Mel Gibson Tackles the Task to Tell the Stirring Story of An Unlikely Hero
War stories aren’t new to the big screen. There have been dozens depicting battlefields and the heroes who fought on them. But never has a film told the story of a hero, who went to war and refused to bear arms. That is until now. In the soon-to-be-released movie, Hacksaw Ridge, the compelling account is told of Desmond Doss, a U.S. Army Medic and devout Seventh-Day Adventist, who was the nation’s first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor for his bravery during the battle of Okinawa in World War II, as he clung to his faith.
The original story for the film was in the development stage for more than 14 years with rights being bought and sold numerous times until it reached a resting place under the direction of Academy Award winner Mel Gibson. As director of epic films like Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ, the seasoned Gibson took on the task of telling this story with a zeal to inspire others. At the world premiere of the movie during the Venice Film Festival in September, the film garnered a 10-minute standing ovation. Gibson has delivered once again.
In addition to his most recent film, the multi-talented Gibson candidly shares only with Risen about his personal struggles with alcohol, his flaws and battling his own ego. He expresses that during a challenging time in his life he took a medical mission trip which led to a massive perspective shift. Practicing the simple principle of one day at a time, Gibson is able to shoulder negativity and tap into the power of prayer. Now at age 60, he reflects on the business of Hollywood, time with his kids and whether he will helm a sequel to The Passion of the Christ.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: You come from a big family, you’re just about right in the middle of 11 kids, and you spent the first half of your childhood in America and the latter half in Australia. How did growing up with so many siblings, as well as living on two different continents, help shape you?
Mel Gibson: When you say the middle child of eleven, I was exactly number six! Societally it certainly helps you exist and you don’t think you are the only one on the planet. You have to exist with a bunch of siblings, older and younger in an environment that for the most part was nurturing and loving. It had its ups and downs and its World War III’s – with brothers punching each other – but generally it was a great way to grow up. Love doesn’t get rationed out; it sort of expands to meet the need and my folks were pretty good vendors of that. At the time I couldn’t have imagined anything else, it’s just the way it was.
RM: Whether it’s action-comedy like in the Lethal Weapon franchise, to drama in The Patriot, or a character-driven film like The Beaver, there is an intangible magnetic aspect to your performances. How did your love for acting and filmmaking develop?
MG: As a kid, and because there were so many of us, I think we were inundated with stories and lessons. We weren’t watching [a lot of] television, we were rationed to one black and white TV, with one channel. So,
when you would see something, it would mean a lot. When you would see an old movie or a television show, it would have a lot of impact. We would watch it and drink it up like a sponge. Nowadays there is an overload. I was just drawn to the idea of telling stories. I loved hearing stories and I enjoyed telling them also. My little brothers and I kind of grew up doing that so it was a pretty natural segue way into acting and directing.
RM: Most can’t think about Mel Gibson without thinking Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ, but it’s been a decade since you’ve sat in the director’s chair. This November you return with Hacksaw Ridge. Why was this true story so important for you to tell?
MG: It’s a pretty dynamic story. You have a story about an ordinary man that does extraordinary things in incredibly difficult circumstances. For me, if you get a true story like this, someone that existed like Desmond Doss who actually did what he did, and even more than I can show you, it is a testament to the human spirit and to what we all might be capable of if we were as strong in our convictions, or in our faith, like that guy managed to be. Seriously this is a truly inspirational story. Doss was the real deal. He abhorred war, he abhorred violence, he was courageous and stuck to his convictions and kept his equilibrium in the midst of a situation that turns most men into animals. One can only marvel at who this man was, and then what he managed to achieve; to go into the worst place on earth armed with nothing else but faith. It is an amazing story.
this is a truly inspirational story. Doss was the real deal. He abhorred war, he abhorred violence, he was courageous and stuck to his convictions and kept his equilibrium in the midst of a situation that turns most men into animals
RM: When Desmond Doss feels like he has given all he can, he prays for the Lord to help him get one more person. Time after time he asked God to help him save just one more. It’s such an important and powerful prayer. Whether it’s a new mom praying to get through a sleepless night for her baby, or a person battling cancer praying for another day with their family, to a man not knowing how his mortgage will get paid and praying for another job to come through, everyone needs extra strength to take on the situation at hand. When have you seen the power of prayer in your own life?
