Martyr and Warrior: The Cinematic Crusades of Mel Gibson

     November 2, 2016


In 1996, Mel Gibson had attained a unique though not exactly rare and exalted position in the movie business. Braveheart had just picked up five Academy Award wins, including Best Directing, Best Cinematography, and Best Film. As a creative agent in Hollywood, he seemingly represented the whole package, at least on paper, and there were plenty of rumored projects that were being pitched to him for his next directorial gig. But when the decision came down, Gibson went back to acting full-time. One would justifiably think that the money for acting, especially in the enviable place he was at that time in his career, was just too much to pass up and that it was far more attractive to simply do that until he felt moved to make something else. The fact that he didn’t return to the expressive art form that he clearly felt passionately about until 2004, when he arrived with a self-financed, harrowing, and philosophically dubious retelling of the death of Jesus Christ, suggests that the projects he was interested in, and his vision for these works, did not mesh with the friendly, safe appearance that the big studios constantly struggle to uphold.


Image via Lionsgate

Gibson’s favored heroes are working-class, devoted to traditional ideals of family and faith, and immediately distrustful of the government, a suspicion that is suspiciously always thoroughly justified by the hero’s inevitably tragic experiences. They’re also clearly depicted as both martyrs and warriors, alpha-males and the sensitive, funny type, and Gibson conveys an obsession with the idea of an almighty, pure leader rather than the power of the masses that Gibson’s William Wallace or Rudy Youngblood‘s Jaguar Paw in Apocalypto rally. Apocalypto, in particular, suggests a radical ambition in Gibson as an artist and though his political views don’t align with mine entirely, his movies are thrilling to watch and one wonders where Gibson might have gone if not for that unfortunate DUI stop in Miami. In the age of Kickstarter and other crowd-funding alternatives, Gibson could truly make whatever his heart desires, and yet his new film, Hacksaw Ridge, will be released by Summit Entertainment, a subsidiary of Lionsgate, and looks to be near identical to Braveheart in its moral trajectory. Something has changed, or been quelled, in Gibson but it’s unclear what exactly that shift in thinking means for Gibson as an artist.

Though Braveheart will always be the movie Gibson is known for – or, okay, the other movie he’s known for – it’s interesting to note that his first film did not find honor in battle and punishment. Adapted from Isabelle Holland’s fascinating but exasperatingly placid novel of the same name, The Man Without a Face was Gibson’s first film in the director’s chair, and featured the star in the titular, make-up-heavy role. He played a teacher, one who formed a strong bond with a young man whom he educates freely about the ways of the world. In a familiar turn for Gibson’s films, the community around Gibson’s Justin McLeod, who were happy to gossip and pass rumors about him, is convinced that he’s a pedophile, following a number of unfortunate, misconstrued events. He’s ultimately proven to be completely well-meaning and makes a huge impact on the attitude and personality of the boy, Chuck, played by Nick Stahl.

That’s how Gibson reinterpreted Holland’s far more risqué proposition. There’s a warmth that occasionally bleeds into a kind of sexual hunger and attraction to McLeod and Chuck in the book, and it’s overtly implied that something between them happens behind closed doors at one point. It’s tricky material that Holland does not always handle ably, but in her detailing of their relationship, her prose are intermittently bewitching and paint a portrait of a heated formative relationship. In essence, the book asks you to not judge a likely pedophile too harshly, and Holland makes a decent case for that. Gibson was having none of it – in a 1993 interview, he stated that he wanted something more “positive” to come from his revision. And yet, even with Gibson’s thinning of Holland’s heavy mixture, the movie did not do well, making back a little bit less than its budget from the domestic box office, and not doing remarkably well on home video or at the limited foreign box office.

