I expected.