The history of Hollywood is littered with larger-than-life personalities who have, for one reason or another, found a home in the public eye. On-screen, these individuals can hide their private life behind the veneer of inhabiting a character; off-screen, living one’s life in the constant glare of the limelight can be both a blessing and a curse.
So it was for Mel Gibson – perhaps the most talented and troubled Hollywood heavyweight since the days of Marlon Brando. Rarely is such a complete slide seen from Academy Award-winning acclaim to the filmic wasteland, and with the allegations of alcoholism, bigotry and spousal abuse being splashed across every news outlet, Gibson’s career took on the qualities of a train wreck – utterly unwatchable, and yet impossible to ignore.
Beneath that controversy, however, lay an undeniable acting tour de force – the man behind the much-loved Martin Riggs of Lethal Weapon fame, and the thespian powerhouse that both directed and starred in 1995’s Braveheart, a film which claimed no less than five Academy Awards. From 1989 to 2002, he appeared in ten movies that each went onto gross $100m worldwide – four years later, and Gibson was without a wife, an agent, or the support of the vast majority of the cinematic community.
Though the intervening years have been riddled with unsavoury behaviour, it is starting to appear that Gibson has finally returned to form as Oscar-gossip continues to surround his first directorial project since 2006’s Apocalypto, the World War Two epic Hacksaw Ridge.
Starring Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge delves into the incredible story of US Army medic Desmond Doss who, in spite of refusing to bear arms due to his faith as a Seven Day Adventist, was awarded the Medal of Honour – the first of just three individuals in history to have done so.
“Desmond Doss was a singular and extraordinary man,” says Gibson. “He’s an ordinary man who does extraordinary things in a difficult situation. He just didn’t do it once or twice but he did it over and over again; he had all the hallmarks of the classic hero. He stuck to his faith and convictions and did what he had to do.”
Faith and conviction
Faith and conviction are a tricky subject when it comes to Gibson. The second son of eleven children fathered by Hutton Gibson, himself an outspoken critic of the Catholic Church, Gibson junior was moved with his family from New York to Australia, and was schooled for much of his formative years by members of the Congregation of Christian Brothers. Raised as a Sedevacantist traditionalist Catholic – a controversial group that believe there is, at present, no valid Pope in place – Gibson’s ultraconservative views and the influence of his firebrand father came to a head in 2004 with The Passion of the Christ, a film that Gibson hoped to be his enduring magnum opus but instead opened himself up to a slew of anti-Semitic accusations.
These allegations, combined with Gibson’s long-standing problems with alcohol, the breakdown of his 26-year marriage to Robyn Moore and the subsequent release of recordings purporting to be of Gibson threatening violence on his girlfriend, created a media firestorm from which the star emerged with a career in tatters and a permanent spot on the list of actors whose reputation rendered them untouchable to directors. In an odd way, this black-listing creates a comparison between Gibson and Doss – though, or course, the reasons behind this exclusion remain entirely opposed.
“They put him through hell,” says Gibson of Doss’ treatment by the US Army. “He was beaten up by his fellow soldiers, he was called a coward, he was ostracised in the military. Nobody would even talk to him.”
A desire to deal with reality
Understandably, Doss’ story piqued Gibson’s interests, as both a director and a man with a complicated history of religious conviction, almost at once. Much of Gibson’s work, be it the traditional language used in Apocalypto or the scourging of Jesus in Passion, has been underpinned by a desire to deal with the reality of a situation, however harrowing.
“As a storyteller, I’m fascinated by selfless heroism and the kinds of behaviour that comes from faith and belief in principles,” he muses. “I wanted to celebrate a real hero in a world of superheroes in spandex suits. This was an extraordinary and true story about a man who stands firm on his religious principles, and refuses to carry a gun or kill.
“As soon as I got into the script I knew I wanted to make the film; I would read about how Doss would crawl in the mud to rescue his buddies without any thought for himself,” he continues. “He had such incredible faith and bravery and he never once thought about his own safety or how his life was more valuable than that of his fellow soldiers. How many times do you ever hear those kinds of stories?”
From a glance it’s clear that despite his lengthy absence from cinema, the hallmarks of Gibson’s unflinching direction remain as clear as ever in Hacksaw Ridge. Doss’ military career, Gibson says, was spent in “the worst combat zones in Japan” and akin to the general destruction seen in every World War Two epic worth its salt is Gibson’s trademark tackling of cinematic conflict, or the desire to “explore the area between the man and the bullet”.
“I see my job as trying to visualise the battle and be clear in how you shoot it even though it looks like chaos,” he explains. “You want to create the sensation of terror and chaos but without confusing the audience. If the audience doesn’t understand what’s happening, then those scenes lose their impact because people can’t follow the battle. You have to try to create that kind of hell and make the public feel the horror of war even though the reality is even worse.”
