This film is rated MA15+. Available through the HOPE at HOME Film Festival. 139 minutes.
The true story of Pfc. Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), who won the Congressional Medal of Honor despite refusing to bear arms during WWII on religious grounds. Doss was drafted and ostracized by fellow soldiers for his pacifist stance but went on to earn respect and adoration for his bravery, selflessness and compassion after he risked his life -- without firing a shot -- to save 75 men in the Battle of Okinawa.
Originally published in The New Yorker, October 31, 2016.
The Madness and Majesty of “Hacksaw Ridge”
Mel Gibson’s new film tells of a conscientious objector in the Second World War.
From the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, on the trail of the divine, comes Desmond Doss. We see him as a child, played by Darcy Bryce, scrapping with his brother and clouting him with a brick—the sole occasion, in “Hacksaw Ridge,” on which the hero harms another person. Quaking with guilt, and awaiting a whipping from his drunken father (Hugo Weaving), Desmond stares at a picture on the wall and reads the inscription: “Thou shalt not kill.”
Easier said than done, in a time of war. Yet such was the mission of Doss, a Seventh-Day Adventist, who was drafted in 1942 and joined the military as a conscientious objector. He served as a medic with the 307th Regiment, 77th Infantry Division, and was awarded the Medal of Honor for what the citation called “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action,” at Okinawa. Conspicuous is right; after the bulk of the regiment was forced to retreat, Doss, alone and exposed to continual enemy fire, went to the aid of some seventy-five injured comrades, lowering them, one by one, over an escarpment to safety. Only when there was no one else to rescue did he descend. No wonder he became a talisman to the troops; in “Hacksaw Ridge,” preparing for a renewed assault, they calmly delay until Doss has finished his prayers.
All this is a far cry from Doss’s rural home, where he and his brother are seen climbing a ridge not for combat but for fun and for the beautiful view. As a lanky youth, now played by Andrew Garfield, Desmond falls in love with a nurse (Teresa Palmer). He woos her with a gee-whiz grin and, in a benign foreshadowing of the horrors to come, donates blood. She, in turn, gives him a Bible before he goes off to basic training, at Fort Jackson. There a problem arises, for Doss refuses to hold a rifle: a stance that not even Gary Cooper, as the devout pacifist of “Sergeant York” (1941), could match. Such mulishness puts Doss at odds with the other recruits, like the strapping Smitty (Luke Bracey), and with their drill sergeant, played by Vince Vaughn, who equips the character not just with the standard snarl and bark but also with a twinge of genuine curiosity. What is driving Doss, this goofy kid, whose principles are as upstanding as his quiff? Only through the intervention of a loved one does he survive a court-martial, earning the right to enter the battlefield unarmed. He does use a rifle, but only once, as the handle for a homemade stretcher.
Courage of this order reaches beyond recklessness, and during the Okinawa scenes, which consume the final hour of the movie, Garfield’s boyish features are racked and seized in a kind of trance; the agonized effort to save others, we realize, entails a near-ecstasy of suffering. Here, in other words, is a movie directed by Mel Gibson. It has less in common with Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006), say, than with Gibson’s own “The Passion of the Christ” (2004), in which the scourging of Jesus goes on and on, until you can scarcely look, and then goes on again. Is this in line with traditional, if extreme, strains of Christian iconography—with the contorted limbs and the scarified skin of Grünewald’s “Crucifixion,” from the early sixteenth century? Or was the filmmaker at the mercy of a thoroughly modern fixation? More than any other living director, even a fellow-Catholic such as Martin Scorsese, Gibson seems to be gripped by the spiritual repercussions of pain. Within the bounds of his vision, it is quite natural to cut from Doss inside a church, polishing the stained-glass windows, to a nasty accident on the road outside and the impaling of a victim’s leg.
“Hacksaw Ridge” is the strangest release of the year: an implacably violent film about a man who wants no part of violence at all. Gibson asks us to observe the spectacle of spilled viscera, limbs in flight, rats feasting on mortal flesh, and one soldier using the sundered torso of another as a shield, so that we may better comprehend the faith that upholds Doss, inspiring him to bind the wounds of his friends (and even, in one stirring instance, his foe). He burrows down a tunnel as if harrowing Hell, and when, at last, he escapes from Hacksaw Ridge—the site of the climactic battle, its very name designed to bite deep—he is framed against the sun, pouring water over his half-naked figure to wash off the blood of other men. We are meant to imagine someone being baptized and born again. There are reasons to recoil from all this, and what private furies Gibson may be confronting, at the cost of more than forty million dollars, I hate to think. Yet the result, though corny at times, treads close to madness and majesty alike, and nobody but Gibson could have made it.
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