Born Mel Colm-Cille Gerard Gibson in January of 1956, Mel Gibson is one of the most controversial but well-known actors and filmmakers in America. When Gibson was a teenager, his parents moved the familyincluding Mel and his ten siblingsto Australia, ostensibly to prevent their children from being drafted into the Vietnam War (Mel Gibson Biography). Mel Gibson completed his high school and university education in the Sydney area, where he also became involved in theater. His forays into acting eventually earned him a role in Mad Max, his first major acting role. The first Mad Max movie came out in 1979; by the third sequel Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome in 1985, Gibson was earning over a million dollars for his acting performances (Mel Gibson Biography). In 1987, Gibson starred alongside Danny Glover in the buddy action movie Lethal Weapon.
Gibson made his directorial debut with The Man Without a Face in 1993. In 1995, Gibson directed Braveheart, which earned Gibson greater accolades and attention including several Oscars. His next big directorial project was Passion of the Christ in 2004, which was highly controversial and led to an exposure of Gibsons anti-Semitic views, inculcated in part by a father who was a Holocaust denier (Brennan). In fact, soon after Passion of the Christ was released, Gibson was stopped on drunk driving charges and was caught on record making anti-Semitic comments. His comments caused him to lose funding for a film he had planned to produce about the Holocaust (Brennan). In spite of his potentially disastrous public relations setback, Gibson pursued in his directorial career. He directed Apocalypto, released in 2006, and the critically acclaimed Hacksaw Ridge in 2016.
Major Contributions to Film
In spite of controversies, his personal beliefs, and a somewhat tarnished persona, Mel Gibson has contributed significantly to the American filmmaking landscape through a unique approach to epic dramas. Although Gibson started off as an actor specializing in action series franchises like Mad Max and Lethal Weapon, he became well established in Hollywood as both actor and director. In fact, Gibson worked hard to break out of the action film genre typecasting by starting his own production company called Icon.
Icon produced dramas such as Immortal Beloved (1994) and Anna Karenina (1997). Gibson himself starred in Icon dramas like Hamlet (1990), directed by Fraco Zeffirelli. However, Gibson continued also to star in poorly received films throughout the 1990s (Mel Gibson). It was not until he directed and acted in Braveheart in 1995 that Gibson received serious attention from the Academy. Braveheart was unique in that it combined the epic historical drama genre with the action tropes audiences found familiar. Gibson continued to hone in on similar themes and stories with his productions like Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto, and Hacksaw Ridge, all of which are based on historical narratives.
Characteristics of Mel Gibsons Directorial Style
Since Braveheart, Gibson has developed a directorial style that focuses on epic historical dramas and historical personas. Gibson also has a penchant for capturing the mindset of a conscientious objector who must rebel against the societys major social conventions and political institutions in order to achieve higher ethical objectives. His protagonists do not experience identity crises at all; rather, they are defined by their strong sense of self and their unwavering commitment to their ethical principles. Gibsons films show how a persecuted or reviled man remains true to his principles, willing to make personal sacrifices and to use force when necessary to achieve political or moral goals. His choice of setting, camera angle, music and sound editing, mis-en-scene, and other cinematographic elements are used to tell stories through Gibsons eyes. All of his major directorial projects are grandiose in scale, deserving of the designation epic, due to their sweeping narratives and relatively long formats. Moreover, Gibsons style is epic because of , a predilection for including scenes with massive numbers of people juxtaposed with the interior world of the hero, and an affection also for military and battle aesthetics and motifs. Gibsons style also includes liberal use of violence and brutality in order to convey major themes. The use of violence helps to manipulate audience emotional reactions and judgments of the protagonist.
Through his films, Gibson also appeals to stereotypically masculine models of heroism. Gibson also shows how a mans individual choices can effect broader changes in the society, including historical reverberations. The hero must remain true to his ideals, fighting powerful foes in order to preserve or promote some important element of culture or morality. Moreover, the Gibson hero places his quest above his personal desires. Gibson likes also to direct in ways that provide a or moral truth. There is no ambiguity in Gibsons cinematic universe. The audience is not entrusted with making moral judgments. Gibson prefers to control audience reactions, telling a strong version of the story in a style that could even be called pedantic. In addition to choosing themes related to moral binaries and male historical personas, Gibson also cultivates a specific aesthetic in his films that set them apart from his peers.