MG: Oh goodness, I ask for a daily reprieve. I do. Every day. It is one day at a time. It’s the alcoholic’s prayer: give me strength just for today. Just today, just one day, just one twenty-four-hour period. That’s my life; that’s who I am. I’m a big bad alcoholic, but I’ve managed to put ten years together with that simple principle: just one day. That works for a lot people.
RM: Desmond has unbelievable character, he stays true to his convictions, even when they are not popular and he even withstood immense peer pressure; a quality I feel most would aspire to attain. I admire your resolve and willingness to put your time and resources toward accomplishing a goal. Whether it was raising a family, making The Passion of the Christ, or weathering the media, how have you been able to stay focused on what is most important and shoulder any negativity?
MG: Well there is plenty of that. Everyone has to contend with something. You’ve heard the old expression, “We all have our cross to bear.” Some people have it way worse. You look at yourself and then you look at someone else and think, “How do they do it?” It makes you feel fortunate and I think it’s really all a matter of perspective. You can be living in the mess the elephant makes on the ground, a big pile of steaming, hot dung, or you can be up in the clouds looking at the circus seeing the big picture. It’s a perspective shift. One time in the midst of a pretty bad time I was having I went on a medical mission down to Guatemala. I spent time in hospitals with kids with cerebral palsy, I held babies with spina bifida, I spent time with people in mental institutions and all these other ailments, in a place where they were not well-funded and needed help. That will pretty quickly shift you into the right perspective about feeling sorry for yourself and you quickly get into gratitude. It’s a massive perspective shift. In regards to how you deal with it, don’t dwell just on your situation in life and try to look at it in the big picture. Understand that whatever it is, it is for a reason. You just need to deal with it, drag it if you have to, or dump it. There are a lot of alternatives out there.
RM: Desmond holds the Bible as his most important possession. Through his whole journey it remained his constant. How has your faith guided you from your youth to the present?
MG: To begin, that story [about Doss’ Bible and how he carries it throughout the war and onto the battlefield] is actually true. They sent a bunch of guys back into the battlefield to find Desmond’s Bible. I kind of short-cut it in the film, but they actually sent guys back in later to go find it. And they found it! And, they brought it to him, that is how much they thought of this guy; that when they heard he lost his Bible, they risked their own lives to go back into [war] and find it.
As for myself, I was fortunate to be raised in a family that was focused on teaching us our faith and the nature of this realm and beyond; that there is a God, that there is an afterlife, there is a Savior, and there is redemption. All these things are necessary for me. I am extremely fallible and very flawed. Even to the point where my dad said to me one time, “You are pretty hard on yourself, give yourself a break ya know.” I’m not the best practitioner of what I believe, because maybe I need more faith, or a little more constancy to be a better example of all these things. There is no doubt about it that I’m flawed at what I am in need of. But at least I know where that well is when I have to go and take a drink, when I’m drying out and get spiritual aridity or something. It’s the never-ending struggle against self, and you’re always battling your own ego – “I’m the big dog. No you’re not the big dog.” I think it’s that realization that brings you back.
RM: It was neat to see your son Milo in the film. What was it like working with him in this capacity and do you think he’ll want to make this his new career path?
MG: Yea, he’s getting a few gigs here and there, he’s a good-looking kid. He’s got plenty of energy and passion, he’s twenty-six. I really dig seeing him on the screen. He had to make his own way and find his little niche as that character. He’s not stealing the show or anything, we didn’t throw anybody to the wolves. I was proud of him, he’s a good boy.
