Combat movies fascinate this reviewer -- if you look at the Savant review index you'll see that I review practically every war picture of note that I can get my hands on. But brace yourself -- I become huffy when I see themes of patriotism and faith being used to deliver dicey messages.
Mel Gibson's big, slick WW2 combat film Hacksaw Ridge tells the truly inspiring story of combat medic Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor and the only one to be awarded the honor during the war. Judging from the facts of Doss's true story, a biopic has been overdue for decades. Gibson's film prides itself on taking a moral foundation, as it uses the Doss story to make a number of overt and subtle statements. I often write with amazement about blacklist-era filmmakers that put unpopular politics in their movies. Gibson's picture courts the faith-based and pro-military audience like nothing I've seen before.
The movie starts with a tone almost identical to that of Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, as we hear a soldier with an Appalachian accent reciting what sounds like poetry about war. But this is definitely not a pacifist picture, no more than the granddaddy in the conscientious objection genre, Howard Hawks' biopic of WW1 hero Sergeant York. That film's enlistment of religious sanctimony now seems horribly patronizing, especially with Gary Cooper doing his cute hillbilly act. After softening us up with spiritual images, Hawks' film culminates in a scene where York shoots Germans as if they were wild turkeys. We're encouraged to laugh.
Hacksaw Ridge is a beautiful production, with precise and often glowing imagery from Desmond Doss's home state of Virginia, and on the battlefield of Okinawa, where whole divisions of American soldiers were lost fighting hundreds of thousands of entrenched Japanese defenders determined not to surrender. Gibson filmed most of the show in Australia. As has been proven before, that country produces fine actors that can perfectly impersonate American accents.
In a story like this emphasis and intention are everything. A lot of Hacksaw Ridge is outright admirable filmmaking -- and it's certainly enjoyable as a dose of old-fashioned combat nostalgia. We've long ago accepted the fact that so-called anti-war movies rarely work -- filmed combat is impressive and the camaraderie of men at arms is in itself admirable. But Mel Gibson's approach to combat is as sick as his take on spiritual filmmaking in his unwatchable ordeal The Passion of the Christ. If Torquemada were alive and liked movies, I bet he'd be a Mel Gibson fan.
Rural Virginia boys Desmond and Hal Doss (as adults, Andrew Garfield & Nathaniel Buzolic) are raised by their father Tom, a WW1 veteran left an emotional wreck by his experience in France. Desmond becomes a staunch pacifist and vegetarian as taught by his religious mother Bertha (Rachel Griffiths), especially after he almost kills his brother in a no-holds-barred fight. (Dad doesn't want them to become soldiers, but isn't bothered when they beat each other half to death, in play.) When war breaks out Desmond regrets not having been able to become a doctor. He falls in love with nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) just as war breaks out. In basic training Desmond's refusal to pick up a weapon goes up against the tough Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and the unforgiving Captain Glover (Sam Worthington). Sticking firmly to his beliefs, Desmond won't take an easy dishonorable discharge, and he faces a court martial and years in prison. Tom's plea to a general forces the Army to stick to its rulebook and allow Desmond to proceed as his unit's field medic. He marries Dorothy and ships out. Three years later Desmond's unit is in a bloody battle on Okinawa. Hundreds of Americans are dying on the Maeda Escarpment, which has been re-dubbed 'Hacksaw Ridge.' Dug into their underground tunnels, the Japanese have repelled each assault. The entire unit climbs to the ridge, only to be overrun by waves of equally fearless Japanese defenders. Captain Glover must leave at least a hundred of his men up top, many of them wounded and suffering. But one soldier has remained behind on enemy ground. In a landscape still being blasted by naval gunfire, Pvt. Desmond begins crawling about looking for wounded soldiers to rescue.
Mel Gibson has been working for years to rehabilitate his public image, after some egregiously damning incidents in the last ten years or so. Hacksaw Ridge seems strongly calculated to endear Gibson to an America that can't get enough patriotic stories about military heroism. One of Gibson's breakthrough roles came back in 1981 with Peter Weir's defiantly anti-military Gallipoli. That show was certainly from a different time -- its message is that anyone who becomes a soldier must expect to be wasted as cannon fodder, as the British used thousands of Anzac troops in WW1.
