As a filmmaker, Mel Gibson has a recurring theme to his work: showing men overcome brutal adversity through suffering. For his first directorial work since Apocalypto a decade ago, Gibson chose to tackle the story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh-Day Adventist and pacifist who became the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor. With Gibson’s particular ability to create brutal on-screen imagery, focusing on a hero who rejected violence may not make a lot of sense. It turns out, though, that the final product benefits from the mixture of subject and director.
After watching so many other young men go to fight for their country, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) feels obliged to serve his country as well. He decides to become a medic, with the goal of saving lives on the battlefield. After joining, though, he’s placed with a fighting unit, and he’s mocked and abused for his refusal to even touch a rifle. He’s even court-martialed for his rejection of this part of training. But he ultimately makes it through the army, joining his troop at the “Hacksaw Ridge,” a steep cliff at the Battle of Okinawa that proved to be one of the most brutal during the war. While his fellow soldiers fight, die and retreat after their first encounter, Doss manages to not only survive being left, but saves dozens upon dozens of his fellow soldiers.
I’ve talked before about faith-based films, and what tends to make them not work. While I don’t know if I would say that Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, one of the biggest faith-based films of all time, manages to completely work, I do think he has a better grasp than most filmmakers who’ve worked in this area. Here, though, by focusing on a story of a man who’s committed to living his beliefs through his own actions instead of by preaching about them, Gibson manages to make what very well be an ideal form of a faith-based film. Doss is committed to his religious beliefs, including observing the Sabbath on a Saturday and refusing to even pick up a rifle, let alone take a life. It’s made clear that he understands the necessity of this war, and for his fellow soldiers to fight and even kill. He just wants his contribution to be helping to pick up the pieces, as they were.
The film is split into two parts: the first focuses on Doss’ life before Hacksaw Ridge, from his childhood living with an alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving) who lost his closest friends during World War I, through his relationship with a nurse named Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), to his enlistment and eventual court marshal. The second part focuses on the battle itself, and in Gibson fashion, it’s a brutal depiction of the travesties of war. It bears repeating: the war scenes in this film are graphic, and make the horrors of war eerily real. But they also show how much courage it took for Doss, the man dismissed by so many, to go through the carnage to save not just a few, but dozens of men on his own.
It’s worth noting, too, that Doss’ actions weren’t just for his fellow American soldiers. It’s shown (and it’s also mentioned by others) that he also saved Japanese soldiers. This courtesy to “the enemy” extends beyond the horrors of the battlefield. The film is unvarnished with its depiction of era-specific slurs, with Doss the only soldier who simply calls them “the Japanese.” It’s a small but notable difference that signifies that Doss, unlike some of the other men in his troop, hasn’t dehumanized the enemy.
Not everything about Hacksaw Ridge works. Doss is clearly defined as a character, and the challenges he faces are complex. Garfield does a tremendous job showing the internal conflicts he faces at times, sticking by what he believes to be right. But many of the other characters are painted in broad strokes, and a good chunk of the first half of the film is undeniably corny. But Doss is compelling throughout, and watching him rise above the challenges of war in the film’s second part is undeniably inspiring.