The truth really is stranger than fiction.
If it weren’t for the “based on a true story” tag slapped across Mel Gibson’s new film Hacksaw Ridge, it would be simply impossible to take the flick seriously. After all, the bravery of the lead character Desmond Doss defies belief, and the man’s decision to serve as a medic during World War Two while refusing to carry a rifle is so shockingly selfless as to be genuinely confounding.
Indeed, it seems as though even the film’s principal cast struggled with the unbelievable twists and turns of the tale. “It’s a really special thing, this story,” says Australian actor Luke Bracey, a rising star who plays Smitty, one of Doss’ trenchmates. “It’s amazing that it’s a true story. If you just saw it in a movie, you just wouldn’t believe it … The world should know this story, and it’s kind of amazing that people don’t.”
Doss (expertly played by Andrew Garfield) refused to bear arms because of his religious convictions, and the film does have a strong seam of spirituality threaded throughout. Gibson’s lead weathers attacks from a range of sources with Christ-like resolve, with some of the earlier assaults on his character coming from Bracey’s Smitty.
In fact, early on in proceedings it appears as though Smitty is the antagonist of the piece: he struggles with Doss’ evangelism, and his own gung-ho take on nationalism frequently puts him at direct odds with the almost saintly virtues of the pacifist. But Smitty is far from a one-note character, and Bracey’s subtle shifts in temperament prove to be one of the film’s defining treats.
“Definitely on the surface, [my character] looks mean for the sake of being mean,” Bracey explains. “But he’s certainly not, and it was really great to discover … those reasons why he is kind of the way he is. He’s a survivor really, in all elements, and I think for me to go through that as an actor was a little cathartic personally. It was [a] release.
“I mean, [Smitty] had the opportunity to confide in someone, in Doss. Even though it’s someone that he thought he hated, someone that he thought he had no time for, he learns that being so different is exactly what makes them so similar. It’s a beautiful arc that way. I’m very fortunate to have this character and this arc. Even though it’s not the biggest role I’ve played – I mean, I’ve been in movies where I was the lead – it was really interesting to explore that.”
One might guess that such tricky nuances of character required a certain degree of directorial control and vision, but Bracey stresses that Gibson gave him almost complete freedom throughout the creative process. “I got to sit down with Mel for a bit a number of times before we started filming, and really just talk to him about where we wanted this character to come from and who we wanted him to be. I mean, Mel is so trusting in us as actors, which is a really kind of crazy thing. It’s crazy when one of the best storytellers in the world trusts you to tell this story with him. That gives you a lot of confidence.”
The film’s latter half is dominated by strikingly violent battle scenes, with blown-up limbs and strewn guts becoming the order of the day. But even as Hacksaw Ridge begins to wade through bloodshed and shell shock, proceedings never become overtly draining, largely thanks to the very genuine chemistry between the actors who make up the central army platoon.
“When we all came together, I was a little like, ‘What is it going to be like, coming together with 15 other actors? There might be some egos running around,’” Bracey says. “But it was the exact opposite: it couldn’t have been a better group of blokes coming together to tell this story. We’re all so committed to this story. We all felt such great responsibility with this man, Desmond Doss, and this impact he should have on the world. Everyone was definitely on the same page, and was so committed to it. So that camaraderie that you see was very real, actually – I think we were all very privileged and humbled to be part of this story.”
Given the cast and crew felt such a sense of responsibility towards the real-life people they were setting out to depict, there was a definite sense of risk associated with the film. But the efforts of all involved are already paying off: Hacksaw Ridge received a ten-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival, and critics are singing its praises. However, as far as Bracey is concerned, the true stamp of approval came from a less mainstream source.
“Desmond never wanted himself to become a hero like this,” Bracey says. “All he wanted was the truth to be told. I was lucky enough to meet some Medal of Honor recipients when I was in America last week, actually, who knew Desmond. They came up [and said],‘This is exactly how he would have wanted this to be told.’ To hear from people who knew him, and to hear them say he would have been proud of it… they’re all the critics that I need.”
[HacksawRidge photo by Mark Rogers]
Hacksaw Ridge (dir. Mel Gibson) is in cinemas Thursday November 3.