Cast: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Theresa Palmer, Vince Vaughn, Hugo Weaving
Director: Mel Gibson
Writers: Robert Schenkkan, Andrew Knight
Hacksaw Ridge is a chaotic movie, full of sudden shifts and contradictions, but that’s probably to be expected from a director like Mel Gibson. Despite his overtly messy personal life and his infamous ravings (which really aren’t worth getting into at this stage) it would seem that with this movie Gibson has been welcomed back to Hollywood with open arms. A man with deeply held religious beliefs and an apparent addiction to havoc, the film falls snugly in line with his filmography of extremely violent films with themes of spirituality and faith. The question of whether these two extremes can be reconciled is a part of what makes his films fascinating. Here he has taken the story of a devoutly religious man, averse to the very act of killing, and yet has incorporated scenes of such great carnage and savagery that they make Saving Private Ryan look positively tame. The movie, in a way, is the clash of two conflicting extremes and the result is a fascinating mess.
After a traumatic childhood experience Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) grows into a pious Christian with a staunch belief in the seventh commandment. When the Second World War breaks out Doss is compelled by patriotism and duty to serve, but his morals will not permit him to hold a gun or to kill a human being. His solution is to enlist as a medic, so that his only role shall be save lives rather than take them. Doss is greeted by his training officer Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and his fellow trainees with nothing but contempt as they see his choice as little more than cowardice. Even his father Tom (Hugo Weaving), himself a veteran of the Great War, is unsettled by Doss’ decision. Supporting him as he is subjected to this animosity is his fiancé Dorothy Schutte (Theresa Palmer). Despite suffering pain, torment, scorn and humiliation, Doss perseveres and completes his training. Thus he is shipped off to Okinawa and, without a weapon, must rely on his wits, strength, and faith in order to survive the horrors of war.
The first half of this film is classically idealistic and romantic often to the point of schmaltz. The town Doss lives in is quaint suburban America, something straight out of a Frank Capra movie. Doss is a good-looking, athletic and upstanding young man with a picturesque sweetheart whom he sweeps off her feet in that old-fashioned Hollywood way. When the war breaks out, Doss enlists as a “conscientious collaborator” (not objector) and stands firmly by his convictions in the face of adversity. The moral exchanges he shares are unambiguously black and white, painting Doss as the remarkable, admirable man who will one day become the first soldier to be awarded the Medal of Honour without ever firing a shot. Garfield’s performance as the mythologised Doss is strong, solemn and feels utterly sincere. The character he creates is an admirable one, so admirable that the movie itself often finds that it cannot live up to his example.
With all the intensely and graphically violent content that Gibson portrays in the film’s latter half, one must ask whether he is undermining the message of his own pacifist picture. A statement often attributed to François Truffaut famously claims that it is impossible to make an anti-war film because cinema cannot help but make combat look glamorous. While I’m not convinced this statement is true for all war movies (Come and See is one film that I would hardly describe as glamorous), it seems to ring true in this case. For all of Doss’ talk about peace and morality, Gibson revels in the brutality and bloodlust of the battle scenes every bit as much as he did in Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ. The wounds suffered by the soldiers are shown in full, gory detail. A heroic act in the heat of combat is showcased by majestic slow motion. Even in one scene when Doss drags a fellow soldier away from the field of battle on an improvised sled, Gibson cannot resist having that soldier scream triumphantly as he fires at the pursuing Japanese soldiers. These battle scenes are thrilling, marvellous and exquisitely shot, and that is both a strength and a flaw.
With that said, the movie seems aware of its inability to join Doss in his aversion to violence. One could almost imagine Gibson himself as one of the soldiers, both confounded and astonished by Doss’ morality and pacifism and thus resentful towards him because of it. The film believes in the rightness of Doss’ morals, but lacks his resolve and endurance. Gibson is an addict and the draw of cinematic violence is more than he can resist, even at the detriment of his own story. In fact the movie itself is in many ways far deeper than the very story it’s trying to tell, which is actually rather hackneyed and simple. The film is astounding yet flawed, compelling yet misguided, masterful yet clumsy. Hacksaw Ridge is Gibson at his best and his worst and is more interesting in its concept and execution than it is in its viewing.