After nearly a decade out of the spotlight, it seems Mel Gibson is everywhere. Last week, at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, he received a 10-minute standing ovation at an Academy screening of his new film, Hacksaw Ridge. Among other interviews and appearances, on Tuesday, he was on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert and did a comic segment with Colbert lying on a picnic blanket ostensibly looking at the stars and musing about life.
On Wednesday, I caught up with Gibson at a Hacksaw Ridge screening at Greenwich Village’s Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center for Thought and Culture Loreto Theater. (The Loreto Theater is the shooting location for Reel Faith, the movie-review show I co-host with Sheen Center director of film and television David DiCerto for NET, Brooklyn’s New Evangelization Television.)
Prior to the screening, DiCerto introduced Gibson and Hacksaw screenwriter Robert Schenkkan and moderated a Q&A. Afterwards, I spoke briefly with Gibson about the film, the state of the world and the challenges of making movies with faith themes.
Writing about The Passion of the Christ a dozen years ago, I compared it to the grotesque religious paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, among others. Commenting on Hacksaw Ridge’s two major acts, Gibson offered a provocative twist on that metaphor.
“I had this vision of a Norman Rockwell painting jammed up against a Hieronymus Bosch painting,” he said. “So you have ideal, sweet innocence, and then you have hell. And you take the same people into the other painting. It’s the death of innocence. I wanted to give people an idea of what that feels like, and what our veterans, and indeed what the guys even today, suffer as a result of combat situations.”
What gives this particular story its Rockwell-ness is its protagonist: World War II medic Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor. Doss’ most notable achievement was singlehandedly saving scores of wounded soldiers on an Okinawa battlefield despite being unarmed.
“I wanted to pay tribute to what our veterans had done and sacrificed for us,” Gibson said, “but I wanted to accentuate who Desmond was in the middle of this maelstrom of violence that reduces most men to the level of animals. This guy just maintained his equilibrium and kept his faith. He was armed only with faith — no weapon. And he went in and put his life on the line again and again and again for his brothers, and ‘greater love hath no man…’ So it’s a love story, not a war film.”
Crucial to this story, Gibson maintained, was Doss’ devout faith as a Christian (Seventh-Day Adventist).
“Faith is intrinsic to who the man was,” he said, “and if you don’t have that, it’s very hard to understand what he did. I mean, who could do what he did, without something greater than himself? Who could do that? Could you? I couldn’t.”
At the same time, Schenkkan commented on the accessibility of Doss’ moral struggles to apply his principles in concrete situations to viewers of different worldviews.
“Desmond was a man of very powerful faith and very firmly held principles,” Schenkkan said, “which I think not only opens the film up to people of faith, but also to people who may not share, necessarily, Desmond’s ideology — the idea of a man of principle, a man who holds to a set of beliefs that are more important than himself.”
In particular, Schenkkan valued Doss’ willingness to bend where he could. “He’s asked at the end of the movie to compromise one of those principles,” he said, “and he’s not rigid about it, because he understands fundamentally what is important.”
How has Hacksaw been received by veterans? According to Gibson, despite his concerns about screening the film for veterans — counselors were on hand in case the experience proved too traumatic — it has been well received.
“We even had some veterans in their 90s who were on Hacksaw Ridge — three of them,” Gibson noted. “I found it gratifying. … The old guys from Okinawa were in tears, yes, but they said it was cathartic; they said, ‘That’s how it was,’ and they said it was therapeutic. They were out of their wheelchairs — I’m not kidding! And they were putting chokeholds on [actor] Luke Bracey.” (Bracey plays Smitty, a powerfully built recruit who is Doss’ main antagonist in the film.)
Acknowledging the uphill struggle faced by filmmakers addressing faith themes, Gibson said, “There’s this whole stigma attached to faith movies — that they have to be crummy or less-than. It isn’t true. You can make a good film and have that be a big part of it. You can. Not many people do! You see some crummy ones.” In a line that drew laughter, Gibson quipped, “We’ve Ben-Hur before.”
I asked Gibson whether he had any advice for filmmakers addressing faith themes. His answer was succinct.
“Just be truthful,” he said. “That’s all. It’s about truth. I don’t know — there’s no formula for this. You can make stuff corny, and you don’t want to do that. You want to make it fresh and new; you want it to be enlightening or surprising. Keep it fresh. I may not even be successful at doing that all the time. I may fall short. Some people think it’s too corny, this film. But it’s what I did.”
In addition to faith, commitment and sacrifice, Hacksaw is also about Doss’ fight for conscience rights, for religious accommodation permitting him to serve in a manner consistent with his beliefs. Religious liberty continues to be debated today; among other cases, there have been judicial challenges to the confessional seal binding priests to silence, and the Little Sisters of the Poor fought the HHS contraception mandate to the Supreme Court.
When I asked Gibson about the film’s topical relevance regarding religious liberty, he was understandably wary of commenting on particular hot-button topics.
“Does this story mean more today? I think it does,” he said. “I think there’s a need now to rise above the condition that we all live in. I think the world’s in a pretty bad way. And it’s moving toward — you know. There are a lot of wars, a lot of conflicts. And who do you vote for in this climate? One must get above that, in order to keep your sanity. And Desmond had a way of doing that.”
Desmond’s example, Gibson said, points to “a higher level of awareness, to trying to keep that other realm in mind in a way that informs your behavior.”
Apparently also alluding to the election, Schenkkan emphasized the significance of Doss as an exemplar of an alternate model of masculinity.
“I think right now we’re kind of overwhelmed with one idea of masculine leadership,” Schenkkan said, “which is about domination, casual cruelty and self-interest. And Desmond Doss is the antithesis of that. I think Desmond Doss embodies the Christian ethos, which is all about subordination of self to a higher power, compassion and self-sacrifice. And I think that’s a really important image of masculinity to put out there right now.”
In each of their latest films, the battle against a threatening power raises questions about which principles the protagonist should or shouldn’t compromise in order to protect his world — questions that aren’t necessarily clearly answered by the end of the film.
Gibson crafts a resolutely traditional exercise in Hollywood mythmaking: a tale of a man who stoically endures accusations of cowardice before being vindicated as the bravest of all, a man of integrity who stands by his unpopular principles regardless of the consequences; a pious man whose sincere faith eventually wins the respect and admiration of his less devout comrades.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.