HACKSAW RIDGE – Rupert Gregson-Williams
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
The island of Okinawa was one of the key battlegrounds during World War II, where Allied forces led by the United States Army and Navy fought against eight divisions of the Imperial Japanese Army for supremacy. It was also one of the bloodiest in the Pacific, with an estimated total of over 82,000 direct casualties on both sides. The battle lasted from April until June 1945, and ranged all over the island, including an area colloquially known as Hacksaw Ridge, a large and imposing cliff face with a plateau at the top. It was here that one of the most extraordinary acts of heroism in the entire war took place, when US Army medic Desmond Doss personally saved the lives of 75 wounded soldiers while under tremendous, relentless enemy fire. The most amazing aspect of this story, however, is that Doss was a conscientious objector and a member of the Seventh Day Adventist church, and as such refused to handle a firearm at any point in his military service; despite this, Doss was subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor, the United States’s highest military decoration, becoming the first conscientious objector to be so honored. Director Mel Gibson’s film Hacksaw Ridge tells Doss’s life story, all the way from his humble origins in rural Virginia; it stars Andrew Garfield as Doss, along with Vince Vaughan, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, and Teresa Palmer in supporting roles.
It has taken a long time for Mel Gibson to return to the mainstream Hollywood fold and be accepted by his peers again; for a long time his numerous and well-documented drunken tirades of the mid-2000s threatened to undermine all the great work he had produced during the preceding twenty years or so, and by the early 2010s he was reduced to appearing in straight-to-DVD action thrillers like Get the Gringo. Hacksaw Ridge is, in many ways, Gibson’s redemption film, a chance to put things right, and for me personally it’s wonderful to see him back in the director’s chair making movies of genuine substance again. I have always been of the opinion that a person’s work should be judged separately from their personal life; just because I disapprove of his actions (which I do, very strongly), doesn’t mean I can’t respect and enjoy their work on an artistic level.
Hacksaw Ridge languished in development hell for almost 15 years before finally making it to the silver screen, and as such went through several possible composers. Initially James Horner – who scored Gibson’s previous films The Man Without a Face, Braveheart, and Apocalypto – was attached to the film, but sadly he died in June 2015 before he could write a note. The project then fell to John Debney, Gibson’s composer on The Passion of the Christ, and reports indicate that Debney did write, and possibly even record, some music for the film. However, just a month or so before the film’s planned premiere at the Venice Film Festival, unspecified “problems” with the score resulted in a composer change – out went Debney, and in came Rupert Gregson-Williams, who was introduced to Gibson via a mutual friend of director David Yates, with whom Gregson-Williams worked on The Legend of Tarzan earlier this year.
Rupert Gregson-Williams is not well known for his serious drama scores. Despite working on films like Hotel Rwanda early on, his career took a significant sideways step in 2006 when the animated film Over the Hedge became a surprise box office hit, and he spent most of the next decade writing music for other animated films, and a whole slew of silly comedies starring either Adam Sandler (Click, Just Go With It, You Don’t Mess With the Zohan), Kevin James (Here Comes the Boom, Zookeeper), or – heaven forbid – both of them (I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, Grown Ups). It’s been a long time since Gregson-Williams has had a film of real depth and gravitas, but Hacksaw Ridge is just that. Despite having just a little over four weeks to write and record the entire score, Gregson-Williams somehow came through on just four hours of sleep a night, and knocked it out of the park, writing what I genuinely consider to be the best score of his career to date.