I’m not the best practitioner of what I believe, because maybe I need more faith, or a little more constancy to be a better example of all these things. There is no doubt about it that I’m flawed at what I am in need of.
RM: Speaking of family, fans know you as movie star-director-producer Mel Gibson, but your kids know you as Dad. What do you think they enjoy most about their time with dad or in turn what do you enjoy doing most with your kids?
MG: Most them are all grown up. It’s fantastic; it’s really fun to hang with those guys. I remember one time I went on a vacation with all the boys [six sons ranging from 17-34 years old] to some place that was really out in the back of nowhere. It was very remote and we were relying more on the basics of life and it was a hell of a good time. It was like hanging with a bunch of men – because that’s who they are, they are in their late twenties and thirties. And, my daughter [Hannah] has [kids] so now I have grandchildren. They have good-senses of humor, I enjoy them, and they are really good people – that is their mother’s doing, she made them into really good people. It was nice to have kids young because now I am still young enough to enjoy their company as an adult.
RM: As you turned 60 this year, Hollywood is a very different place than when you first started in the industry – from story, to technology, social media and studios – what has been the easiest to adapt to and what has been the most challenging?
MG: I think the emphasis of the whole business aspect of what is known as “Hollywood.” I don’t even know if there is such a thing; it’s more of a phantom really than anything else. People say Hollywood like it’s something, it’s a bunch of things, and it’s impossible to define. I think that comes from a yesteryear era where all the film content came cranking out from the west coast of California and went out into the world. It isn’t so much that anymore. They don’t actually make many films here now, they make most films in other countries. The studios are based here so there are a lot of deals made here.
The business is an entirely different character these days; the emphasis of what the business is, is different. I think it used to be sort of star-focused. I think back when John Wayne and Clint Eastwood were ruling the roost, it was star-driven. Guys like Paul Newman and to a lesser extent myself. When first came into the business thirty years ago, it was driven by actors and star-power, but no so much anymore. It’s more corporate and therefore I think the variety of films has decreased. The landscape parameters aren’t as wide. Less films actually get made. Films that aren’t the big tent pole, blockbuster, superhero movies are relegated to the independent film world where the budgets are smaller and you have to cough up the goods for less. The old days are gone, but that is okay. There is an art to hitting the right note, at the right time, if you can do it.
We are living in a filmic land space where all the superheroes in moviedom are wearing spandex tights, enhanced by 3D, with a lot of special effects. From that aspect I think it’s good to make a film that is retro in a sense. I think that is what we did with Hacksaw. I thought about who we are actually portraying in Hacksaw Ridge and he’s not a comic book superhero, or a fictional one, or an outlandish one, he’s a real superhero we are depicting. It’s like I told you before, it’s that ordinary man doing extraordinary things in difficult circumstances, and he’s not wearing spandex. People have been responding to the film and saying, “It actually moved me.” To which I say, “Well yea, that’s the idea of a story, you have to hit the three ‘E’s.’” First you have to entertain, you have to do that, and if that is all you do, that is fine. But if you can entertain and educate, that is better. But if you can entertain, educate, and elevate, that is hitting all three. I think to move people emotionally and elevate them spiritually is the earmark of a great story.
RM: And I can’t let you leave without asking about reports that you’ll re-team with screenwriter Randall Wallace to do a follow-up to The Passion focusing on the resurrection of Jesus. What can you share at this time?
MG: Well, it is a very big undertaking as you probably have an underpinning of what it is going to take – you have to move heaven and earth basically. It has to be able to enlighten people and sort of shine light in a theological way on something that speaks to us and is also very compelling. The resurrection is a big, big subject. It doesn’t just confine itself to that single event, there is what went before and there is what comes after. Randall is a good man and can give people a rousing speech that inspires. He has a way of talking that is pretty dynamic. I wish I had that gift, but if I did, I would be the writer. [Laughter]