By Reid Ramsey (November 12, 2016)
"The bloodshed is shockingly violent and nearly impossible to stomach, but it’s also largely democratic."
American war films have a long standing tradition of savoring the pain endured by American soldiers—and therefore the glory associated with the pain—and glazing over the complete destruction of the opposing army. There have been notable exceptions, but these are exceptions and not the rule. One glaring example is Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” (2014). It’s a tense and well-directed movie that takes no time to assess the merit of anyone but the protagonist, and the pain of others only exists to enhance his pain and thus his glory.
Despite the problems I have with Mel Gibson’s new film “Hacksaw Ridge” (2016) it stands out to me as an exception to this rule.
“Hacksaw Ridge” follows the truly remarkable story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), the first Conscientious Objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor by the U.S. military. As is too often the case, Gibson begins his biopic with a series of vignettes of Doss’s pre-war life. He is a young, violent child who's sudden revelation comes when he almost kills his brother with a rock—he walks to the next room and stares at the family’s Ten Commandments poster. The rest of the first half of the film follows him as an older teenager as he builds a relationship with Dorothy Schutte (Terese Palmer). They fall in love quickly. Unfortunately, most of the interactions between Palmer and Garfield feel as if they come from a different, self-aware movie.
It’s on the battlefield that the movie hits its stride and I started to understand what Gibson was exploring. The war-is-hell, heavy bloodshed philosophy to war films is not even close to a new idea; but Gibson, with his intense love for glorification through blood and tears, was the perfect choice for a movie as this. The bloodshed is shockingly violent and nearly impossible to stomach, but it’s also largely democratic. Japanese bodies and American bodies tear and fall the same way. We cannot understand what they are saying but we sympathize with their pain as we do with the Americans. As Gibson shows us (maybe too much), the rats do not distinguish between nationality.
The battle scenes often jump back to Doss, who is a medic without a weapon, heroically laying his body down to save his fellow men. He carries the wounded over his shoulder and the strength of Garfield’s performance is his ability to mix both empathy and determination.
One of my bigger hesitations is the borderline incoherent theology—the film is essentially a grab-bag of pacifistic philosophy, Seventh-Day Adventism, and Gibson’s personal theology. “Hacksaw Ridge” is perhaps Gibson at his most gratuitous—including one shot that I still have to grapple with that somewhat unravels my earlier claims—but it is also Gibson at his most progressive and empathetic.