Mel Gibson could have made a feel-good anti-war movie that Hollywood would have loved. Indeed, few people would have begrudged him doing it — his personal struggles with alcohol and anger have been well documented, and for years he has been persona non grata in Hollywood.
But Gibson has done himself — and the rest of us — a huge favor by making an important film about a complicated man whose actions don’t always create a happy ending for those around him. And he did it without succumbing to the pressure to make a politically correct movie that denounces war.
"Hacksaw Ridge" is based on the true story of American war hero Desmond Doss, the only soldier of the Second World War to enter battle without a weapon. Doss, portrayed by Andrew Garfield, was a Christian pacifist from Virginia who felt compelled to serve his country as a medic, but whose religious convictions forbade him from “bearing arms” against another one of God’s creatures — mortal enemy or not.
The film follows Doss from small-town life in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he was the youngest child in a family suffering under the yoke of an alcoholic father, to the challenges that the U.S. Army put in his way when he refused to carry a gun during Basic Training, to the remarkable act of valor he displayed on the field during the battle for Okinawa. Along the way we meet his sweetheart praying for him back home, the rough-and-tumble characters comprising the members of his platoon, who eventually learn to love and respect this man of faith, and the sadistic enemy soldiers hell-bent on killing Doss and everyone he cares about.
Doss’ faith in both God and humanity are tested. His values are mocked and ridiculed. Those closest to him beg him to take the easy way out. But Doss — like a modern day Daniel — refuses to compromise his beliefs.
It is here — where controversial topics such as faith, pacifism, and violence converge — that Mel Gibson’s "Hacksaw Ridge" is at its best. Such topics are nuanced and sensitive, and yet, unlike a lot of Hollywood directors, Gibson refuses to treat them in a glib, expedient manner. For example, Doss’ refusal to carry a weapon, as well as his insistence upon being allowed to practice his faith in a manner contrary to military policy, are obviously only possible because other men are willing to shoot guns at other human beings. His right to refuse to bear arms is possible only because others are willing to commit violence in service to their country. Doss’ fellow soldiers and commanding officers remind him of this. His family reminds him of this. But Doss, instead of hiring a fast-talking lawyer or conducting a protest by laying down in the middle of the road on a busy stretch of highway, enlists anyway and tells the Army that he is willing to do his part but understands if they choose to refuse his service. Doss wants to prove that he has something to sacrifice for his country, even if every other character (and most people in the audience) don’t agree with his worldview.
Taking the nuanced exploration of this debate even further, Gibson portrays those who doubted Doss — the people who are tasked with the heavy burden of having to actually fire their weapons at the enemy — as heroes too. It would have been so easy for Mel Gibson to make this an anti-war film, but instead he chose to make a pro-bravery tale. Along the way Gibson allows for side characters to candidly wrestle with demons such as alcoholism, abandonment, depression, and anger — many of the things we know Gibson himself has experienced in his own life.
Ultimately, "Hacksaw Ridge" isn’t a typical faith-based film. It’s an outstanding film about a man of faith, but its exploration of the power of conscience doesn’t sugarcoat its heroes. Human beings are complicated, often-contradictory creatures, particularly in wartime. It’s refreshing to see a movie that tries to capture those contradictions on the screen in an honest (rather than a politically correct) way.
This article first appeared on Acculturated.com.
R.J. is a writer based in Los Angeles.
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