Paradoxical and unsubtle war movie with confused morality

David G. Hughes on Mel Gibson’s ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ (2016)

“I imagined a Norman Rockwell painting, plucking the characters from it, and then dropping them into an Hieronymus Bosch.”

This is how Mel Gibson describes the narrative schism that exists at the midpoint of his new evangelical Mel-odrama, Hacksaw Ridge. The first half of the film is a mawkishly told home front tale of a simple Southern choir boy who likes to sing to birds and fall in love with the local nurse—an overly sentimental phase. The second half is the stuff the trailers are made of: an inferno of malformed bodies, artillery bombardment, shrieks of anguish and decimation. Gibson’s testimony of influence upholds his directorial liaison with the painterly; watching a Gibson film is to traverse through the religiously-inspired fine artworks of a fine gallery. Images of majestic death, noble sacrifice, and gushy lamentation serve as the foundation of his modus operandi, where physical gesticulation, faith and ferocity intertwine. Never has he been a subtle filmmaker nor a demure preacher, provoking a visceral knee-jerk through romantic stories, sweeping musical scores, dramatic slow-motion and extreme violence. He is certainly a unique auteur—a religious dogmatist and outsider to the Hollywood Left who, whether you agree with him or not, makes accomplished and earnest films.

If the experience of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield on proficient form) wasn’t the true story that it is, you get the impression that Gibson would have simply conceived him. He is the archetypal character of the famously Catholic director—a moral sufferer. Whether it is William Wallace on the torture rack in Braveheart (1995) refusing to submit to the English Crown, Christ’s excruciatingly detailed torture and crucifixion in The Passion of the Christ(2004) as he suffers for our sins, or Jaguar Paw’s trial and tribulation through South American jungles in Apocalypto (2006), this fundamentally Catholic belief—felix culpa, that suffering enriches the soul—finds its cinematic megaphone in Gibson.

As a “conscientious co-operator,” following the American entry into the Second World War, Doss is keen to serve but his religious beliefs forbid him to carry a gun, let alone kill another human being. The Army’s bemused response to this revelation: “You know quite a lot of killing does occur in a war, that is the essential nature of war.” Regarded as a coward and a weak link in the company, Doss is subjected to bullying, attempts at psychiatric discharge and court-martial, all for the privilege of serving as a medic in the hellish Pacific War. Rather than test his faith, Doss sees this as an opportunity to showcase his stoicism and patriotism. Naturally the film reveres its central character for this; so enthralled by Doss’ unapologetic moral fortitude and equanimity that the film transcends reverence to become hagiography. One gets the impression that Gibson sees his own persecution in comparable terms to Doss’ struggle.

Unfortunately, the film betrays its central character by not having the courage of his convictions. Dropped into the Boschian nightmare, a cacophony of aesthetically relished violence and beautifully choreographed battle scenes, those who had persecuted Doss soon come to respect him in the midst of firefight. Yet this is not a result of his moral pacifism, it is in spite of it, a result of his courage in the face of daunting survival chances. The film’s moral is inherently paradoxical — a film that fetishises violence and the baptism of heroes and yet denounces bloodshed and the traumatic after-effects of war; a film that reveres a pacifist but not what he stands for; a film that argues that morality and courage is a God-given attribute and yet accredits it to a personal anecdote told in flashback. Gibson is trying to have his cake and eat it, suggesting that faith is inherently anti-war, and therefore morally virtuous, whilst also suggesting that the only sure-fire way to win a war is to have God on your side. Inspired by Doss’ example, the U.S. combatants must become not just brave soldiers of democracy and freedom (as if that’s not enough) but acolytes of Doss and soldiers of God too. Only then, when prayers have been spoken and God be praised, can Okinawa be taken. This is the same uncomfortable logic that motivates religious extremism, and the image of a bloodied Doss ascending towards the heavenly sky above on the cusp of victory is almost too much to bare.

Hacksaw Ridge has ugly, unsubtle undertones of moral grandstanding, not to mention a bloodthirsty propagandist streak. Never does it attempt to present more complex moral questions than it feels comfortable with: cannot pacifism be regarded as an act of moral cowardice rather than moral courage, or even self-indulgence? Even more, if Doss is someone to aspire to like the Christ figure he’s portrayed to be, wouldn’t it be the case that the Axis would have won the war? While Gibson believes that Doss could only have done his heroic deeds through divine providence, saving the lives of seventy-five men, he fails to mention that men of faith are also motivated to perform egregious acts, such as those committed by the other side in the name of their Emperor and God. Presumably they have the wrong God, and the God is on the American side. The film fails to comprehend or offer truly insightful thoughts on the gargantuan subjects it preaches on. The audience is fed easily digestible home-made sweet apple-pie masquerading as hearty, difficult to chew on subject matter.

Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus — this is the Catholic doctrine that states there is no salvation outside the Church. This is the fundamental(ist) message of this spurious picture, an old-fashioned war film in the most abject jingoistic traditions. Gibson has performed impressive subterfuge, a military coup d’état, fashioned a wolf in sheep’s clothing, by seizing the saga of a pacifist and turning it into a war film that celebrates the glory of an Old Testament God. I am quite prepared to separate the artist from the art, and indeed appreciate the film for offering heartfelt political diversity, but unfortunately Gibson’s unapologetic sincerity dictates that his art accommodates and propagates the most disagreeable traits of the artist.

David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.