From Greek myths to modern comic book movies, heroes are often required to cross a threshold where the laws of the ordinary world are suspended. In Mel Gibson’s war film Hacksaw Ridge, it’s the landmark named in the title: a sheer cliff face on the island of Okinawa where, in the midst of WWII, Japanese forces are tenaciously dug in. When fresh-faced soldier Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) crosses the threshold into that territory, Gibson depicts the moment as a step into a purgatorial dimension of death and cruelty. It’s nothing short of terrifying.
Doss was a real-life US soldier, a devout Christian who flatly refused to pick up a gun even in bootcamp, yet went on to serve as a medic during America’s war in the Pacific. In its opening hour, Hacksaw Ridge lays out the case for Doss’s pacifism, which Gibson suggests is a reaction to his father’s drunken bursts of violence. With picturesque actors shot in warm hues, Hacksaw Ridge worryingly resembles Michael Bay’s misguided Pearl Harbour in its opening hour, as Doss meets the love of his life, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). But anyone who’s familiar with Gibson’s movies as a director will know that the cosiness of Doss’s life in 30s and 40s Virginia will soon be replaced by something fearsome, and Gibson, true to form, doesn’t hold back in the slightest.
Just as Gibson’s Passion Of The Christ dwelled on the suffering of Jesus to an almost voyeuristic degree, so Hacksaw Ridge lingers on every severed limb and oozing bullet wound suffered by Doss’s compatriots. As bodies are ripped apart by bullets and grenades, Doss himself becomes a messianic figure, scuttling beneath the whizzing shells and saving lives wherever he can. Before Doss even hits the battlefield, Gibson establishes his hero’s status as a selfless martyr, suffering the bullying of his comrades and superiors in boot camp, and even risking a spell in a stockade when he’s threatened with a court martial.
As described by Gibson and screenwriters Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan, Doss might seem like a flatly benevolent character were it not for Garfield, who portrays the wartime medic not as an angel who walks among us, but as a puppyish idealist. It’s an admirable mindset, and the fearsome, protracted battle scenes do much to make us wonder whether we could be even half as brave under fire as Doss, especially if we were armed with little more than a Bible for protection.
For all its unusual casting – Vince Vaughn as a barking drill sergeant, Hugo Weaving as Doss’s cadaverous father – the acting in Hacksaw Ridge is generally top-notch. The surprise standout is Sam Worthington, a somewhat anonymous hero in James Cameron’s Avatar who puts in a charismatic and quietly moving performance here.
Hacksaw Ridge’s drawback lies in Gibson’s characteristically heavy-handed approach. For him, war isn’t so much a tragedy that kills indiscriminately as a holy furnace, burnishing its heroes and revealing the villains for the cowardly degenerates they are. Here, the Japanese soldiers are presented as a faceless hive mind, a pulsating mass of evil that deserves to be extinguished; the US troops, on the other hand, are brave and human to a fault. Even the bullies and superiors, who mistake Doss’s pacifism for cowardice, are revealed to be basically nice guys who want to do the right thing.
This is a moral stance that might glide by unnoticed in one of those post-war movies about the Finest Generation, but Hacksaw Ridge is about a person who was, religion aside, a humanist: Doss would rather run into a battlefield unarmed than risk killing another person, even in self-defence. This doesn’t appear to be a sentiment shared by Gibson, who displays an unnerving habit of projecting his rage onto a villainous Other in his movies. Doss denies that he’s a hero; Gibson, in his slow-motion shots of suffering and baptisms of blood, is intent on turning him into a symbol of Christian might. Add to this a score that acts as a signpost for the emotions, and you’re left with a movie that functions as a diligently-crafted yet decidedly unsubtle blunt instrument.
Hacksaw Ridge is out in UK cinemas on the 27th January.