Gibson’s wheelhouse, in films from Braveheart and Apocalypto to The Passion of the Christ, is the morally upright, initially reluctant hero who fights on the side of honor. Usually that fight is a literal battle, the better to unfurl Gibson’s signature torrent of gore. Once, it was a brutal crucifixion.
But the key to all these films is the Gibson hero, a man of indisputable, uncomplicated virtue, who is at first reticent to engage the enemy. The Gibson hero is a deeply peaceful man at heart, but when the occasion demands it, he nobly and bravely fights. Hacksaw Ridge is the most clear-cut instance of this template, and one that will play extremely well to the more conservative audiences who also flock to Clint Eastwood movies like American Sniper and Gran Torino.
Given that Hacksaw Ridge is a movie valorizing a Christian man from Virginia who refuses to even touch a gun, that may seem a little surprising. Once you unpack the movie, though, it starts to make sense.
Hacksaw Ridge is genuinely stirring and occasionally corny
Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of PFC Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield in full aw-shucks mode), the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, given in recognition of his service in the Battle of Okinawa. Doss, whose veteran father (Hugo Weaving) is an abusive alcoholic following his service during World War I, is a Seventh-Day Adventist from the Blue Ridge Mountains. As a young man, he pledges not to touch a gun. But when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, he signs up for the Army anyhow, planning to be a medic — with the loving support of his fiancée, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer).
Doss arrives at boot camp to discover that a soldier who won’t handle a gun isn’t very popular, with either his platoon or his sergeant (Vince Vaughn). Everyone assumes he’s a coward, unmanly, unfit to serve. Doss is the target of jabs and beatings from his fellow soldiers, but he sticks to his guns, so to speak, confident in both his convictions and his commitment to his country; eventually he escapes dishonorable discharge and heads off to war as a medic, without a gun.
At this point, Hacksaw Ridge switches from period drama to full-on war film, and Gibson’s favored aesthetic — which is to say, blood and guts — clicks into gear. It’s kind of a jarring shift, because up to the moment battle begins, Hacksaw Ridge is a fairly straight-ahead World War II drama that feels like it was made by a person who’s watched, and memorized, every World War II drama.
The movie veers into dangerously corny territory, especially in the scene in which Doss first meets his fellow soldiers, each of whom is introduced with his nickname and a sly quip that displays his distinguishing characteristic. This feels so formulaic — as does the romance between Desmond and Dorothy — that I suspect it’s a tactic to lull viewers into complacency, the better to throw the upcoming battle scenes into high relief.
But Doss’s real-life heroism is genuinely awe-inspiring, and so by the end you’re rooting for him, and for the film.
Hacksaw Ridge is the movie Unbroken wanted to be
Watching Hacksaw Ridge, I kept thinking of Unbroken, the 2014 war drama about POW Louis Zamperini. That film shares some DNA with Hacksaw Ridge, largely because both of its main characters battle attempts to break their spirits, but also because religion is a key component of their heroes’ stories.
Unbroken fizzled in its final act. It interpreted Zamperini’s strength as merely the ability to outlast his enemies’ endurance, and expected viewers to find that inspirational. It is, to a point. But the real Zamperini emerged embittered and broken from his time in a prison camp, and it wasn’t until he experienced a religious conversion that he realized that the way forward was to love his enemies. He returned to Japan and forgave his captors in person. That’s the story the book tells, but the film reduces the final act to a few title cards, and thereby loses its arc.
Hacksaw Ridge attempts, and mostly succeeds, to tap into the same audience and thematic material as Unbroken. Clearly targeted at viewers who prize God and country, it gives us a brave and good man — Doss has no flaws, no moments of weakness past his conversion moment — whose insistence on following the dictates of his conscience is his strength, and who derives courage from his faith. Slowly, the people around him come to respect and depend on his faith, even if they don’t share it.
And as I said, it mostly succeeds at its goals. Only a stone-hearted robot could be completely unmoved by Hacksaw Ridge, which tugs relentlessly on your heartstrings at every opportunity.
