On Sunday 11 November (Remembrance Day) at 11am, pay tribute to those who have died in military combat through a minute of silence …
Director: Mel Gibson
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Vinge Vaughan, Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Teresa Palmer
Last month I reviewed Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe, and it got me thinking about depictions of Christianity in Australian cinema. In Hollywood’s heyday, Biblical epics were a genre unto themselves and a commercial force not unlike today’s superhero films; indeed, adjusted for inflation, The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur are among the most successful films of all time, far out-grossing anything from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Beyond that genre, classic Hollywood depictions of Christianity were heavily informed by the Motion Picture Production Code (colloquially known as the Hays Code) which prohibited ridicule of the clergy or depicting religion in a negative light. While contemporary mainstream Hollywood fare errs to the secular, earnest depictions of Christianity persist in the faith film, a very American genre that’s enjoyed striking successes in recent years (see Heaven is for Real, War Room, or this year’s I Can Only Imagine). In contrast, in Australian cinema only a handful of films centre on Christian protagonists: The Devil’s Playground, based on Fred Schepisi’s days in a Catholic seminary; A Cry in the Dark, Schepisi’s sympathetic portrait of Seventh Day Adventists Lindsay and Michael Chamberlain following the disappearance of their daughter Azaria; and international co-productions such as Paul Cox’s historical film Molokai: The Story of Father Damien and the abovementioned Black Robe (Beresford also helmed the Hollywood Biblical feature King David). Nonetheless, look at the list of most successful Christian films on Box Office Mojo and you’ll find a number of Antipodean threads: the Chronicles of Narnia films were made in New Zealand and utilised local craftspeople; cinematographer Dean Semler shot Heaven is For Real; Sam Worthington and Radha Mitchell headline The Shack; Australian Christian band Hillsong United is the subject of documentary Hillsong: Let Hope Rise; and the highest grossing Christian film (unadjusted for inflation) was helmed by an Australian actor-director: Mel Gibson.
In his Hollywood heyday, Gibson was arguably Australia’s most successful acting export since Errol Flynn, headlining blockbuster films over two decades – from the Lethal Weapon series to What Women Want and Signs – and scoring Best Picture and Director Oscars for his sophomore directing feature Braveheart. A Christian and a Sedevacantist Catholic, Gibson bet the farm with his third directorial feature, self-financing a cinematic Passion Play about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The Passion of the Christ is a graphic, visceral and at times harrowing film, singular in its focus on Christ’s torture and sacrifice. The film, released at the outset of Lent in 2004, struck a chord with believers and was a major commercial success, reaping over $600 million at the box office, though its subsequent reputation has been blemished somewhat by its director’s offscreen misdemeanours and accusations of anti-Semitism.
Gibson’s fourth film as director, Apocalypto, was a Mayan adventure romp, but he returned to religious subject matter with his fifth directing feature, 2016’s Hacksaw Ridge. As a young boy, Hacksaw Ridge‘s hero Desmond Doss almost kills his brother in a fight, and subsequently swears off violence. As a young man, Doss (played by Andrew Garfield) is moved to enlist as a medic in the Second World War, but due to his convictions as a Seventh Day Adventist and a pacifist he refuses to carry a weapon or kill in combat, attracting the ire and eventually the begrudging respect of his superiors – including his sergeant (Vince Vaughan) and captain (Sam Worthington) – and fellow soldiers. When Doss’s division is tasked with taking a massive escarpment at Okinawa and suffers enormous casualties, Doss performs miraculous feats rescuing and lowering 75 injured soldiers to safety.
In an essay titled ‘Christianity and Literature’ (1939), C.S. Lewis says of Christian literature (that is, fiction concerned with Christian subject matter):
I question whether it has any literary qualities peculiar to itself. The rules for writing a good passion play or a good devotional lyric are simply the rules for writing tragedy or lyric in general: success in sacred literature depends on the same qualities of structure, suspense, variety, diction, and the like which secure success in secular literature.
