It’s often been said that there are no atheists in the foxholes. However, the kind of ecclesiastical devotion Mel Gibson discovers within the blood soaked trenches of Okinawa for Hacksaw Ridge eclipses even that momentary desperation that comes on the precipice of oblivion. This is a film enraptured by a remarkable degree of serenity, and its greatest miracle is that it transcends any modern or recent societal taboos regarding its subject matter, offering instead a timeless account of a man comfortable with his beliefs every step of the way into mouth of Hell.
Much will be made in the press and culture at large about Hacksaw Ridge’s graphic and relentless use of violence while depicting the carnage of war—and it is quite horrifying—as well as how the film presents a man who disobeyed secular superiors to maintain his purity of conscience. Additionally, as it is the first directorial effort from the enigmatic Gibson in a decade, such obvious social landmines could be easy to pounce on. Yet, all of that would be a mistake, because as a filmmaker, Gibson pinpoints an undeniable grace in the life of Desmond T. Doss, and in doing so offers a film that plays to all our better angels, no matter the persuasion.
For the uninitiated, Desmond Doss walked a lonely and extraordinary path during World War II. As the son of Seventh-day Adventists, he was a sincere and deeply religious young man when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. As presented in the film, his status as a conscientious objector could have allowed Doss (Andrew Garfield) the chance to live a peaceful and fairly happy life in West Virginia during the entirety of the war.
His father Tom (Hugo Weaving) had also ignored the teachings of their strain of Christianity when he enlisted during the Great War, and came back badly broken, still a drunk whose demons haunt Desmond into the latter’s adulthood. But despite all of that, the young Doss manages to romance a local nurse named Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) with all the appealing earnestness of a pre-war Jimmy Stewart picture. And, in spite of his convictions, Doss is compelled to serve, enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1942 with the understanding that he can be a medic who refuses to carry a gun.
As the film details, his naiveté about the war bending to meet his beliefs (as mocked by his father) is given a brutal dose of reality when he is constantly pressured during basic training by his sergeant (Vince Vaughn) and captain (Sam Worthington) to pick up a rifle or quit the military. Eventually, he is almost even court-martialed for his beliefs before even getting out of training, arrested and detained in the brig during a weekend leave he thought would be his wedding and honeymoon period with Dorothy.
Yet, serve he one day would; in court, he is able to convince the Army to allow him as a medic to run into the daily slaughter of Hacksaw Ridge, a barely tenable Cliffside on Okinawa, with nary a firearm in hand. In fact, while he does not take a single life in that bloody meat grinder, he stays behind after his platoon’s retreat, spending a night alone with the Japanese while attempting to quietly rescue and save the lives of over 70 wounded servicemen, as well as even dying Japanese soldiers who had been abandoned to bury themselves in war’s foggy mud.
To be sure, Gibson is fascinated with violence. All of his works as a filmmaker enjoy an overly-generous serving of brutality, from Braveheart to Apocalypto. And the bloodshed in Hacksaw is extreme, yet arguably no more so than Gibson’s first film as a Scottish rebel, nor is it any more gruesome than the D-Day landing in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. But while Gibson perhaps does provide the first spectacle to match that previous World War II movie benchmark for grisly bluntness, it also serves as a startling contrast for Garfield’s protagonist and the rest of the film as a whole.
It is not until the third act that Hacksaw Ridge steps foot in the Pacific Theater. Otherwise, it is a poignant character study that, perhaps because of its heartland subject matter, actually allows Gibson to try something new: return to the purity of Americana as presented in movies from the 1940s. Reminding me just as much of the Quaker clan in Friendly Persuasion (1956), Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan’s effective screenplay, as well as Garfield’s understated performance, provides an extreme counterbalance to the cynicism and weariness that pervades most modern war pictures. He lives his life, at least onscreen, with a forgotten touch of grace and goodness that is infectious.
As Doss, Garfield is immediately engaging and channels Mr. Smith levels of earnestness that is too candid to be ignored or resisted. It informs his romance with Palmer’s Dorothy, and it also is what makes the second half of the film work so well, as he is beaten and humiliated in ways that Stewart’s yokel congressman could never imagine. It is also then subsequently dropped into the most unforgiving war scenes in recent memory. It is harrowing, but also makes Doss’ choice to rescue dozens of men’s lives, constantly with the refrain to himself, “Please God, let me save just one more,” all the more miraculous.
The film does suffer from sometimes gilding the lily, with the earned catharsis overstaying its welcome for one slow-motion slaughter too many, and perhaps one too many close-ups of Doss’ piety. The battle, which outlasts even Doss’ strikingly heroic efforts, is still followed with Gibson needing to wallow in the Japanese Command’s Seppuku. But the film’s overall deference is something that should be neither derided or desecrated as a modern political prop. Rather, Hacksaw Ridge should be accepted for its embrace of goodness while in the face of mankind’s greatest evils. And like Doss, that is cause for celebration.