The cornerstone of the film, and subsequently of Gregson-Williams’s score, is the concept of faith. It is Doss’s strong Christian beliefs that lead him to become a Seventh-Day Adventist, and embrace non-violence, but it is also his Christian beliefs that call him to military service, to stand up against tyrannical aggression. His Christian beliefs then cause the personal moral conflict at the crux of the story – his desire to serve his country stands at odds with his vow never to fire a gun – but also eventually inspire his bravery and sacrifice, as he tries to save as many people as he can from certain death on the battlefield. Gregson-Williams captures this with a seven-note theme that runs throughout the length of the score, representing both Doss himself, and the strength of his convictions in the face of all manner of opposition. Usually heard on a solo cello performed by the sublimely talented Caroline Dale, the theme pulls double, and sometimes triple duty, acting as a love theme, an action motif, and a heroic call to arms, depending on the circumstances, anchoring the entire score with an individual identity. The theme is first heard 27 seconds into the opening cue, “Okinawa Battlefield,” a sparse and slightly unnerving dirge for eerie synth chords, Zimmer-esque choral intonations, and rattling metallic percussion, before gradually melting into something much more lush and sweeping, with lilting guitars and woodwinds, as Doss’s memories of his life before the war come flooding back.
Thereafter the score can be split broadly into two parts: those before the war, and those during the war. The scenes set before the war tend to be accompanied by lyrical, sometimes sweeping music that speaks to Doss’s character, his romance with the lovely nurse Dorothy, and the intensely beautiful rural Virginia town where Doss spends his childhood and adolescence. The serious-sounding “I Could Have Killed Him” uses the Faith theme as an anchor to convey a pivotal scene in which Doss’s dedication to life-long nonviolence is cemented, while “A Calling,” “Pretty Corny,” and the utterly gorgeous “Climbing for a Kiss” all have the idyllic Americana lilt of Thomas Newman infused with the effortless romance of James Horner. The oboe writing, especially, reminds me of some of the tenderest parts of Braveheart, or of something like How To Make An American Quilt, which is something we haven’t heard in a film like this for quite some time. The gently plucked guitars and the country inflections in the violins emphasize the location and the time period, while the repeated swells of cascading, emotional strings during “Climbing for a Kiss” allow the listener to become fully engaged in the romantic relationship between Doss and Dorothy. The soft choral accents and delicate harp glissandi are just icing on the cake.
Once the film moves from Doss’s home to Fort Jackson in South Carolina, things turn serious, as his refusal to use firearms during basic training puts him at odds with both his fellow soldiers and his commanding officers. Doss suffers through numerous examples of violence and intimidation, and even the threat of imprisonment, but remains steadfast in his convictions. “Throw Hell at Him” emphasizes this with an agitated electric guitar offset by darker, brooding string tones, while “Sleep” features a deconstructed version of the Faith theme on light chimes, surrounded by earnest, sincere orchestral chords. “Dorothy Pleads” sees the Faith theme performed on piano and warm strings, but it is later augmented by buzzing, insistent electronic tones that add a sense of tension and uncertainty to Doss’s court martial.
The scenes set during the war are much more intense, action packed, and occasionally quite brutal, accompanying the scenes of unimaginable carnage and devastation Gibson commits to celluloid in an attempt to convey the horrors Doss withstood. Both “Hacksaw Ridge” and “Japanese Retake the Ridge” are dark, angry pieces full of elongated string-and-synth sustains, groaning brass clusters, oppressive percussive beats, and disorienting electronic manipulations which clearly express the sheer terror felt by the soldiers in battle. Their Japanese opponents are given some identifying instrumental coloring, including shrill blasts from a shakuhachi bamboo flute, machine gun-like rat-a-tat Taiko drums, jinkai horns, and even allusions to Mongolian throat singing. The use of the jinkai – horns made from large conch shells with a brass mouthpiece – is especially clever as, historically, samurai armies would use them in battle to signal changes in troop formations, set a rhythm for marching, and provide a heroic accompaniment to encourage the troops and confuse the enemy. Again, there are echoes of James Horner here, especially the moments in cues like “Revenge” from Braveheart, where the sense of anticipation is heightened to unbearable levels.
