War is Thunder from Hell: The Soundscape of ‘Hacksaw Ridge’

The director, his editor and sound team discuss transmitting chaos to an audience.
Hacksaw Ridge
By  · Published on November 16th, 2016

Ask any filmmaker who’s ever tackled a war picture – be it based on a true story or set in a galaxy far, far away – and they’ll tell you that sound is one of the most vital elements to crafting the verisimilitude such films need in order to transmit whatever meaning is beneath the battle scenes. Sound is the chaos of war, it is how we, the audience, come to understand the frenzy and freneticism of war, especially as the overwhelming majority of us have never and will (likely) never fight in one.

Try a simple test. Put on Saving Private Ryan and close your eyes. The storming of Normandy that opens Spielberg’s film is perhaps the most realistic war footage ever shot for a feature, but you don’t need to see it to feel it, even the sounds of that famous clash clue you into to the violence, pandemonium, and terror of it. Granted, it’s more effective with the visuals, of course, but my point is, anything can be blown up or loaded with squibs that go off in spectacular fashion, but if you want to nail down the experience of war for those who have never seen it firsthand, you have to get the sound right.

Another film that gets the sound of war right is Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, which tells the story of Private First Class Desmond T. Doss, (Andrew Garfield, The Social Network), who served in World War II despite religious objections that prevented him from carrying or using a weapon. That’s right, dude went to the bloodiest skirmish of the 20th century without so much as a flyswatter in his pocket, then he went on to save the lives of 75 of his fellow soldiers at the Battle of Okinawa – without firing a single shot or even throwing a punch.

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Naturally, this battle and the daring heroism Doss displayed are the crux of the film, and in recreating the soundscape Gibson enlisted a large team anchored by Supervising Sound Editor and Sound Designer Robert Mackenzie, and Supervising Sound Editor and Re-recording Mixer Andy Wright. In the following exclusive interview with Soundworks Collection, Gibson, Mackenzie and Wright sit down with Academy-Award-nominated* editor John Gilbert (The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings) to discuss the filmic relationship between sound and images, and the particular struggles and triumphs of bringing Hacksaw Ridge to thunderous life.

*Expect him to get nominated again this year, and probably win. Gilbert has already been awarded Editor of the Year by the Hollywood Film Awards for his work on Hacksaw Ridge.

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