Garfield: His Nine Lives
Despite his technical skill behind the camera, for a while it was necessary for Hollywood to turn its back on Mel Gibson. He’s a racist and anti-Semite you see, and this made it impossible to ignore the fascist aesthetic and propagandist trappings that informed his work, not least Oscar darling Braveheart – a film that had it been released in wartime, would probably have been banned in Britain.
But Gibson’s been away long enough for his comments on Black people, Jews and women to have been forgotten. And you won’t find them referenced here. Naturally, Mel wants to rehabilitate his reputation with those all-important reactionary Academy voters, whose patronage can guarantee the funding of prestige pictures for decades to come. Mel’s too old for that other shit of course, you know – acting, so it’s his demonstrable prowess as an old fashioned storyteller that holds the key to his future.
Hacksaw Ridge, a war movie aligning the good fight with the good book, is calibrated to hit that Academy sweet spot. Yes, it’s an anti-war film powered by the director’s bloodlust, that gets off on pornographic violence, just as his old movies did, but the story of conscientious objector Desmond Doss – a simple Virginian boy who signed up for army service to support the fight against the Japanese while refusing to kill (he wouldn’t even touch a rifle), is cornball heroism at its most righteous and manipulative.
It’s a pretty fucking good movie if you like that sort of thing; a true story that shows the pacifist liberals how it should be done. You put on your tin hat, run into battle and make yourself useful. Doss shamed every deep thinker and philosopher out there. He fought his war with his heart and his pocket Bible.
If you were looking for ideological flaws in Gibson’s movie, you might balk at its right wing foundations: God, Country, Blood and Soil – the uncomplicated virtue of the uneducated and pious. The part of you that appreciates nuance and intellectual content wants to annihilate Andrew Garfield’s Private, despite his sheer decency, because his struggle for acceptance in the Army and his bravery on the battlefield is driven by unquestioned ignorance and naivety.
Gibson’s careful to code all of this as endearing naturally, inviting us to buy into the man’s monolithic faith in peace and the sanctity of life. It’s just a pity the director’s so obsessed with war and death. Perhaps this celebratory way in is what attracted Mel to the story.
Those on Gibson watch will enjoy his recasting of Doss as a talismanic, indeed messianic figure, that galvanises the troops on to victory, destroying an enemy the film brands as sub-human (with an equivocating scene of honourable suicide, celebrating the Japs’ death drive, inserted for balance). They’ll love the simple women folk (from good healthy stock) and the fetishistic treatment of traditional masculinity (heroism being its ultimate expression, whatever one’s psychical limitations). Indeed, Ridge is quintessential Mel.
The story’s true of course – Doss’s bravery even greater than portrayed here, but it would have been much more interesting to see a version of it that interrogated blind patriotism instead of celebrating it. That would be a relevant treatment rather than a mythologizing one.