Analysis of Films: Braveheart, Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto, and Hacksaw Ridge
Gibsons most notable productions include Braveheart, Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto, and Hacksaw Ridge. These films share a considerable amount in common, with Gibsons stamp as a director if not an auteur. Gibson shows himself to be equally as adept in directing for character development as for action and plot sequencing. Each of these films also conveys a similar theme of a man, the hero with his unwavering moral principles, pitted against an immoral world. Although Braveheart, Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto, and Hacksaw Ridge are about totally different historical eras and cultural contexts, there are common threads among them. Notably, Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto are unique in Gibsons choice to use non-English dialogue and subtitles. All of these films aim to put the audience into the protagonists world.
Braveheart appeals to the nationalist iconography of Scottish identity and politics (Edensor 135). Telling this story on screen, Gibson captures the Scottish appeal for national identity and autonomy in the wake of centuries of British colonialism. In Braveheart, Gibson capitalizes on the near-mythic status of Sir William Wallace, a key figure in Scottish history (Edensor). Because Gibson captured the essence of Scottish nationalism and cultural pride, the film played to packed houses throughout Scotland (Edensor 135). Yet Gibsons film also resonated with American audiences and critics in a way that few medieval-themed films have been able to accomplish (Sharp 251). The reason for its widespread appeal is that Braveheart is about the triumph of the ordinary man over the far more powerful elite. Gibson creates a cinematic universe in which the audience unapologetically roots for Wallace in spite of the heros use of violence to achieve goals. Gibson achieves his goals by shifting between scenes focusing on literal and figurative close-ups of Wallace, and those that zoom out to present the overarching political, cultural, and historical context including the hypocrisy and betrayal of the elite. By focusing on Wallace and his point of view, Gibson also assumes the role not of an omniscient narrator but one who is biased towards the protagonist. Indeed, Gibson repeats this directorial strategy in his other epic dramas.
In addition to presenting a strong vision of political underdogs triumphing over their more powerful enemies, Gibson also constructs his ideal male hero. The archetype of the male hero is one that Gibson perpetuates through the use of violence and the theme of martyrdom. Long before he directed Passion, Gibson showcased the importance of martyrdom in the life of Wallace in Braveheart. Wallace and his fellow Scots are willing to fight for their rights at all costs, even if it means dying. Being willing to die for ones principles is the cornerstone of the Gibson hero. Gibson also is unwilling to make death and violence mere suggestions on screen. As a director, Gibson endeavors to show audiences in graphic detail what it means to be a hero and make sacrifices via the experience of physical pain. Enduring physical pain and suffering defines the hero, and reinforces his masculinity. All of Gibsons films feature heroes whose masculinity is intimately connected with their experience of violence and suffering. In Braveheart and Apocalypto, for example, Gibson uses sadomasochistic themes in constructing a superior and unified image of masculinity (Brown 123). The heros masculinity is also undeniably heterosexual and authentic, (Brown 123). Even in Hacksaw Ridge and in The Passion of the Christ, Gibsons heroes demonstrate hegemonic masculinity in spite of their seeming pacifism, martyrdom, and asexuality.
Unlike Braveheart, Apocalypto depicts the Mayan civilization in its heyday. Yet both Braveheart and Apocalypto end up touching upon themes related to colonialism. Gibson has an ability as a director to show how colonialism entrenches existing social hierarchies and hegemonies, but without questioning the overarching patriarchal principles that guide those political realities. For example, Wallace fights against the oppressive elite in Scotland but only does so within the framework of a decisively patriarchal culture. Women play supporting roles at best, and their function is to champion their men. In Apocalypto, Gibson attempts to celebrate a similar type of masculine heroism and ends up promoting popularly held stereotypes about the non-Western Other. In both Braveheart and in Apocalytpo, Gibson presents to audiences a fantasy of what medieval Scotland and Mayan mesoamerica looked like visually and stereotypes the values and belief systems of these cultures. Gibson nevertheless does remain true to his directorial commitment to championing the underdog who fights against the powers that be. As with Wallace in Braveheart, the hero of Apocalypto vies for a better, more moral life that neither ascribes to the violent tendencies of the elite Maya nor to the equally repugnant possibilities offered by the encroaching conquistadors.
