The back half of Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge hits like a ton of bricks—it has visceral, winding power. No expense or effort has been spared on Gibson’s muddy, confronting warscape. Human bodies are strewn across the fiery battlefield at Okinawa; flesh, mud and shrapnel fly; bullets that don’t ricochet off rocks and helmets puncture lungs and skulls; heads roll. His vision of war is full-throttle and frightening, a blur of unconscionable carnage that breaks occasionally in a quiet, spooky fog, the enemy close but silent and invisible. Amongst it is Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a WWII conscientious objector (or, in his words, “a conscientious cooperator”) who, driven by his staunch adherence to a Seventh Day Adventist doctrine of nonviolence, refuses to take up arms. He traverses the battlefield as a medic, agile as a grasshopper, picking up his wounded comrades—amongst them Sam Worthington, Vince Vaughn and Luke Bracey—and hoisting them to safety down the cliffside of the title. In a particularly fragile moment he speaks to God, who tells him, via a figurative flash of light, to act against futility. He prays, “Please God, let me get one more.” And sure enough, he does.
We’re introduced to Desmond as a boy, frolicking with his brother in and around the forests of Virginia where his family lives. His father (Hugo Weaving), a war-hardened drunkard, encourages them to fight, and during a particularly violent scuffle Desmond raises a brick to his brother’s head and strikes. Awaiting the sting of his father’s belt across his body, he stares at a tapestry on the wall depicting Cain and Abel below the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” That becomes Desmond’s lifelong belief, but Gibson, an entertainer inextricable from the action genre, is wise enough not to rule out violence. Later, he will recreate battle using skills sharpened making gore-fests and warcries like Apocalypto and Braveheart, and he’ll couple those skills with the evocation of earth-shaking sympathy for one man—in this case Doss—learnt from making The Passion of the Christ.
Mel wants it both ways—gore and heroism, dull hagiography and barbaric, soul-searching art—and he tries his best to reconcile these motives. Before war there is Desmond’s home life, then his time in the barracks, where burly name-callers (“chowderhead” and “Corporal Idiot” were my favourites) put Desmond through the wringer. When the credits roll there are photos of the real Desmond Doss, title-card updates (he received a Medal of Honour from President Truman after the war), and the now-customary present day interviews with those involved (thankfully less saccharine than Sully’s). I cried, and you might too, because there is a falsified, heartstring-tugging power at play. But shoehorned between these hunks of Oscar-baiting convention is an hour of combat more violent, skillfully choreographed and unbeholden to moral high ground than the film it’s attached to; it’s above tearful moralising. And as thrilling and brutal as it is, it’s intentions are skewed. Violence is not presented here for the purpose of appealing to our humanity—so that we can ask ourselves the same questions Desmond does—but to keep us glued to our seats while a saint wracks his conscience.
The disparity between these parts of Hacksaw Ridge cannot be overstated, and though excuses could be made (eg. the film is designed to simulate the traumatic psychological shifts between home and war) it feels less like a purposefully uncomfortable suture than the work of a manipulator with more emotional impulses than formal intentions. Desmond’s backstory is gooey and softhearted, visited upon by a dull, pastoral glow. When he meets Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a war wife so altruistically parodic I could almost picture Kate McKinnon playing her, the world shifts into a dumbstruck, slow-motion daze. Garfield plays to Gibson’s intentions. He can switch easily between twinkly-eyed infatuation, eager-beaver war contributor and victimhood in a heartbeat—he’s too good at an easy role. Like the film, he veers regularly into unreality, and all the characters that surround him, deeply underwritten and overperformed, dutifully play their part in his cartoonish beatification. For a while Hacksaw Ridge has the feel of a church-supported Christian film—it preaches its hero’s pacifism before it leaves us, betraying itself (but rewarding us) midway through and cautiously hoping that we’re still where it left us when it chooses to return to tie up its sappy motives. I wasn’t. It’s difficult to believe that these parts—the caricature of life in rural Virginia and the very real shock of battle in the Pacific theatre—were put together by the same hands.
Hacksaw Ridge isn’t faulty because it’s two films in one, nor because it toes the line between g(l)orifying war and condemning it too indecisively—that’s a brave, precarious position from which to pivot, even if it does so rather clumsily—but because of its motivating force, both the bathetic True Story that it’s beholden to and the messianic emphasis that has been invented. The parts do not benefit one another. Gibson and screenwriters Andrew Knight (a producer on nineties Australian sketch comedy shows Fast Forward and Full Frontal) and Robert Schekkan are distinctly uncomfortable with the earthly mortality of their protagonist. They use war to emphasise his goodness, even going as far as to frame his final descent from the cliff face as a holy ascension—the camera moves below him so as to capture his body in silhouette, against rays of light, creating the illusion that it is moving upwards. They—Gibson, Garfield, the screenwriters—overplay his saintliness, and everything in the film, including the war that follows and his comrades (read: disciples) eventual rallying around him, feels orchestrated to emphasise it too.
Like his hero, Gibson struggles with war—he believes so deeply in its most sentimental qualities (patriotism, mateship) and in Doss’s doctrine of pacifism, but remains enthralled by violence itself, enough to glamourise it, to make grotesque entertainment from it. He uses violence to prove the goodness of its opposite, in much the same way that Doss’s nonviolence is reinforced by his father’s harsh, grog-fueled discipline. That translation doesn’t play out comfortably, perhaps because there is piety involved. The same jarring paradox of Gibson’s Passion rears its head on Hacksaw Ridge—the belief that acts of God are violent, rooted in suffering and the transcendence of worldly horror. Gibson fully credits Doss for his heroism, who defers it to God. I think that Gibson, reverent and newly redeemed, believes that a miracle rather than an act of valour occurred at Okinawa, and surely he knows better by now than to ask us to side with his beliefs. Instead of a war film about a brave hero’s comeuppance, Gibson has remade his Christ film, this time with his martyr in khaki.