On its surface, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge looks like a fairly standard tale of heroism, and features a familiar Gibson’s hero: the man who must endure great violence in order to find grace. It happens at the end of Braveheart, it’s the sum of The Passion of the Christ, and it’s in parts of Apocalypto. And yet there’s something curious about the depiction of Private Desmond Doss and how his pacifism functions within the context of a war. While the film attempts to simplify his position to not even touch a gun let alone use one, the violence that not only surrounds Doss, but enables him to carry out his personal mission, makes Hacksaw Ridge a fascinating picture that doesn’t have a clear answer on what it means to be a non-combatant in the middle of combat.
Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is a religious man who sees how the violence of World War I turned his father Tom (Hugo Weaving) into a mean drunk. When men are enlisting for World War II, Doss joins them, and at first he seems to be a welcome compliment to his company. However, when it comes time for weapons training, Doss explains that his religious beliefs (he’s a Seventh-day Adventist) don’t allow him to touch a gun. He believes that this isn’t in conflict with his mission, which is to work as a medic. “While everyone else is going to be taking life, I’m going to be saving it,” Doss says to his dutiful girlfriend Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). But the army takes issue with Doss’ position and wants to throw him out. There’s an entire court battle over whether or not Doss should be allowed to serve. When the army relents and allows Doss to engage in battle without a weapon, we cut forward to Okinawa where Doss heroically saves the lives of wounded soldiers.
Hacksaw Ridge never seems to pointedly question Doss’ heroism. If anything, it exalts him for staying true to his beliefs despite the hostility that rains down on him from his commanding officers, fellow soldiers, and later in the actual hellfire of war. Doss is held up as an exemplar of not only staying true to your beliefs, but also risking your freedom, dignity, and life for those beliefs. And in the larger scheme of fighting for American freedom, that’s rendered noble. It also doesn’t hurt that Garfield gives such a tender, endearing performance that firmly puts you on Doss’ side.
But we must consider the larger context of Doss’ actions. Now, if everyone acted like Doss, we wouldn’t have war, which would be nice. But Gibson doesn’t seem to think that fighting is unavoidable. He depicts it as hellish and horrific, and Hacksaw Ridge includes the most gory war scenes we’ve seen in a major film since Saving Private Ryan. There’s no rousing battle cry like in Braveheart; there’s only screaming and death, and yet Doss’ heroic actions are facilitated by the killing his fellow soldiers provide.
While Doss is a medic and his job doesn’t require him to kill, he requires others to kill in order to do his job. After one assault on the eponymous ridge, Doss says he’s going out to look for survivors and his sergeant (Vince Vaughn) tells him to bring along fellow soldier Smitty (Luke Bracey), and Smitty is required to kill any hostile Japanese forces because without Smitty, Doss would be killed. So it’s not so much that Doss is against killing or against war; he’s just against the terms of how he’s supposed to participate, and I can’t help but feel that Doss’ heroism, as astounding and commendable as it is, is also tinged with a little bit of selfishness.
Exploring the necessity and limitations of Doss’ beliefs make Hacksaw Ridge a richer film than if it’s just a hagiography. Someone can be both commendable and questionable, and while Gibson doesn’t necessarily seem to openly question Doss’ beliefs, he also doesn’t shy away from the necessity of violence either. Hacksaw Ridge isn’t a pacifist screed, but it shows Gibson’s evolving views of depicting violence in his movies. While he’s still coming back to the same theme about salvation being found in intense physical violence, Hacksaw Ridge recontextualizes it so that it’s not simply a story about absorbing or inflicting that violence. It’s caught somewhere in between, and that makes it a more human and rewarding story.