Grindhouse Violence Meets the Glory of God in ‘Hacksaw Ridge’
Mel Gibson is back and he’s not messing around
by MATTHEW GAULT
There’s a certain kind of war film that comes out during the holiday season. You know the one. The Allies are good, the Nazis are bad and the war is simple. A soldier boy makes it home to his girl, or meets a girl during the war and loses her … or she loses him.
It’s maudlin, sanitized and marketed to folks looking to take family members to an inoffensive movie they can all feel good about. Think Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Pearl Harbor or The Monuments Men. These movies are not necessarily terrible or unwatchable, though many are, but they are basically low-impact popcorn flicks.
Hacksaw Ridge looks like this typical holiday war film. It’s got a director returning to the camera after a 10 year hiatus, charming leads and a simple sounding story about a boy who goes to war but won’t touch a gun. Walking into the theater, I was pretty sure I knew what I was in for — a two hour escapist jaunt meant to make Americans feel great about the Good War.
That’s not what I got.
Mel Gibson doesn’t care about his audience’s fragile sensibilities about his violent war film full of Jesus and suffering. Hacksaw Ridge is overt in its Christian themes, unapologetic about its big emotions and is grindhouse-gruesome in its depiction of violence.
It’s amazing and I loved it … but don’t take Grandpa to see it at turkey time.
Hacksaw Ridge is the story of Desmond Doss, an Army private who won the Medal of Honor during World War II. Doss served during the Battle of Okinawa — I hesitate to say “fight” but more on that later — where he single-handedly retrieved more than 75 soldiers from a 400 foot ridge while dodging enemy fire.
Doss’s story is so unbelievable that I wouldn’t buy it if not for all the witnesses. His Medal of Honor citation reads less like a tale of valor and more like the bullshit war story an old vet makes up to entertain his drinking buddies. But it’s true. Hundreds watched Doss scale a 400-foot embankment, and pull out dozens of wounded soldiers under fire.
Oh, and he was a conscientious objector — a Seventh-Day Adventist — who never carried a gun. On top of that, the Army tried its best to kick him out during basic training. To date, he’s the only conscientious objector to receive a Medal of Honor. So how did a pacifist kid from Lynchburg, Virginia end up in Okinawa pulling soldiers out of trouble?
That’s the story of Hacksaw Ridge.
Gibson is in comfortable territory here and the first hour or so of the film is like the rote, schmaltzy holiday junk I despise. As a boy, Doss almost killed his brother during horseplay gone wrong. They were fighting and young Doss picked up a brick and went upside his brother’s head.
The kid was fine, but Doss never quite forgave himself. The traumatized Doss focuses on a poster depicting the 10 Commandments on the living room wall. “Thou shalt not kill,” stands out in bold letters below an illustration depicting Cain slaying Abel.
The religious symbolism continues throughout the movie and it’s always on the nose. But it’s never dishonest, hypocritical or grotesque. Christian films, such as Faith of Our Fathers, often inject religious themes into sanitized war and feel exploitative. Gibson avoids this in Hacksaw Ridge.
Some of that is because the production values and talent are so high, but it’s also because Doss’ beliefs are his own. Not everyone in the film believes the Bible the way he does, and Doss doesn’t try to convert people. Likewise, the movie has Christian themes and characters but does not come across as an overt attempt at audience conversion.
Andrew Garfield, the best Spider-Man in the worst Spider-Man movies, plays Desmond Doss with a hardy aw-shucks charm that carries the film. Garfield makes Doss’ fundamental decency believable. Hugo Weaving as Doss’ father Tom also turns in a stellar performance.
Tom Doss fought in World War I and he hates the military something fierce. He drinks all day and makes frequent trips to the Lynchburg cemetery housing the bodies of his fallen buddies. He’s a mean drunk, too — one prone to violence against his family.
He’s the kind of character who makes an easy villain in a lazy story. But this movie is smarter than that. Gibson’s direction and Weaving’s performance save Tom and transform a simple drunk into a complicated antagonist who is both deplorable and sympathetic.
It’s a neat trick … but nothing compared to the film’s final act.
Gibson spends more than an hour on setup in Hacksaw Ridge and takes Doss through the military movie cliche checklist. The boy angers his dad when he enlists, marries his best girl, meets soldiers with nicknames instead of personalities and endures a gruff-but-fair drill instructor.
Then the film took a turn I wasn’t expecting. Doss fought at the Battle of Okinawa, one of the most brutal and horrifying battles of the Pacific Theater. Hacksaw Ridge depicts the gory, messy, head-exploding violence of that conflict in great detail.
Gibson pulls the camera back and lingers lovingly on every lost limb, every splintered head and every man on fire screaming in a foxhole. He forces the audience to accept the carnage of war by never moving the camera away from it.
One soldier takes a bullet across the face and it rends open his cheek in a shower of blood and skin. The audience has only a moment to recover before another bullet slams into the middle of the poor bastard’s face and explodes his brains out the back of his skull.
Soldiers fly through the air, their limbs destroyed by grenades as viscera trails behind them in an arc. Men scream for their mothers as Doss moves from bloody corpse to flailing causality, administering morphine and saving those he can. It’s an incredible spectacle unlike anything I’ve seen in a mainstream war film since Saving Private Ryan.
This merging of Christian principles in the face of apocalyptic violence is important. Both the Army and the horrors of war test Doss’ convictions — and he passes. To restrain the violence, to cut the camera away at the point of a bullet’s impact, would diminish Doss’ principles.
This is a story that’s been in development Hell for years. Studios wanted a PG-13 film the whole family could love, but the writers and producers knew that the violence was important. Without it, Hacksaw Ridge is forgettable holiday fodder — the kind of film you buy your grandpa on DVD when you’ve got no better options.
But the filmmakers stuck to their guns and found Mel Gibson — a director comfortable with delivering both explicit Christian imagery and apocalyptic violence.
That choice elevates Hacksaw Ridge.