Hacksaw Ridge is a war film about a man who refused to take up a weapon. It’s a true story of a World War II soldier who saw the world tearing itself apart and felt called to help put it back together. He volunteered as a medic, determined to save life while everyone around him was taking it. Alas, this doesn’t sit well with his commanding officers, who eventually force him into a court martial during his time at basic training. He refuses to even touch a weapon. They say he’s disobeying orders. He says he’s following his conscience. This is a fine setup for moral dramaturgy, and an intriguing challenge to Truffaut’s insistence that any anti-war film would, by presenting its subject matter, be inescapably exciting. That the director here is Mel Gibson adds another wrinkle. Here is a filmmaker who creates displays of hyperbolic violence, transforming stories of rebellion into gory sacrifice (Braveheart), stories of religious uplift into contemplations of flayed flesh (The Passion of the Christ), and whose clear masterpiece is an all-out, non-stop action splatter (Apocalypto) with violence and brutality as its subject rather than its conduit. His latest is his most self-conscious about cutting against the grain of his usual preoccupations while upholding his every interest.
It’s an old-fashioned movie, a widescreen, serious, straight-faced, unironic, conventional, period piece about strong, silent, and noble suffering. We see the young man (Andrew Garfield, playing humble aw-shucks simple sturdiness) in his small-town youth, smitten with a pretty nurse (Teresa Palmer). He shows up to donate blood just to get the opportunity to talk to her. Here we are right off the bat with an eye on plasma and its loss, willing or otherwise. There’s also the man’s tearful drunk brute father (Hugo Weaving), a struggling World War I vet with clear psychological scars from his deployment. He weeps near the graves of his fallen comrades, at one point dramatically smashing his booze bottle on a headstone, his blood artfully dripping across the top of the smooth white stone. Gibson’s not shy about drawing these connections with obvious and emphatic splashes. When an early childhood tableau of brothers fighting escalates to one tween swinging at the other with a brick, he draws the camera close to the impact, hears the sick thunk, but then follows the boy into the house where he stares at religious iconography on the wall. The birth of a pacifist is there, as well as an intermingling of guilt and duty, spirituality and conviction.
By the time we get to boot camp, the movie becomes broad cliché, introducing a bullying commander (Vince Vaughn) slinging out nicknames to a stock group of platoon movie types: the southerner, the pretty boy, the Italian-American, and so forth. They don’t emerge as characters so much as people we can vaguely recognize once the soldiers end up on the battlefield. They don’t look kindly on their medic, who insists he won’t be using a gun, even in self-defense or in protection of his fellow soldiers. They beat him, but he won’t break. He’s jailed, but he won’t back down. He’s court martialed, and still insists he be allowed to help on his terms. He wants to heal, not hurt. Eventually he gets his wish, and Gibson doesn’t do much to milk the suspense of the court proceedings. Instead, he’s eager to follow the men to war, staging a lengthy and overwhelming battle sequence with buckets of gore chased with awe for its man of anti-violence behaving so heroically while still maintaining his ideological purity. The movie’s quaint sturdiness is unmistakably Gibson’s, with a religious fervor and belief in the power of bloody movies sitting side by side.
The movie’s grand finale, an extended and overwhelming work of blood-and-guts filmmaking, is a battle to take a ridge on an island in the Pacific. It earns the name Hacksaw through its waves of soldiers mowed down on both sides of the fight. And through it all, armed only with a spirit of decency and a desire to help, the medic sets about helping. Gibson surrounds him with meat-grinder battle scenes: dripping wounds, cacophonous ammunition, fog of war dirt and grime, loose limbs, arterial spray, demolished faces, gutted corpses, rot and rats, mud and muck, clouds of organs and tissue. And yet Gibson doesn’t simply focus on the horror, but pulls attention to the man refusing to participate. He ducks for cover, darts out with gauze and morphine, eager to get foxhole to foxhole to better save lives. There’s clear admiration here, and through the film’s earnest broad passion for the story, there’s something quietly moving within the surrounding bombast. Garfield wears a bewildered expression of simple duty, head down, hard at work.
In one pivotal moment, when danger is closest, he picks up a rifle. I tensed, wondering if Gibson would give in to his goriest blood lust. Instead, the man simply needed it to help drag a wounded soldier to safety. He sticks to his principles and the movie respects that. Although the movie is too often lumpy in construction or heavy-handed in its message, it represents a refreshing and ennobling concern for dissent in the face of wrongheaded assumptions, and the radical idea of peace in a time of war. The soldier who wishes only to heal and not to hurt is treated as aberrant, allowing him on the battlefield seen as punishment. And yet as he helps the people cut down by senseless bloodshed, he becomes their hero. He lived in dark times, and was called to be a light. We live in dark times. A movie like this, however imperfect, is a welcome reminder to be the light where you can, in all the ways you can, for all the people you can.