This is both its strength and its weakness. The score swells a bit too earnestly and the images are shimmery and idealized, a heightened reality that seems like it may belong more to a fairy tale or a fantasy epic than a story about a war in which a lot of people died. (And in contrast to a director like Eastwood, who paired Flags of our Fathers with Letters from Iwo Jima, Gibson isn’t very interested in humanizing the enemy. There’s maybe one moment of recognition that the Japanese enemy soldiers are people with families as well.)
But even if Hacksaw Ridge leaves your heartstrings a little frayed, a man who risks his life to save so many people on the battlefield is undeniably an inspirational figure. In the end, it’s heartening that such men exist, whether or not you share his convictions.
Hacksaw Ridge isn’t about pacifism. It’s about conscience.
The most notable thing about Hacksaw Ridge, though, is Doss’s insistence on nonviolence — not precisely what you expect from a movie that’s obviously intended for the same audience as American Sniper. Doss recoils from even touching a gun. He will not take a life; being a Seventh-Day Adventist, he is even a vegetarian.
At first this seems like a rather revolutionary stance for such a film: A heroic war movie where the hero is against guns, even in self-defense? When that plot point first emerges, it’s startling. But it gets complicated pretty fast.
For instance, Doss is convinced that his faith is opposed to killing, even on the battlefield. And yet you can’t exactly call him a pacifist (though maybe a pacificist). In many scenes, he allows his fellow soldiers to cover him by returning gunfire. Similarly, in one scene near the end, he doesn’t technically activate a grenade, but he causes it to explode near his enemies — a scene the movie doesn’t interpret as violence, though it destroys life.
But in general, Doss’s stance of personal nonviolence, even if it’s in service of a war, is one of the character’s surprising strengths: He isn’t insisting that everyone conform to his religious standards, just that he must uphold his convictions while pitching in. Some religious pacifists have tended to see their resistance to war as a resistance to the power structures of the state, which conflict with God’s authority. But Doss loves America, and will do what he can to help the cause.
So while at first it seems like Hacksaw Ridge is an anti-gun movie for the Second Amendment-revering crowd, that’s a shallow interpretation. For one, Gibson hasn’t suddenly turned against violence. This is a bloody movie with no sense of scale; it’s not enough that we see one guy’s legs get blown off, but we must see him get dragged across the ground, bloody stumps behind, and then see the same thing repeated four or five times. Pieces of bodies, heads exploding from bullets, guts all over the place — it’s all here, shot with reverence rather than disgust.
Violence, in Gibson’s view, is a glorious aesthetic choice, and Hacksaw Ridge’s violent imagery goes so far and goes on so long as to be completely numbing. It’s the opposite of the effect Gibson presumably intended, making viewers feel the brutality of war. In cases like this, sparseness can be a virtue.
In any case, it’s more accurate to view Hacksaw Ridge as a pro-conscience movie than an anti-gun movie. Its implicit argument is that a free country must make room for principled objectors. Doss is effective precisely because he’s as courageous as any soldier, but he channels his extraordinary courage into his work of saving the wounded. The movie suggests that without him there — without someone who objects to violence in the midst of those who are there to kill — many more soldiers’ lives would have been lost. And so the platoon is in fact fortunate to have a man without a gun among them; his conscience restrains him in some ways and empowers him in others.
This is the basis of some conservatives’ position on matters of religious freedom — that it is to society’s benefit to allow for some to object in order to provide balance and restraint in situations with moral and ethical weight.
Obviously that’s a deeply complicated matter. But whether or not you personally think that position holds weight, it’s certainly reflected in Doss’s story.
So if and when Hacksaw Ridge does gangbusters business at the red-state box office, it would be wrong to mistake that for a spasm of anti-gun sentiment. The movie mixes a Hollywood-style celebration of heroism in a popular setting with a matter of very contemporary importance — and whatever its cinematic faults, it’s hard to emerge from the theater unmoved.