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Hacksaw Ridge is Mel Gibson’s first film in 10 years, since Apocalypto, and this graphic, true-story World War II drama combines all the cinematic elements that Gibson does well: the visceral, violent horror of war; an earnest, faith-motivated pursuit of virtue; understated bromantic moments between macho men; and some good old-fashioned moral messages.
Desmond Doss (played by a goofy-grinned Andrew Garfield, who breathes much-needed layers into his character) was a pacifist Seventh-day Adventist hillbilly from Lynchburg, Va., who enlisted as a combat medic in the U.S. Army because he took the Pearl Harbor attack “personally” but refused to touch a rifle. He became the first conscientious objector to earn the Medal of Honor after he single-handedly rescued 75 wounded infantrymen at the blood-raining Battle of Okinawa.
Much of Desmond’s childhood scenes focus on his father Tom (Hugo Weaving), a World War I veteran who lost his best friends on the battlefield and has been battering himself with self-hatred and alcohol ever since. He’s a broken man who rages against a war that he never escaped, preaches against violence that he inflicts upon his own family, and desperately desires freedom from demons he can’t shake.
Desmond senses those same demons within himself, from the day he almost kills his brother with a brick, to the night he points a pistol at his father’s weeping face. He realizes that though he has never physically killed someone, his heart has broken the Sixth Commandment many times.
The remainder of the film plays out his father’s bitter prediction regarding Desmond’s decision to join the Army: “You figure this war will fit in with you? With your ideals? … If by some miracle you survive, you’ll give no thanks to God.” Tom was partly right: The very nature of war has no place for Desmond’s values. His fellow infantrymen see him as a skinny coward with his head stuck in righteous clouds and point out the irony of being a pacifist collaborator.
Nonetheless, Desmond holds fast to his conviction, refusing to quit or complain even after enduring peer ridicule, brutal hazing, and a court-martial. Still, doubt strikes in the hellhole of smoke, fire, and limbs at what would soon be known as the bloodiest battle in the Pacific, when he cries out to heaven, “What is it You want of me? I don’t understand. I can’t hear You!” Then he hears a man screaming out, “Help!” and he answers, “All right.” For every man he drags out under enemy fire, he whispers, “Please, Lord. Help me get one more.” And then: “Just one more.”
Subtlety has never been Gibson’s strong point: Battle scenes of rats gnawing on eyeballs and flies sucking on raw guts have earned Hacksaw Ridge an R rating. Likewise, the film portrays a black-and-white worldview that at best lacks nuance and at worst contradicts itself: It broad-strokes the Japanese as evil, idealizes the Americans as bravehearts, and revels in gore to a point unbefitting a movie that underlines the dignity of human life. But sometimes, simplicity works: Had Gibson added the complex nuances of wartime ethics or Japanese sympathies, the film might have pulled apart into all sorts of thematic rabbit trails.
Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t shy away from all the conflicts that beget and stem from violence, either. Desmond is not a saint but a sinner who well recognizes the depravity of his nature. His shining moment of glory comes during a crisis of faith, and his morals don’t play out quite so cleanly in the middle of carnal mayhem. In a society that progressively scorns religious conscience in the public sphere, Hacksaw Ridge offers hope that there will always be space and opportunities for faith-based actions to touch the soul of humanity.