It’s in his describing The Man Without a Face’s message as inherently more positive that makes my eyebrow twitch. If we learned anything from the extended challenge to my patience that is The Passion of the Christ, it’s that Gibson does not make his films impersonally. He identifies with the men – they always are – at the center of his films very closely, and in McLeod, he first painted himself as a victim of society, the misunderstood saint. The people of Chuck’s community have never included McLeod in their ranks, which Gibson and screenwriter Malcolm MacRury stress as elitist and fueled solely by imagined prejudice. He’s the meteoric talent and naturally forgiving neighbor that the people around him purport to want, but the accident has marked him, both in the scars on his face and the young student who perished in the accident. It’s a distinctly Catholic parable about the power of the crowd, and of relying on gossip as fact, but coming from Gibson, this seemed to work as a rebuke to any negative portrayals he’d had in the media. That could be pointing towards the instances related to his admission of alcoholism in the 1990s and probably his pretty despicable comments about homosexuals around the same time, and that’s not even getting into the tabloids.

The success of Braveheart came from two separate ideas about filmmaking that Gibson learned from the mild reception to The Man Without a Face. First, that the victim must be shown to not only have the moral high ground above his adversaries but also be the masculine ideal to humiliate the enemy in a number of other ways. Second, the stakes have to be higher and nothing adds stakes and fanciful dressing to what is essentially a cock-waving contest than history. In playing William Wallace as a jacked-up, all-knowing Lothario who has a preternatural talent for military strategy, Gibson turned a ferociously political, militaristically trained, and still largely enigmatic figure into an alpha-male moral warrior. The dialogue, via Pearl Harbor scribe Randall Wallace, doesn’t suggest any of the historical figure’s vast intellect in terms of military strategy, nor does this William Wallace flex his complicated, progressive political philosophy. In Gibson and Wallace’s mind, Scotland’s greatest hero wanted to kill the English because King Edward’s army killed his wife after she refused to let soldiers rape her in her village. It’s history as Death Wish, with kilts included.

Gibson’s vision of war, which makes up quite a lot of Braveheart, is infuriatingly short-sighted in its moral certainty; it’s a uniquely Catholic view of conflict. When Wallace’s men die, they suffer before they cast off into oblivion. When the warring is over, Wallace and his colleagues talk about the horror of watching their brethren die, and they mourn for their dead sincerely. We see young men who are still learning, old men who want to go out with a good fight, and plenty of proud Scotsmen, as well as Wallace and his high command. In contrast, arrogant, sadistic men of power, as well as a few choice beheadings only represent King Edward’s army and other bloody ends. This should not be taken as any kind of warmth or empathy toward England’s tyrannical, brutal, and greed-fueled rule over the Scots, but war is mostly dead young men who simply want to have a job and fight for their country. Gibson and his screenwriter see the late-13th-century English as either pure evil or inconsequential, even as he very softly and quickly suggests that one or two soldiers might question the militaristic appetite of Longshanks, played by Patrick McGoohan.

Even so, Gibson and Wallace want you to know that though Wallace was dragged by horse, hanged, disemboweled, drawn and quartered, and lord knows what else, he sufficiently dominated his foes before he passed on. There’s a pretty plain implication that the only reason Wallace didn’t defeat King Edward was exclusively because of betrayal, thus reinforcing that his tactical knowledge is unimpeachable. But there’s never even a slight attempt to show where that knowledge came from, the struggle to gain such knowledge and the time and patience required to gain such wisdom. Plus, Wallace totally fucks the future Queen of England (Sophie Marceau), so it’s all good. Much like Tom Cruise, Gibson has a bit of a martyr complex, but at least Cruise seems to get a chuckle out of the whole thing. For all its goofy asides, courtesy of James Cosmo, Brendan Gleeson, and the invaluable David O’Hara, Braveheart comes off as humorless and arrogant, boastful and deeply insubstantial in its insight into a character that deserves a far more tough-minded, politically open, and genuinely thoughtful depiction.