It isn't enough to celebrate a truly fine combat medic, whose exploits on Okinawa are a pacifist mirror image to the combat valor of the famed Audie Murphy. Mel Gibson gravitates toward the rigid religious dimension in Desmond Doss's story, for what is otherwise just another spectacle of gory combat thrills. The exceptional Desmond Doss is tailor-made for inspirational retelling - his heroism is almost unreal, like a coach's motivational pep talk for a football locker room. Doss's story has everything to appeal to traditional values. A backwoods superhero, his religious fervor, superior morals, innate stubbornness and self-effacing natural wisdom would put any Capra-corn hero to shame. Mel Gibson clearly has a thing about combining Absolute Belief with Torments of the Flesh. In this film his obsession with physical suffering and gore verges on the obscene. Hacksaw Ridge overdoes combat horror as grossly as his so-called religious movie The Passion of the Christ caresses lovingly sadistic images of Biblical torture. Adding patriotism to the God and gore formula, Gibson gets to have his cake and eat it too,
Saving Private Ryan begins with a harrowingly violent shaky-cam take on the D-Day invaders being cut to pieces on the Normandy beachhead. It was the first war-gore sequence to move audiences in years, and they loved it. Because audiences must wait two hours or so for Hacksaw's combat scenes, Gibson opens with a breathtakingly idealized flash-forward montage to the carnage to come. It's almost cartoonishly intense. In loving slow-mo, soldiers dash to and fro between blasts of heavy artillery. The billowing smoke never obscures our view of bodies being shot, mutilated, and shattered, with heads and arms blowing every which way. Blood and brains arc across the screen, all of it displayed for our pleasure, staged in silhouette so that we don't miss a single bloody bit. Technically it's quite a hoot, a vision of hell from a filmmaker incapable of subtlety, who uses his camera like a truncheon. Although a little of this stuff goes a long way, yet we welcome experimentation, exaggeration and excess. Gibson continually makes us realize that everything else in the movie is just a prelude to this stuff that excites him so.
The overkill factor soon works against audience involvement. The movie's last hour is non-stop special effects showing men dismembered left and right, never off-screen and for maximum graphic appeal. Remember those vintage war-horror bubble gum card sets, the ones that depicted Civil War and WW2 atrocities for little kids? In my opinion their take on combat had more integrity than Hacksaw Ridge. The cards were violence porn for scared little kids to measure their own toughness against, and were soundly discouraged. The gore-soaked Hacksaw would certainly get an 'X' if it also espoused politically radical ideas about religion, like, say, the old Ken Russell shocker The Devils. This war movie's embrace of fundamentalist values apparently allows free rein for the violence.
Beyond the gore, the movie is very PC. It goes easy the Japanese defenders, who fight hard but are not seen committing atrocities, as in an older film like Phil Karlson's Hell to Eternity. They execute the wounded they find, and Gibson takes the time to tell us that our side did the same. But there are no ritual beheadings and no egregious sadism. On the contrary, Gibson shows us an officer's seppuku suicide ritual in loving detail. That kind of morbid zealotry fits right in with his extreme ideas of faith/duty/slaughter. Of course, Pvt. Doss floats above all this like angel of mercy. He even rescued some Japanese wounded, and lowered them off the cliff with his own troops.
Combat in the Pacific was surely a horror-vision of Hell on Earth. Gibson seems to love it. He presents 'The Passion Of Okinawa' as a Sunday School sermon for Christians that want their violence and their piety too. We don't want people to forget the sacrifice and valor of WW2 soldiers, but Gibson's twisted vision just plain ain't the way. It's a zealot's movie.
Only part of the film smacks of this gore-gore hypocrisy. The film's scenes in boot camp and during Doss's trial are exceedingly well directed and acted, and are an enjoyable throwback to an older era of genre filmmaking. The script still sees the soldiers as types -- the intellectual, the risk-taker, the bully, the ethnic, the narcissist. Vince Vaughn's drill sergeant encourages this typing, even redubbing one gaunt fellow with the name, 'Ghoul.' Naturally, our Angel of Mercy Doss is the one to give Ghoul back his real name, Andy. But the Sarge isn't a sadist and the officers that want to railroad Doss aren't depicted as persecutors. They all act on principle, and don't realize that they're contradicting the military rulebook. Captain Glover has a reasoned argument for prosecuting Doss, not a need to punish a 'dirty coward traitor.' This movie's army is above such crudity.
