A gruesome bid for cinematic glory, Hacksaw Ridge takes a story that partially involves suffering and physical violence and makes that suffering and violence the entire point of the movie. Never mind that the man at the center of the film is a pacifist; this is like looking for peace inside the barrel of a gun.
The man in question is Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a World War II medic in the United States Army who was the first conscientious objector (due to his Christian beliefs concerning violence) to win the Medal of Honor. It’s a remarkable true-life tale, yet one that Gibson contorts to explore something that has obsessed him since even before the strikingly similar The Passion of The Christ. As far back as his early acting career, Gibson’s characters would frequently endure extreme physical pain on their pathway to victory, and something similar happens here. In Hacksaw Ridge, you’re only as good as the wounds you suffer.
We know this is where the movie is heading because of its opening images. We’re immediately dumped in the midst of a battlefield, where the camera emphasizes the horrific ways men are dying: blown to pieces by grenade explosions, shredded by bullets, set afire by flamethrowers. I believe the first image is an overhead shot of a line of decimated bodies. It’s as if Gibson is intent on making the cataclysmic opening moments of Saving Private Ryan look like a pillow fight in comparison.
From there we flash back to Doss’ youth in Lynchburg, Va., which is portrayed as an odd mixture of Mayberry hokum (Garfield gives a fairly good Forrest Gump impression) and Southern Gothic (Hugo Weaving roars about as Doss’ abusive father). After making time for a romance with a nurse (Teresa Palmer, looking like she stepped out of a painting of the Virgin Mary), the film moves on to basic training, where Doss suffers abuse for his beliefs under an unsympathetic sergeant (Vince Vaughn, working hard at one-liners).
In Hacksaw Ridge, you’re only as good as the wounds you suffer.
Hacksaw Ridge comes into its own in the second half, when Doss is shipped off to the Battle of Okinawa. Along with dozens of other men, he climbs a towering rock wall to join the horrific, close-quarter fight already taking place between advancing American troops and entrenched Japanese soldiers. Gibson’s talents as an action director are undeniable here, as he manages to balance both a shuddering immediacy and a logistical clarity. And to be fair, the movie frequently pauses from the fighting to show Doss performing acts of nonviolent service. We see him risking his own safety, many times, to drag the wounded from the battlefield or apply life-saving tourniquets or administer doses of morphine.
Yet even in these instances, the focus is as much on the spurting arteries and dismembered legs as it is on Doss’ healing hands. Notice also that Doss’ halo moment doesn’t come after he’s saved some 75 men from the battlefield. That earns him a newfound respect from his fellow men, yes, but his ticket to heaven isn’t punched until he’s been wounded himself—until his own body has been desecrated. Having barely survived a grenade explosion, Doss is loaded onto a stretcher and lowered from the ridge. Gibson swings the camera from above Doss to below him, so that rather than coming down to earth, he appears to be rising to heaven.
To be clear, none of these criticisms are meant to downplay the significance of the suffering that was actually endured—by both Americans and Japanese—during the Battle of Okinawa. Hacksaw Ridge was another movie I watched with my 92-year-old grandfather, who served with the Navy in World War II, and he thought the film was fantastic. Perhaps there’s a truth to it my pampered, peacetime self can’t recognize. Yet when I watch the war through Mel Gibson’s eyes, something seems warped and off-center. Doss’ pacifism is a red herring, an excuse to get us on that bloody battlefield. In Hacksaw Ridge—and Gibson’s cinema in general—it’s the rending of flesh that mostly matters.