And whilst the actors in his charge were expected to, as Mel states, “be able to have an idea of what the experience of being in a combat situation must be like, at least to a small degree,” Hacksaw’s starring man turns the image of Gibson as a somewhat unhinged creator of chaos on its head. “He’s passionate and loving and nurturing,” Garfield said of his notorious director. “A good director is like a good mother – and he is a really good mother.”
A Jekyll and Hyde career
This is the ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ comparison that overhangs Gibson’s entire career. It is the inherent contradiction that saw him supported by ex-wife Moore and long-time friend and fellow actress Jodie Foster, even when facing convictions for domestic abuse. There is the Mel Gibson that was praised for his professionalism and punctuality by Lethal Weapon director Richard Donner, and the Mel Gibson who, it was later revealed, was beginning the day with a six-pack of lager during much of the franchise’s filming.
Now clean and sober for a decade, Gibson’s juxtapositions manifest themselves in artistic ways – such as his disgust for conflict playing off against his continuing association with films that focus on military heroes, be they fighters like William Wallace, or pacifists like Desmond Doss.
“I hate all wars, and I believe that there are no just wars,” he says. “I hate war but I love the warrior. I believe that it’s important to love and honour our warriors and pay tribute to those who fought and sacrificed their lives on the front lines. I hope my film does that.”
Gibson is hopeful that his new film can speak to veterans from all eras of modern conflict. “We’ve shown the film to veterans from Korea, Vietnam and Iraq,” he reveals. “They found it cathartic and a bit difficult at times, but it was also therapeutic. That made me really happy.”
The real Doss passed away aged 87 in 2006, and remained an uncomfortable or unwilling recipient of praise to the end, despite his heroism – a characteristic that only serves to further endear his story to a mesmerised director.
“A real hero is often someone who is willing to sacrifice and act selflessly,” Gibson states. “In the case of Desmond Doss, here you have someone who went into battle, and faced the worst artillery fire imaginable without any weapon in order to save people.
“While he was alive, no one could ever convince him to give the rights to his story,” he adds. “It was only the Seventh Day Adventist church he belonged to which did that after his death. If he were alive today, he wouldn’t go see the film. But I would hope that he would be reluctantly happy about the way his story has been told.”
If Hacksaw Ridge is instrumental in shining a light on the untold heroics of Desmond Doss, and bringing his incredible story to a wider audience, it’s also yet another indicator of the status its director still holds in Hollywood. Gibson’s first feature film after the allegations of domestic abuse broke, 2011’s The Beaver, came about through director Jodie Foster’s lasting relationship with its leading man and culminated in a ten-minute long standing ovation at Cannes – during which onlookers noted that Gibson appeared uncomfortable on his return to the red carpet.
For years, the star has been working off-camera with various charitable causes, donating huge amounts of money to projects across the globe – including those focused on anti-apartheid, rainforest conservation, and a children’s hospital among others. He is also known for his loyalty, be it through offering to produce and star in Get the Gringo, a script written by his first assistant on Apocalypto who was searching for his break, or paying Robert Downey Jr’s astronomical insurance bond after the latter’s release from prison. Downey Jr has since been yet another vocal advocate in favour of forgiving Gibson; if Hacksaw Ridge dominates come awards season, Gibson’s redemption in both the eyes of his audiences and contemporaries appears complete – vindicating those who championed the star’s unseen, generous side despite the lingering effects of his well-publicised transgressions.
A softer side
And are we seeing the softer side of Gibson in these hazy first days of post-acceptance back into the Hollywood fold? Sixty years old, and sporting a huge, granite beard, Gibson is expecting his ninth child with his current girlfriend, former equestrian champion, Rosalind Ross – a relationship that appears to be as stable as his previous one was destructive.
The choice of Desmond Doss as subject matter for his cinematic revival also appears significant when compared to Gibson’s earlier heroes. The chaos of war may still provide the grisly backdrop, but where Braveheart’s Wallace or Apocalypto’s Jaguar Paw are driven by an overwhelming desire for revenge, Hacksaw’s Doss provides Gibson with the vehicle through which to explore a less brutal and single-faceted vision of faith than that which has appeared to dominate his earlier life.
“I think any religion worth its salt has to be based on love,” he philosophises. “There are lots of religions, and often religious beliefs are translated into concrete actions. There are those that allow you to kill yourself and others. But Desmond Doss has put into practice his belief based on love. He carried out his convictions in the worst possible conditions. He risked his life to save his brothers, and that’s what counts.”
Whatever the reception that greets Gibson’s red-carpet return proper, the star himself remains firm: the story of Hacksaw Ridge does not revolve around him or his career. Rather, it is Desmond Doss who must invariably take the spotlight – a fact which Gibson is almost sure to remind the world, were the penning of an acceptance speech required in the not too distant future.