The boot camp isn't the festering pit of casual racism and bigotry reported in the books of James Jones, or the oral histories of Studs Terkel. Nope, the U.S. Army gets a full whitewash. The insightful 1998 The Thin Red Line has a main character with some of the same qualities of Desmond Doss. Terrence Malick's thesis about men at war has a strong religious component, without laying on the rigid Bible motivation that Hacksaw Ridge posits as a requirement for moral superiority. No, Malick's Pvt. Witt (James Caviezel) is stubbornly defiant of the callous Army approach to every problem, yet he strives to become a good soldier. He protects his buddies and lays down his life for them out of a simple sense of human decency. Hmm.... when Mel Gibson needed an actor to be flayed alive as his filmic Jesus, he turned to The Thin Red Line's James Caviezel.
Photos from the historical battle show that a long cargo net was indeed used to climb the final thirty feet to the top of Hacksaw Ridge. The movie makes it look as if the men are climbing the wall of a quarry. Armchair generals will wonder why the Japanese atop the ridge don't just cut down the net, or use their high-ground advantage to prevent the attackers from even starting to climb. The GIs are exposed down below, like fish in a barrel. The film likely simplifies what was a more complicated situation.
Andrew Garfield has earned some of the best roles of the past ten years. He plays Desmond Doss with charm and restraint. Doss's idealized romance with the beautiful nurse Dorothy is corny-dreamy; hometown gentlemen like Doss do exist. Garfield's Doss often resembles Anthony Perkins, only less confused and conflicted. Vince Vaughn's drill sergeant is likeable, but director Gibson insists that Vaughn externalize the sergeant's disapproval when he harasses Pvt. Doss. It's amazing how well a charismatic actor can sanitize a relationship with just a look of concern. Protected by his moral halo, Doss humbles the drill sergeant in every encounter. Sam Worthington's carefully written scenes also play both sides of the fence -- his Captain is a principled man, not somebody slamming an underling so as to look good to his superiors. I want to join that army.
Looking like Sam Neill gone to seed, the excellent Hugo Weaving really sells the idea of a noble veteran crazed by his bad experience in combat. Although Bertha Doss remains a passive spiritual influence, the addled alcoholic Tom Doss strikes a blow for fundamentalist paternalism, miraculously bouncing back with the perfect Right Stuff to save Desmond from the legal vultures in the Army court martial. Emotional conviction rules. Those backwoods men have more guts than anybody. Hacksaw reinforces the notion that uneducated, faith-based country folk are morally and spiritually superior.
Of course, those officers later fall over themselves to apologize to Doss for their belief that he would be a coward in combat. This is natural enough, and supported by the evidence of the real story. Hacksaw Ridge ends with real-life film clips. Old soldiers laud the real Desmond, and snippets of his TV appearance on This is Your Life show Doss greeting his old comrades with open arms.
For me Hacksaw Ridge is a disturbing mass of contradictions. The awful finish shows Captain Glover, inspired by Doss' example, leading an idealized, slow-motion charge back into battle, backed by approving martial music. The message is the glory of combat as endorsed by God Himself. And I recognize my own bias -- I don't cotton to entertainments that use spiritual values to glorify war. This is a sophisticated / crude enlistment piece.
We Americans live with the push-pull glamour of war glory all our lives. As a kid who grew up in the 1950s I ordered a machine gun toy from the back of a cereal box -- which offered six different models to choose from. We kids played almost nothing but war games. We all assumed our fathers were war heroes who had seen everything. I'm from a military family and my parents were still military during the Vietnam War -- and I'm grateful that they never pressured me to enlist. I instead was allowed to make up my own mind about those things.
Summit Entertainment's Blu-ray + DVD + DVD + Digital HD of Hacksaw Ridge is a good-looking encoding of this war-comic of a combat film. The film gives the technical tools of filmmaking quite a workout.
The special features include the disturbingly titled The Soul of War, which turns out to be a good making-of show with fine coverage of the film's historical basis. A set of deleted scenes is offered, and an original trailer. The Veteran's Day Greeting from Mel Gibson may be well intentioned, but it rubs me the wrong way -- too much mercantile flag-waving. Gibson is a troubling personality and a scary guy in general. His twisted appeals to religious and patriotic emotions do not seem healthy.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Text (c) Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson