Honor, courage and glory come in many forms. For the young volunteer soldier Desmond Doss, they came in ways that redefined many Americans’ understanding of patriotism.
Doss joined the Army in World War II to serve his country, but insisted on doing it on his own terms. His religious faith made him refuse to kill others, or even to carry a weapon into battle. As an unarmed medic caring for wounded infantrymen on the front lines of the Okinawa campaign, he served with astounding bravery, dignity and distinction, becoming the most awarded conscientious objector in U.S. military history and the first to receive the Medal of Honor.
In “Hacksaw Ridge,” Mel Gibson, returning to directing after scandal sidelined him for a decade, reaffirms his reputation as a master storyteller. This could have been another dime-a-dozen war story about rah-rah patriotism, but Gibson has made something much deeper, artistically and morally. Shot, edited and acted dazzlingly, this equals Gibson’s bravura work in “The Passion of the Christ” and “Apocalypto.” “Hacksaw Ridge” is their spiritual sequel.
Gibson has crafted a riveting and inspiring film, exploring the dark side of mankind alongside its heroism. While the film has moments of sentimentality and war movie cliché, Gibson molds the carefully documented facts into believable and powerful drama. He pulls no gut-wrenching punches, and they strike that much harder after we are lulled by the film’s innocent and romantic buildup in its first hour.
After an electrifying, visually stunning battlefield prologue, the story begins in peaceful Lynchburg, Va. This rural Eden is where Desmond, a pious and somewhat naive youngster, introduces himself to sin. During a scuffle with his brother, Desmond hits him with a brick, causing a head injury. Later, when his drunkard father (Hugo Weaving), a traumatized World War I veteran, treats his wife violently, Desmond protects her with a pistol. Humbled by those outbursts, he vows never to touch a weapon again.
Andrew Garfield acts the part superlatively, mixing happy-go-lucky humor, humility and a warm sense of budding manhood as he falls in love with a nurse from the local hospital (charming Teresa Palmer). A generous spirit, he wishes he had enough schooling to become a doctor himself. Gibson uses thoughtful, comfortably tight storytelling to hook our emotions to this likable farm boy’s fate long before it is pulled into the firing line.
Signing up to help promote the war effort, Desmond arrives at boot camp, where his drill sergeant (Vince Vaughn at his best in ages) eyes him and declares, “I have seen stalks of corn with better physiques.” Desmond baffles, then incenses, the enlisted men and officers when he refuses to accept his rifle, respectfully citing his Seventh-day Adventist’s adherence to the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.”
Despite his promises to fulfill all of the Army’s other decrees, cynics call him a coward and beat him. The brass launches a court martial against him. Eventually, the pacifist is sent into battle with the squad as a medic, one of the most highly targeted personnel in the conflict, still scarcely trusted by many of his comrades.
The film’s devastating second half moves us into what one officer calls “the hellfire of battle.” That’s an understatement. The battle for control of Okinawa is presented as a terrifying symphony of blood and mud and flame — imagery as much from apocalyptic theology as history. As grenades and machine-gun fire blow bodies in half, Desmond’s comrades move ahead courageously, and each has been so carefully sketched beforehand that we care about every one. Desmond shows even greater valor crawling to them, tending to them and pulling them back for surgical treatment, stanching their jets of blood and boosting their morale even when we know they’re dying.
Gibson, always a faith-based sermonizer, captures these convulsions with such virtuoso control of film craft that he can express devout associations beyond the narrative. When the saintly Desmond transports men on his shoulders, their wounds bloodying his back, there are clear parallels to Christ carrying the cross. As Desmond is pulled by a rope lift to the top of the towering stone cliff that borders Hacksaw Ridge, it’s a clear parallel to the ascension. Rescuing American and Japanese wounded alike, Desmond endlessly prays for the strength to save “just one more, Lord, just one more.”
Carrying the savagery of “Saving Private Ryan” to a deeper level, this film will trigger more manly tears than any in memory. It earns them.
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.