Hacksaw Ridge is the second violent historical drama from a Christian filmmaker with a troubled past to open in a month. As with Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, controversy over Mel Gibson’s sins has been somewhat overshadowed the onscreen drama. Yet both films are well worth attending to for their own sake, as much for what they say about our times as for what they have to say about the past events they depict.
The story of World War II medic Desmond Doss’s heroism in the Pacific theater is less well-known than the story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion — and Gibson’s sins are both more recent and better established than Parker’s. But Gibson has lived with disgrace and exile for a decade, and where Birth of a Nation was potentially a star-making turn for Parker, Hacksaw Ridge is generally considered a bid for redemption.
Certainly Doss’ story — the tale of the first Medal of Honor recipient who was a conscientious objector, a man who singlehandedly saved scores of wounded soldiers on the battlefield while refusing to carry a weapon — deserves to be better known.
And if any filmmaker alive could make a thrilling movie involving both a pious outsider’s uphill struggle for religious accommodation and also a grueling battle sequence with a lone hero performing nearly superhuman heroics amid the graphically realized horrors of war, it’s Gibson.
Working from a screenplay by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan, Gibson crafts a resolutely traditional exercise in Hollywood mythmaking: a tale of a man who stoically endures accusations of cowardice before being vindicated as the bravest of all, a man of integrity who stands by his unpopular principles regardless of the consequences; a pious man whose sincere faith eventually wins the respect and admiration of his less devout comrades.
Played by Andrew Garfield, Desmond both is, and is not, a quintessential Gibson protagonist. A lanky Appalachian country boy with earnest eyes and a guileless grin belying a certain darkness in his past, Desmond is thoughtful but uncomplicated, naive but conscientious. He’s the kind of guy you can laugh at while taking seriously: a combination that endears him to a pretty nurse named Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) with whom he will spend the next half century.
Desmond’s Seventh-Day Adventist inspired tenet of nonviolence is as uncomplicated as it is unusual. He is not a typical conscientious objector — a label he rejects, preferring to identify as a “conscientious cooperator.” He is not strictly a pacifist; he feels strongly about supporting his country in a time of war, and he wants very much to wear the uniform and go into battle with the rest of his generation. He is willing to risk his life and spill his blood, but he will not so much as touch a weapon.
This makes Desmond different from William Wallace and even Jim Caviezel’s Jesus, both of whom engage in righteous violence. (The very first onscreen blow struck in The Passion of the Christ is Jesus stomping the serpent’s head.) At the same time, Desmond’s character is defined in part by his absolute commitment and his capacity to endure physical punishment — including the abuse of his fellow soldiers in boot camp at Fort Jackson.
On another level, what matters most is not exactly what Desmond believes, but that he believes — and that his beliefs have practical implications for his service. (It isn’t only weapons aversion; Desmond also objects to working or training on the Sabbath, which, unlike most in the Christian tradition, Seventh-Day Adventists still observe on Saturday.)
Hacksaw Ridge can be seen as an examination of war and nonviolence, but it also begs to be seen — like Birth of a Nation, with its #BlackLivesMatter echoes — in light of contemporary issues. Desmond’s story resonates with ongoing controversy over religious liberty (or “religious liberty” in scare quotes, as it has appeared in some media reporting), from the Little Sisters of the Poor and the HHS contraception mandate to the new U.S. Commission of Civil Rights report on nondiscrimination and religious freedom.
Going by the book, it appears that there is no defense for Desmond’s actions. He refuses direct orders from commanding officers; he should be court-martialed and spend the duration of the war at Leavenworth prison. Can the First Amendment offer any cover? To what extent should institutions bend or suspend otherwise ironclad rules to accommodate the intransigent scruples of nonconformists like Desmond?
Hacksaw Ridge suggests that the default tendency of those in authority is to oblige individuals to knuckle under and compromise their beliefs or suffer the consequences. A rule on paper is not enough to guarantee space for the individual to be true to their beliefs; it matters very much who is interpreting and applying the rules.
For all this, the film is first and last a Hollywood entertainment. Gibson has fun with the cultural distance between his audience and his subject matter; in the first act most of the humor is at Desmond’s expense, but once he gets to boot camp Vince Vaughn’s bellowing sergeant, with his colorful, often racially charged chaffing of the men, reminds us how much has changed. There is also a muscular, exhibitionistic private (Luke Pegler) nicknamed “Hollywood” who spends more of Doss’s first day buck naked than even he is comfortable with.
From his broken-down father (Hugo Weaving), a shell-shocked, alcoholic veteran of the first World War, Desmond learns of the unsupportable horrors of war. From his mother (Rachel Griffiths) he learns that the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (the sixth in the Protestant enumeration, illustrated on a pedagogical poster with a picture of Cain and Abel) is the most inviolable of God’s laws. A frightening childhood incident deeply impresses him with the dangers of violence and his own capacity for evil.
The middle act, arguably the dramatic heart of the film, depicts Desmond’s struggles at Fort Jackson with official pressure to follow the program and unofficial suspicions of cowardice.
Gibson loves grand gestures and dramatic excess, and his instincts are strong enough that he generally gets away with it. He has never been one for subtlety, and occasionally a point is underscored that didn’t need it. Arriving in Okinawa, Desmond’s unit gets their first dose of harsh reality when a convoy of trucks passes them going in the opposite direction, loaded with mangled bodies living and dead. The scene works perfectly on a purely visual level. Then someone says, “The 96th — what’s left of them,” unnecessarily adding, “These are the guys we’re replacing.”
But Gibson does show restraint at times. Crucially, even when Desmond’s fellow recruits are antagonists, they aren’t bad guys. They beat him one night at Fort Jackson, but it’s not wanton cruelty: It’s because they believe that for his own good as well as theirs he must be persuaded to quit. When he doesn’t, they feel conflicted and ashamed.
Desmond’s main antagonist, a New Yorker named Smitty (played by Australian actor Luke Bracey), humiliates Desmond by snatching his Bible and gawking over the photo of Dorothy, but when Desmond asks for the photo back, Smitty doesn’t do the obvious appalling thing. Even Desmond’s father, whose capacity for cruelty and violence is as responsible as anything for Desmond’s determination to be kind and nonviolent, rises to one moment of heroic greatness.
Finally Desmond’s convictions are put to the ultimate test as his unit ships off to Okinawa, where they join the assault on a forbidding 350-foot escarpment so tenaciously held by the Japanese that it was nicknamed “Hacksaw Ridge.”
But Gibson also knows, even as he begins to heap on the horror of battle, that the horror depends on humanity. Even on Hacksaw, the quieter moments are as telling as the explosions and shattered body parts. One of the film’s best scenes is a night of conversation and male bonding between Desmond and Smitty in a foxhole.
The trailers tell nearly the whole story, but there are a couple of moments that turn out to mean something completely different in the context of the film. The most striking of these is a moment that comes early in the trailers, but late in the film, as Desmond stands apart from his unit on the morning of an assault on Hacksaw. When the Japanese collapse under the American assault, it comes as an answer to prayer. God may not have wanted Desmond to carry a gun, but the Americans with guns had his blessing in the end.
In many ways this is an old-fashioned film, as its hero is an old-fashioned guy. Gibson makes no apology for either. Hacksaw Ridge powerfully makes the case that there should be room in this world for people like Desmond Doss, and for movies like this.
Caveat Spectator: Extreme, graphic battlefield violence and gore; a depiction of ritual suicide and beheading; rear male nudity; some cursing. Mature viewing.