Take one part golden age Hollywood-esque love story about two adorable people torn apart by war, mix in an Office and a Gentlemen-esque drill sergeant, add in a dash of Men of Honor-esque legal drama, throw in a liberal helping of Saving Private Ryan-esque war-is-hell brutality and top off it with a far more serious version of that sequence in Forrest Gump where Forrest rescues a bunch of wounded soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam while looking for Bubba. Oh, also, make sure to sprinkle in some messianic imagery and faith-based messaging.
Boom. You’ve got yourself Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson’s dramatization of the life of Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector in US history to win the Medal of Honor. With this movie, Gibson has finally broken out of director’s jail, earning a Golden Globe nomination for Best Director with the potential for more nominations down the road. I kept putting this movie off, mostly on the grounds of finding Gibson’s prior films The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto remarkably off-putting, the cinematic equivalent of being shouted at by a true believer. However, last night was my final chance to see Hacksaw before my local theaters dropped it, and with Rogue One currently being rightfully lauded as the first genuine war movie in Star Wars canon I thought it might be interesting to see an actual war movie about real people fighting real battles.
And Hacksaw has all of that. In fact, it hits you in the face with it, opening on a montage of slow-motion war carnage, paying particular attention to the sight of Japanese soldiers engulfed in flames. Eventually, we close in on one particular soldier being carried away from the battle on a stretcher, blood seeping out of a wound in his leg while medics apply pressure and assure him that everything will be okay.
That’s how we meet Desmond Doss, played quite amiably by Andrew Garfield, whose southern accent has improved a fair bit since his embarrassing first go off it so many years ago on a Doctor Who episode. The rest of the film is all a flashback telling us how Doss came to be on that stretcher, beginning life as a particularly rowdy child in Virginia before a traumatic event (i.e., he accidentally almost killed his brother during a fist fight), the weight of his father’s alcoholism and his family’s strict Protestant Christian beliefs shaped him into a particularly doe-eyed idealist. However, when his brother enlists after Pearl Harbor he follows suit, much to the dismay of his WWI vet father (Hugo Weaving) as well as his fiancé (Teresa Palmer). Doss figures he can simply serve as a medic, but refuses to ever pick up a gun, even if just to learn how to defend himself in the field. Thou shall not kill and all that. The army begs to differ.
As the ensuing legal case (i.e., can someone who refuses to defend themselves or others actually serve in the army?) played out I couldn’t but ponder what exactly drew Mel Gibson to this material. Doss is challenged by his drill sergeant (a surprisingly convincing and just the right amount of amusing Vince Vaughn), unit captain (Sam Worthington being, well, Sam Worthington), fellow soldiers (as in most most war movies, they’re a bunch of clichés, known more for their nicknames than anything else) and even eventually his own fiancé to compromise. They’re not demanding that he kill anyone, just that he learns the basics of field weaponry for self-defense purposes. However, Doss will not and cannot abandon his convictions, a prideful act which the film does admittedly question in one crucial scene but ultimately celebrates.
This coming from the same director who once starred in a movie where he played a father who refused to give in to a hostage taker’s demands and instead offered the requested ransom money to the general public instead of to the people holding his son.
This coming from the same director who likely feels as if he has been persecuted over the last decade due to his personal beliefs and drunken tirades.
This coming from the same director whose most famous film remains Passion, which is the ultimate story of religious persecution.
To be clear, Hacksaw is not a film about religious persecution, but it is an ode to uncompromising religious conviction. On the Hacksaw promotional trail, Gibson has been fond of saying “real heroes don’t wear spandex.” However, this is no simple pat on the back of an everyday hero, like Finest Hours or Deepwater Horizon. Doss is someone Gibson clearly feels a kinship with, an uncompromising man of faith who would not back down in the face of his oppressors and instead won each and every one of them over through sheer persistence. The vindication Doss felt was unquestionably more profound and impactful, yet not completely dissimilar to how Gibson must feel now that Hacksaw has been embraced by critics, audiences and the awards community.
You’re not supposed to be thinking about any of that when you’re watching a movie. You’re not supposed to be psychoanalyzing the director. However, Gibson’s heavy hand is hard to ignore throughout Hacksaw, particularly his fetishistic preoccupation with extreme violence. Once Doss, and the following might be considered a spoiler unless you’ve seen one of the trailers or already know the history behind the film, makes it into battle in Okinawa it’s actually very easy to lose track of him. We’re told the US needs to take Okinawa to take Japan and end the war, but the enemy atop Hacksaw is relentless, bolstered by their own religious faith (the Japanese believed their Emperor to be a deity and would have rather died than see him defeated, not that Hacksaw ever acknowledges this). Gibson’s camera lingers on shots of soldiers being literally ripped in half by all manner of weapons, e.g., bullets, bombs, fire.
If the D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan is the litmus test by which all war movies, particularly WWII movies, must be judged then Gibson ensures Hacksaw Ridges passes with flying, blood-stained colors. It has to because to fully appreciate Doss’ eventual heroics you need to understand the hellish environment he was in, i.e., men dropping like flies, a deep fog limiting visibility thus preventing the soldiers from even seeing their enemies.
The problem is the ending, and this is now just a full-on spoiler. Doss’ truly stunning heroics, using the cover of darkness as well as an ingenious pully system to retrieve 75 wounded soldiers one by one from the battlefield, eventually inspires his unit to retake Hacksaw Ridge. For the sake of expediency, this final charge of the battle is condensed and mostly entails the Japanese dying horribly. Gibson surprisingly films it like a gun fu action movie, his camera at one point mounted to the top of one soldier’s gun and reveling in how cool it looks as it mows down enemy after enemy. It feels like Gibson is enjoying it a little too much. At the very least, it’s out of step with the rest of the movie, honoring the achievement of a great pacifist by stylistically disposing of countless lives. It’s an emotional high note built atop a lot of dead bodies.
And there’s the perplexing rub with Hacksaw Ridge. How do you make a movie about a pacifist who saved so many and just wanted to, if I might paraphrase a line from the film, put a little bit of the world back together when everything else was tearing itself apart without glorifying the violence he so abhorred, especially when the reality in Okinawa 1945 truly was that horrifying? Gibson perfectly walks this line until the end, yet he ultimately earns his rah-rah ending through undeniably effective filmmaking, solid performances all around and an uncanny ability by his production team to make their $40 million budget look like a $100 million. Truthfully, given the increasingly right-leaning nature of the world, I worry who might watch and be inspired by Hacksaw, who might welcome such a naked ode to uncompromising faith, but I can’t deny the power of this film nor the inspiring heroism of the real Desmond Doss.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Hacksaw Ridge is a powerful war movie, regardless of what it might say about its director.
THE AMAZING THING DESMOND DID WHICH THEY LEFT OUT OF THE MOVIE
Director Mel Gibson decided to leave this out of the movie because he felt audiences would find the heroic circumstances under which it happened too hard to believe, especially after Desmond had just taken the blunt of a grenade blast to save his fellow soldiers. After the grenade left him with 17 pieces of shrapnel stuck in him, Desmond waited for five hours until fellow soldier Ralph Baker was able to reach him. Baker, along with a few other men, carried Desmond on stretcher through an intense enemy tank attack. As they were carrying him, he saw a guy on the ground badly wounded. Desmond rolled off the stretcher and crawled over to patch the man up. Desmond gave up his stretcher to the man, but while waiting for help to come back, he was wounded again, this time by a sniper’s bullet that shattered his left arm. He fashioned a splint out of a rifle stock and crawled the remaining 300 yards under fire, eventually reaching the safety of an aid station.