That’s not even what’s most aggravating about Braveheart. What’s so much more unsettling is how confident, engrossing, and often gorgeous Braveheart often is when you’re sitting down and watching it. At nearly three hours, the movie is paced with a masterful sense of visual storytelling and efficiently edited into an inspirational epic, even as the entire trajectory of Wallace’s life feels pre-digested, unsurprising, and unbelievably ordinary in Gibson’s naturalistic style. Wallace’s script is clearly the problem in the recipe, but it’s clear that it’s a script and a egregious simplification of a complex life that Gibson was attracted to. The narrow view of history that is conveyed in Braveheart also engenders a false but irrefutably gorgeous romantic timbre in the film that’s hard to shake. There’s a clear passion to depict the wardrobe, vernacular, and geographical landscape of the place and time accurately, but that’s far easier than the psychological turns.


Image via Paramount

Whatever else it might be, Braveheart still comes off as primarily a victim of the elite taking a stand, where McLeod retreated back into his own kind of exile. In this thinking, The Passion of the Christ took another leap forward in Gibson’s artistry. Nothing in that film mattered more than the savagery that was visited upon Jim Cavaziel’s Christ, neither his messages of peace nor the societal realities of that day and age. The severity of the punishment for doing little more than spreading a peaceful religious belief is what Gibson’s obsession would seemingly be, which paired nicely with how he would be seen following a string of unfortunate recordings where he, no matter what he may have meant, repeats severely anti-Semitic remarks.

The 2004 film featured mostly Aramaic dialogue, and the lacerating, horrific imagery suggested that Gibson was aiming for something outside of the familiar roster of releases that the big studios put out. For whatever the offensive language used in the infamous recordings of Gibson during that DUI stop, what’s clear is that Gibson’s devout religious beliefs had curdled into a kind of intense anti-authoritarian vitriol.

And though it peddles in a gross simplification of tribal politics in the name of familiar storytelling mechanics, 2006’s Apocalypto only underlines that Gibson’s fascinations had strayed into darker, more mystical terrain, where studios would never, ever tread if it weren’t for the name: Mel Gibson. His vanishing act from the limelight, following appearances in The Singing Detective and Jodie Foster’s impertinent The Beaver, made sense for his public profile but there was an element of his artistry that could have given rise to a more elemental filmmaker, one who seeks the meaning of existence with the same rigorous hunger and metaphysical curiosity as Terrence Malick. It wasn’t likely, in hindsight, but there were traces of greater ideas for Gibson.


Image via Paramount

About a decade after Apocalypto came out, Gibson now returns with Hacksaw Ridge, a military drama starring Andrew Garfield as Private Desmond Doss, a Seventh-Day Adventist who made history by refusing to carry a gun onto the battlefield as a soldier when he was sent to the Pacific theatre during World War II to work as a medic. Even from the scant footage given during the trailers of the film, it’s clear that Gibson has returned to his favored subject of physical and mental suffering for faith. Doss is beaten, taunted, threatened, and challenged for his beliefs but his humanism, his obsessive need to help save as many lives as possible in the war, more than legitimized his devotion to his beliefs.

Though still firmly in his wheelhouse, this once again suggests a shift in political and personal thinking for Gibson the filmmaker. Rather than broadly questioning the idea of governmental or even societal control in histrionic terms, he seems to be questioning the devotion and the belief of those who feel a moral war must be fought with weapons first. It’s certainly a timely question to be asking, and I don’t imagine that’s chance. Then again, guns and gun control are, sadly, always timely. Gibson has gone from thinking that violence is the most natural extension of God’s wrath and plan on Earth to expressing a belief in saving lives and being a humanitarian help to keep your fellow humans stay alive, first and foremost, though I doubt Doss’ peaceful philosophy will not come with a few blows and brushes with death. Awards talk has been buzzing for Hacksaw Ridge and even in the imagery that’s been available thus far, Gibson has seemingly grown as an artist. The extent and lastingness of this growth, however, has yet to be seen.

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