Directed by Mel Gibson
Written by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight
Starring Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracy, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths
Mel Gibson is apparently a despicable person for having spouted off the kind of intensely-virulent things you’re lately hearing out of the jags in Alt-Right. That is, the kinds of things you wouldn’t think people would say out loud, even if that’s what’s in their hearts. He’s said to regularly use derogatory terms for Jews, threatened to have a girlfriend killed, used various epithets for all peoples whose skin is not white, and has been fairly insensitive to gay people.
The strange thing about this, though, is his greatest success was in a film series co-starring a black man – Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon. He’s been friends with Jodie Foster – a gay woman – since forever, and she actually directed him in a film after he’d gone on record with some of his various hatreds. Not to mention he was in another film directed by a gay man – Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot. And has worked with his fair share of Jewish folk and any number of people of color in his career.
In short, he’s insensitive, but that doesn’t seem to stop him doing his work.
I don’t bring all this up as a way to say that, because Mel Gibson is a scumbag, then his work must be scummy, too. Rather, I bring this up because I’m curious to know when Mel went down this road of intolerance – was he intolerant from a young age, or did he convert to it late in life? As in, what’s the chicken and what’s the egg of his intolerance – if that’s even a proper analogy for this scenario.
Anyway, I believe he’s probably always been intolerant, because it’s not something you magically become later in life, and for years was just real good at hiding it. I also believe he’s pretty good at separating his personal feelings from his pursuit of art – or at least his pursuit of paychecks. Either way, it’s an incredible form of tolerance from somebody so intolerant.
All of this really leads me to my main point: Because Mel Gibson has apparently been savvy enough to separate his personal politics from his art – to a large extent – I’m going to do the same and consider Hacksaw Ridge as a movie, and not as a movie from probably-a-monster Mel Gibson.
What’s It About?
Hacksaw Ridge is the true story of Seventh-Day Adventist, Desmond Doss, who joins the army during WWII, even though he’s a pacifist and a vegetarian, and refuses to take life. Moreover, he doesn’t just refuse to take life, he refuses to even touch a gun or any other weapon of death. So why join the Army if he won’t kill? To become a combat medic, of course. So as he puts it, “While others will be taking life, I’ll be saving it.” But, being a pacifist isn’t something the Army is good at and a fair number of soldiers go to great pains to break his beliefs. When they can’t, they let him serve, shipping him off to the invasion of Japan, where he becomes the first conscientious objector to win the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Logic of Belief
I have no doubts the man Desmond Doss had a strong conviction for not killing. For not even touching a weapon. After all, he endures multiple ass-whippings in the name of his beliefs, and is nearly discharged and tossed in jail over it, which is not something a Johnny-cum-lately to a belief system is likely to put up with.
I also have no doubts he genuinely wanted to serve his country – after all, he was not drafted, he enlisted. When he could have taken a deferment due to his work in a factor for a defense supplier, and sat out the war, he enlisted.
Ultimately though, his beliefs are illogical to me: while he will not kill, he will be a medic, saving soldiers, who will likely be returned to the battlefield to kill again. In a circuitous way, then, he’s doing that which he won’t do directly. Which is not really that much different from picking up a gun and doing the killing himself.
What Are the Movie’s Politics?
Given the nut-job Gibson has gleefully been for the last decade-and-a-half – a right-wing nut-job, if we’re being clear – I expected the movie to be a sop to conservatism and war-mongering. And if not explicitly that, then at least about the real-life tension of the conservatives vs. the ultra-conservatives, i.e., the never-ending ideological battle about some conservative not being conservative enough, which is really about some conservatives not being properly religious. But it’s not that either.
If anything the movie wholesale avoids politics, which makes sense, given every American agrees WWII was a just, and great war. And when it does touch on anything political, it’s about the right of religious people, or those with strong moral objections, to be free from being compelled to doing those things they morally oppose.
The Good and The Bad
The characters are all simplistic and there really isn’t a complex man in the bunch – neither the movie, nor the characters have much complexity. In fact, even our man Doss is drawn in stark, simple terms – after all, while I might wonder about the logic of his beliefs, and the contradiction in them, the film certainly doesn’t, leaving them framed in black-and-white terms.
But then again, when it comes to his actual beliefs, they aren’t really drawn all that well – that’s the failing of simplicity. We get the sense the reason he’s non-violent is because he once hit his brother in the head with a brick. And that his father tried to shoot himself and his mother. And that he’s an Adventist, even if we never actually see him in Church, or praying, or explaining how being an Adventist makes him non-violent. He just says he’s an Adventist and I guess we’re supposed to think that’s enough.
To be fair, the film doesn’t need to be all that complex – movies are generally not a place to go if you’re looking for well-rounded approaches to subjects. Which is why the film contents itself with Doss having a simple belief and that his refusal to compromise it is the bravest act of all.
Because this is a film made by a man who turned the Bible into a splatter flick, you know the action is going to be explicit and the battles gory. And boy, they do not disappoint. The second half of the film, which takes place in Japan, is basically one long chaotic battle scene, loaded up with enough blood and gore for six movies. If you don’t get the sense watching it that war is dangerous, you’re obviously not trying.
But the film is obviously more than the battles and blood and guts – there are the regular bits of human drama to fill it in. On the whole these parts are also drawn in fairly broad terms, but still handled with a certain grace and art. Even if you don’t find yourself rooting for Mel Gibson the man, you have to give credit to Mel Gibson the direct for what he brings to the film.
Saving Private Ryan
No discussion of a WWII movie will ever be complete without mention of Saving Private Ryan. Indeed, in the modern canon, it’s probably the Grand Poo-Bah of war films. And for Hacksaw Ridge the comparison is appropriate, given you can draw a straight line from one to the other: They both have the same sense of chaos to war, the same horror of battle, the same gore. They have the same senseless killing. If one film is Papa, the other is surely the Son.
But, while Saving Private Ryan is thought a classic film, I neither liked, nor enjoyed it, even if enjoyment with that movie is beside the point. Still, I’ve always thought it drastically overrated, held aloft by gritty battle footage and routinely in danger of being sunk by everything else.
If I’m honest, I liked Hacksaw Ridge better than Private Ryan – sacrilege, maybe, but it’s true. The battle scenes feel a bit more focused – chaotic, yes, but focused. Plus, it does not have all that nonsense framing device of Private Ryan, nor is it tinged with all that forced sentiment of the “earn this” and the like. At base, while Ryan tries to say something big, about the horrors of war and such, Hacksaw doesn’t try to be art – it just tries to be what it is, which is about a man standing his ground, and achieves it.
To be fair, Ryan has good elements, particularly the effects and cinematography, but it’s not a movie you need to watch more than once. Hacksaw, though, I think I would watch again and again. Admittedly, rewatchability is not a standard upon which we can empirically rate things as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but in this case they go together. Against all odds, Hacksaw Ridge was a damn good film about a little-known area of U.S. history that is well worth seeing.
Better Than Best
Good as it was, Hacksaw Ridge was not better than your Best Picture winner 2016, Moonlight. Not only no, it wasn’t better, but hell no. Moonlight is an incredibly moving film that deserved to win Best Picture, even if it had to do it through some bullshit Oscar-night snafu. After all, it was not only the best film of 2016, it was probably the best film since The Master.
A Note on Accents
The cast of Hacksaw Ridge is lousy with foreigners playing Americans – makes sense, given it was shot in Australia and there were probably a plenty of Australian actors around and not so many Americans.
Australians Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths, as Doss’ parents, have credible American accents, as do Luke Bracy and Teresa Palmer as his war buddy and wife. Sam Worthington’s accent wobbles a bit, particularly when he gets to shouting, sounding as if his voice-coach must have taken the day off and skipped that lesson.
Andrew Garfield, as Doss, is a Brit playing an Appalachian, and throughout the film I thought his accent was so bogus and broad as to be laughable. That said, for the sake of the movie, I shrugged my shoulders and went with it – it’s a movie, so you have to be willing to meet it halfway. At least it seemed broad, right up to the very end, where the film gives us a bit of video of the real Doss speaking, where you can hear what the real man sounds like. It was then I realized Garfield probably didn’t go broad enough.
Kevin O’Connell was part of the team that did sound-mixing on Hacksaw Ridge, winning an Oscar in that category. This was his first win after 20 previous nominations for a loss, which made him the unluckiest nominee in Oscar history. If nothing else, he’s a prime example of keep your head down and do good work and eventually the rewards will come.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 Honestly, so is most of America.
 Or at least proof of some lack of conviction to his convictions.
 To be fair, this notion has a very libertarian, laissez-faire attitude under it, which is obviously a political statement in itself. It also ties in to such current issues as bakeries refusing to make wedding cakes for gay couples.