The second half of “Japanese Retake the Ridge” introduces the score’s action style, which continues on through subsequent cues such as “I Can’t Hear You,” “One Man At a Time,” “Rescue Continues,” and “A Miraculous Return”. Here, Gregson-Williams abandons Thomas Newman and James Horner, and embraces a sound that recalls the classic Hans Zimmer action writing from the 1990s and early 2000s, when Zimmer’s power anthems were the ultimate depiction of masculine heroism in Hollywood. Chugging string ostinatos, martial drumbeats, deep brass chords, and electronic overdubs often dominate the sound palette, which is then punctuated regularly by strong, clear thematic statements, including a new 5-note Bravery theme which is linked to, but harmonically different from, the Faith theme. The stirring brass performance of the Bravery theme in “I Can’t Hear You” is quite wonderful, recalling the best moments of scores like Backdraft or The Rock. The searching string performances of the same theme in “One Man At a Time” and “Rescue Continues,” high above a relentless bed of complicated percussion patterns, have the inspiring boldness, nobility, and sense of gallant self-sacrifice as Pearl Harbor or The Last Samurai.
The score reaches its emotional apex in “Praying,” where Caroline Dale’s cello textures, the powerful brass writing, and the sturdy percussion riffs all combine to hammer home the nature of the unprecedented acts of valor Doss undertakes. The action music here is heart-stoppingly frantic, while the Japanese textures remind us of the danger surrounding Doss at all times. The end credits piece, “Historical Footage,” goes through several variations on the main themes, repeating many of the textures from the early part of the score, including the swooning romance ideas and the Americana-style country arrangements. The choral element here returns to James Horner territory, cooing softly like the voice of the Titanic, while the strings sway and sigh with beauty and lyricism. It all builds up to a truly enormous statement of the Faith theme at 2:56, replete with tolling bells, choir, rumbling timpani, cymbals, and crashing gongs, ending the score on a wonderful high.
The music in Hacksaw Ridge is not subtle, nor is it meant to be. Mel Gibson is not a director who shies away from conveying powerful, at times overwhelming emotions, and he allows his music to do the same. Predictably, some mainstream film critics have commented negatively on this, criticizing Rupert Gregson-Williams for being too manipulative, and for over-emphasizing the film’s most emotional scenes. One reviewer described it as an “omnipresent, ploddingly literal score … that tells us exactly what to feel about everything.” My response to that is: good! Over the years, I have come to realize that, when mainstream film critics describe a score this way, it means I will like the score that much more. Film scores which wear their hearts on their sleeves are like manna from heaven for people like me, and it is one of the main reasons I reacted to Hacksaw Ridge as positively as I have.
I realize that I’ve been referencing Thomas Newman, James Horner, and Hans Zimmer all the way through the review, but none of those comparisons should take away from Rupert Gregson-Williams’s accomplishments here. He successfully navigates the fine line between allowing Desmond Doss’s faith and humanity to shine through the film, while not trivializing death or under-playing the butchery of war, and he does it with strong themes, intelligent orchestrations, and a healthy dollop of film music nostalgia that impressed me enormously. As I said earlier in the review this is, by far, the best score of Rupert Gregson-Williams’s career to date, and I sincerely hope that this film finally removes the shackles of being Adam Sandler’s go-to guy and allows him to score more films of significance in the future
Buy the Hacksaw Ridge soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Okinawa Battlefield (4:01)
- I Could Have Killed Him (2:22)
- A Calling (2:44)
- Pretty Corny (1:46)
- Climbing for a Kiss (3:49)
- Throw Hell at Him (2:00)
- Sleep (2:20)
- Dorothy Pleads (3:19)
- Hacksaw Ridge (4:22)
- Japanese Retake the Ridge (4:38)
- I Can’t Hear You (2:56)
- One Man At a Time (2:32)
- Rescue Continues (3:48)
- A Miraculous Return (2:52)
- Praying (5:51)
- Historical Footage (5:00)
Running Time: 53 minutes 56 seconds
Varese Sarabande (2016)
Music composed by Rupert Gregson-Williams. Conducted by Cliff Masterson. Orchestrations by Òscar Senén and Rupert Gregson-Williams. Recorded and mixed by Andrew Dudman. Edited by Matt Friedman. Album produced by Rupert Gregson-Williams.