Gibson also seems to direct in order to deliberately parallel prevailing social or political issues. His choice of story and narrative style and point of view are politically motivated and persuasive. The director aims to shape audience attitudes about the political themes and character ethics displayed on screen. Gibson does this in Braveheart and Apocalypto, and perhaps even more so in The Passion of the Christ and in Hacksaw Ridge. Braveheart and Apocalypto are not unique in that audiences have already heard stories about the brave hero who subverts the status quo and leads his people to a better world. What makes Passion and Hacksaw Ridge different is that Gibson also wants audiences to identify strongly with an ironic pacifism: what for Christ could even be considered a passive aggression that aims to use martyrdom as a weapon. Desmond Doss, the hero of Hacksaw Ridge, is the most morally ambiguous and mature of all Gibson protagonists in that he willingly and proudly fights for his country but ironically refuses to use violence even on the battlefield. Doss is definitively Christ-like in his pacifism, his willingness to endure suffering to prove a point.
Pursuing a sadomasochistic aesthetic engages the audience, but Gibson also capitalizes on grandiose music and sound to achieve similar goals of emotional investment in the film. Gibson wants the audience to identify fully with the protagonist, which requires unabashed use of sound and visuals that manipulate audience reactions. In The Passion of the Christ, Gibson indulges in a directorial style that is purely sadomasochistic, as the film is only about Christs suffering. Gibson uses close-ups of Christ to depict bodily as well as psychological pain. Yet the director also wants to contextualize the issue and to drive home the fact that Christ is suffering because of political and social contingencies: he has been persecuted by the powers that be just as Wallace and his people were being manipulated by the landowning elite. By directing the audiences attention to the visceral suffering endured by the protagonist, Gibson indirectly makes a statement about the importance of Christs mission, his commitment to that mission, and to the underlying political implications of Christs message.
In Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson achieves something that he does not in his previous films: moral ambiguity. All of these films show how a hero needs to endure suffering or mete out violence in order to achieve a higher moral goal. Each of these films also serves as a metaphor for audiences to apply to their analyses and assessments of prevailing cultural and political themes. Yet only in Hacksaw Ridge is Gibson willing to allow the audience to reach its own conclusions and to pass its own moral judgments on the protagonist. The film is about war and yet it is also about pacifism; it is about the masculine desire to be patriotic and to participate in the war effort and yet it is also about a man whose masculinity is ironically caught up in the determination not to commit any act of violence. Given Gibson came from a family of conscientious objectors, though, it is still clear that the director wants the audience to identify keenly with Doss. It is only through Dosss eyes that the audience sympathizes just as much with his fellow soldiers and officers who initially do not understand the principle of conscientious objection or how a pacifist can still call himself a man within the confines of a hegemonic, violent masculine identity. Therefore, Hacksaw Ridge is where Gibson is most able as a director to present alternatives to masculine heroism. Doss does not mete out any violence, but he proves himself to be as courageous if not more so than the soldiers who actually do fight on the front lines.
Like his other films, Gibson shifts between extreme wide angle shots to display the overarching context of the action and the close ups of the protagonist that reveal his psychological and physical states through deft editing and mise-en-scene construction. Also like his other films, Gibson uses dramatic storytelling devices like sound editing and music to guide the audience through the film. Gibsons directorial portfolio is limited to sweeping historical epic dramas focusing on male protagonists who must fight to remain true to their principles. Although Gibson allows for some ambiguity in Hacksaw Ridge, the film is still steeped in Gibsons characteristic morality: his black-and-white vision of the world. Doss believes that the American experiment and the values of the nation are worthwhile and morally superior to those of the enemy. He is therefore every bit as driven as Wallace and Christ are to overcome systematic oppression. Doss also displays a strong moral character that eschews violence, and never once breaks, not even when taunted by his fellow officers. A willing martyr like Wallace and Christ, Dosss depiction on screen demonstrates how Gibson values the principle of courage and fearlessness in the face of death and suffering: a principle the director adeptly displays through his cinematic decisions.
Brennan, Sandra. Biography. Fandango. https://www.fandango.com/people/mel-gibson-237159/biography
Brown, Jeffrey A. The Tortures of Mel Gibson. Men and Masculinities, Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 123-143.
Edensor, Tim. Reading Braveheart: Representing and Contesting Scottish Identity. Scottish Affairs, No. 21, Autumn 1997.
Mel Gibson. Biography. https://www.biography.
Mel Gibson Biography. The Famous People. https://www.thefamouspeople..php
Sharp, Michael D. Remaking Medieval Heroism. Floreligium 15(1998): https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/flor/article/viewFile/14269/15352