Mel Gibson (2016)
The Battle of Okinawa was the bloodiest battle in World War II’s Pacific Theater, with more than 60,000 American casualties and some 150,000 Japanese deaths—many of them civilians. It was supposed to be the last Allied battle before the invasion of mainland Japan, with Americans planning to use Okinawa, just 300 miles from the Japanese mainland, as the base from which to send in American troops for the invasion. The intensity of the Japanese resistance actually caused American leaders to rethink that strategy, ultimately opting to use the atomic bomb rather than a full-scale invasion. To quote my own father, serving in the South Pacific at the time (though not, I should clarify, in Okinawa): Those guys [the Japanese] would never give up. They would keep fighting to the last man.”
Mel Gibson unleashes all the violence of that battle on us in his new film Hacksaw Ridge, the true story of Desmond Doss, the first Conscientious Objector to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, released just in time for Veterans’ Day. Parents, this film is absolutely deserving of its R rating (some might think NC-17 might have been more appropriate)—it is by far the most violent American film of the year, perhaps of the decade. It opens with a scene reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan, but gorier. Bodies are blown apart, blood spurts everywhere, and soldiers are engulfed in flames (my Dad would cringe when he saw the depiction of flame-throwers in films, calling their use the worst thing he had seen in the war). There are no surprises: It is clear what kind of film this is going to be from the beginning.
Not that you should be surprised that the director of Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ, and Apocalypto would make a violent, bloody war film. Although since this is Mel Gibson, you might be surprised that he is making a film at all, having been roundly criticized for apparent anti-Semitism in his Passion of the Christ and then confirmed that anti-Semitism—and a number of other unpleasant things—in a drunken tirade after his DUI arrest by Los Angeles police in July 2006. Perhaps this incident contributed to disappointing box office returns for Apocalypto, which came out in December of that year. Or maybe it was the fact that the film was made in Mayan with English subtitles kept attendance light. In any case, by then Gibson had become a Hollywood pariah, and he has not made another film in the ten years since. In a fascinating marketing ploy, early previews for Hacksaw Ridge called it “a new film by the director of Braveheart,” without mentioning Gibson by name.
If you saw any of those previews, then you know the basics of the movie’s plot: Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield of Spiderman) is a Conscientious Objector in the Second World War who refuses to touch a weapon but still insists that he wants to go into battle, as an army medic, to save lives rather than take them, and to assuage his own self-respect, since he does not want other young men putting their lives on the line while he sits at home. His father is an abusive drunk, apparently because he is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress (before that condition had been defined) as a result of his experiences in the First World War, where he saw his best friends blown up on the battlefield. The senior Doss, played with unexpected sympathy by Hugo Weaving, is adamant that he does not want Desmond or his brother to take arms. Nor does Desmond’s fiancée, Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer). But Desmond is determined.
The army itself is no more sympathetic to Desmond’s wishes. His drill sergeant in boot camp, Sergeant Howell (played with surprising sympathy by Vince Vaughan in a serious role), and his commanding officer, Captain Glover (played with effective understanding by Sam Worthington), both want him gone before the company goes into action, but even the resentment and physical abuse of his fellow recruits cannot dissuade Desmond from his resolution. His superiors ultimately bring him up on charges of disobeying orders because he refuses to touch a gun.
But the court martial finds that Doss is in fact within his rights as a Conscientious Objector to refuse to handle a weapon, and just like that Desmond is soon his way to the South Pacific. On Okinawa, Doss’s company is ordered to scale a steep cliff against heavy Japanese resistance. At the top of the cliff, the enemy is ensconced in deep concrete bunkers and pillboxes that resist the bombardment by American ships offshore. A nightmare of carnage ensues, and Captain Glover’s troops are finally forced to withdraw, leaving scores of dead and dying on the field. But the medic, Pfc. Desmond Doss, remains, armed only with his handy Bible, dragging or carrying the wounded from the field and single-handedly lowering them to safety down the cliff by rope. By the time he lowers himself down, he has rescued a total of 75 wounded soldiers, including Sergeant Howell, who by his time—surprise, surprise—has changed his mind about Desmond, who has also earned the respect and gratitude of his peers, and of Captain Glover.
The Christian Church was, of course, pacifist in its early centuries, but developed a “just war” doctrine after becoming the preferred religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. But some Christian denominations have remained pacifist, or returned to the original pacifism of the church. One of these is the Seventh-Day Adventist church, of which Doss was a devout member. Anyone who thought that conscientious objection in America occurred only during the Vietnam War may be surprised at Doss’s stance in the film, but even in such a clear-cut “just war” situation as World War II, young men like Doss did take a pacifist stance on religious grounds. The Seventh-Day Adventist church however, also emphasized cooperation with government, so Doss’s unusual request—not to touch a weapon but still to be sent to the front lines—can be explained by his denomination’s stance toward war—though in the film it is also explained by incidents in Doss’s own youth that shaped him psychologically.
Many of those early scenes, set in Doss’s hometown of Lynchburg, in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, may be the worst part of the movie. The scenes could easily have been filmed in the 1950’s, so clichéd is their idealized rural America, and Garfield’s Desmond courting Dorothy seems like a slightly smarter and sappier Forrest Gump as the Brit Garfield works on his love-struck country boy and his Southern American accent at the same time. The only fly in this saccharine ointment is Tom Doss, Desmond’s emotionally crippled father, who isn’t having any of it.
Garfield becomes more effective as the film progresses: He remains completely sincere and keeps selling his beliefs until we buy them. Hacksaw Ridge becomes much more watchable when we get into the army scenes, though even here much of what happens we have seen before: Vaughan’s drill sergeant seems to owe a great deal to R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket, or Louis Gossett, Jr. in An Officer and a Gentleman. The situation of Doss being harassed and abused by his peers for refusing to touch a weapon closely parallels the situation of Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity. And Doss’s hillbilly soldier-turned-hero recalls not only Tom Hanks’ Gump but also Gary Cooper in Sergeant York as well. Add to that the predictability of much of the movie—of course Tom Doss and Dorothy are going to come to support Doss’s project. Of course Doss is going to stay true to his principles yet still display great courage and valor, and gain the respect of those who abuse and second-guess him. Of course Sergeant Howell is going to be one of the men he rescues.
Despite all of these things, the film does achieve its own unique identity. This happens chiefly through the scenes of graphic horror and violence that Desmond must face and negotiate in his heroic efforts. With this imagery the battlefield becomes a kind of hell on earth, through which the unarmed lover of peace makes his way as savior to the wounded There is nothing subtle about Gibson’s portrayal of Doss as a Christ figure, or about the theme of the film, which virtually hits us like an artillery shell. And I won’t speculate about Gibson’s apparent fascination with extreme violence and what that might say about his own psyche. The truth is that here, while appalling, it is extremely effective. Three Tennysons for this one: even if the director is not our favorite person, you might not want to miss this one.