Christian Literature can exist only in the same sense in which Christian cookery might exist… Boiling an egg is the same process whether you are a Christian or a Pagan. In the same way, literature written by Christians for Christians would have to avoid mendacity, cruelty, blasphemy, pornography, and the like, and it would aim at edification in so far as edification was proper to the kind of work in hand. But whatever it chose to do would have to be done by the means common to all literature; it could succeed or fail only by the same excellences and the same faults as all literature.
Lewis’s take on Christian literature is equally applicable to Christian cinema: the qualities that constitute a good secular film and a good faith film are one and the same. This is where some faith films, despite their best intentions, can fall short due to budgetary constraints, lack of technical polish, strained dramaturgy, and so on. In the hands of Gibson though, Hacksaw Ridge (and The Passion of the Christ before it) are exemplary products which stand alongside some of the best of secular cinema, marrying the lofty ideals of faith films with Hollywood polish and propulsion. Gibson is a muscular filmmaker who renders his stories with broad strokes and obvious symbolism. He’s also a filmmaker influenced by precursors both in film and other art-forms: Braveheart has David Lean and Akira Kurosawa coursing through its veins, and Gibson credits the art of Carravagio, Mantegna and Masaccio as influences on his and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel’s work in The Passion of the Christ. In the case of Hacksaw Ridge, the film’s war scenes conform to the WWII movie aesthetic of the past two decades cemented by Saving Private Ryan (itself, arguably, somewhat influenced by Braveheart’s bloody Late Medieval warfare), but Gibson and DoP Simon Duggan’s compositions are more classically framed than chaotic, and there’s a heightened, melodramatic pitch to them too; I wouldn’t be surprised if Gibson was inspired to some degree by Bosch and Goya.
Even the most cursory survey of Gibson’s acting filmography reveals a propensity for roles where his characters are on the receiving end of trauma: from the Mad Max and Lethal Weapon franchises to Ransom, Conspiracy Theory, Payback and even Hamlet, Gibson’s ‘Mad Mel’ archetypes are routinely beaten to a pulp and tortured, get betrayed, lose their wives, parents or children, and so on. And, as per Hollywood action movie conventions, his heroes routinely seek revenge against their wrongdoers. Braveheart manages to hit all four notes: William Wallace’s wife is murdered by British soldiers, he decimates Britain’s military might in Scotland, he’s betrayed by Scottish royalty, and at film’s end he’s hung, drawn and quartered for his country. However, in the character of Doss, Gibson presents a pacifist hero as decisive in his non-violence as Lethal Weapon’s Martin Riggs is in his violence. While Andrew Garfield’s performance is undeniably mannered, he credibly sells the gangly, marble-mouthed Doss’s faith-driven convictions and moral immovability, and between his roles in this and another 2016 release, Silence, the actor became an unexpected avatar for dramatizations of faith against seemingly insurmountable duress. The rest of the cast is likewise good: underrated actors like Vince Vaughan and Sam Worthington dig into meaty roles, and quality local talent including Teresa Palmer (as Doss’s wife), Hugo Weaving (as his troubled war veteran father), Rachel Griffiths (as his resilient mother), and Richard Roxburgh (seen briefly as a military psychologist) round out the ensemble.
When I looked back over my favourite Australian new releases of 2016, I ranked Hacksaw Ridge my pick of the pack, writing:
Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge loomed large like its titular cliff face. No film pinned me to my seat this past calendar year quite like Hacksaw Ridge, a tremendous, exhausting depiction of pacifist Desmond Doss’s faith-fuelled bravery during the Second World War.
The film’s lack of discernible Australianness remains a sticking point for some local commentators, who are reluctant to treat locally made films utilising local talent but lacking Australian settings or subject matter as products of the Australian film industry. I sympathise to some degree – and concede to finding it odd when The Great Gatsby or, uh, Peter Rabbit receive a raft of AACTA nominations – but Hacksaw Ridge deserves a place alongside Breaker Morant, Gallipoli, The Odd Angry Shot, The Lighthorsemen, Paradise Road, and more recent entries like Beneath Hill 60 and The Water Diviner in the canon of Australian-made war films.