The history of cinema is littered with films that serve as allegories for the real-life persecution of their writers/directors. On the Waterfront is widely viewed as Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan’s retort to those who objected to them naming names before the House Un-American Activities Commission. By contrast, writer Carl Foreman’s screenplay for High Noon is regarded as his response to the mistreatment he suffered after not cooperating with HUAC. Roman Polanski’s 1978 conviction for child rape and subsequent flight informs a large portion of his subsequent filmography.
It’s unnecessary to refute Mel Gibson’s self-subscribed victimization to recognize the kinship he has with Desmond Doss, the real-life protagonist of Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson’s fifth directorial offering. Gibson, a traditionalist Catholic, has long felt maligned for his conservative religious beliefs, and he finds an analogue in the religious persecution suffered by Doss as a Christian conscientious objector during World War II.
Doss (Andrew Garfield) joins the Army to become a medic, but he spends basic training being taunted, badgered, and beaten for refusing to touch a weapon, a violation of his tenets as a Seventh-Day Adventist. His unit’s captain (Sam Worthington) and sergeant (Vince Vaughn) lead the charge, outsourcing more coercive and physical measures to Doss’s squad mates. When Doss refuses to relent, the base colonel decides to court martial him for disobeying orders. The only thing that saves Doss from the Sanhedrin is an old favor owed to his dad (Hugo Weaving), a hard-drinking, abusive Great War vet.
The first half of Hacksaw Ridge is patterned after several better templates. Doss’s Lynchburg, Virginia, upbringing and pre-war courtship of Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) evokes Oliver Stone’s ironic depiction of Eisenhower-era America in Born on the Fourth of July. Doss’s travails at Fort Jackson echo the basic-training segment of Full Metal Jacket, with Vaughn playing a poor (and less profane) man’s version of Sgt. Hartman.
The hacky blocking, staging, and scripting of the film’s first half resemble a Fox Faith production. They betray a director whose conception of 1940s America is informed by the very sunbathed movies he proceeds, hopefully with intent, to fillet once Hacksaw Ridge shifts to the titular escarpment during the Battle of Okinawa. Here, Gibson finds his sure footing; the director of Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ, and Apocalypto wields viscera the way other artists handle watercolors.
The war scenes are violent and relentless, a battlefield awash in dismembered limbs, rotting flesh, decapitated heads, splayed entrails, and showering blood. Yet out of this hellscape Gibson fashions an anti-war paean using Pfc. Doss’s affirmation of life over death and an extraordinary heroism for which he earned the Medal of Honor.
The hagiography goes overboard at times. Doss only touches a rifle while fashioning it into the handle for a makeshift stretcher. Japanese soldiers launch sneak attacks under the auspices of surrender, but after Doss’s rescue mission, which includes saving a number of enemy soldiers, the Japanese are shown surrendering en masse. Doss’s unit refuses to rescale the ridge until their new holy warrior finishes his silent invocation.
It’s reflexive to brand Hacksaw Ridge (at least the second half) another example of Gibson’s cinematic bloodlust. In truth, he strips away the nostalgia and mystique of war—much of it fostered by war movies—by depicting its awful horror, then juxtaposing it against a paragon of peace. Regardless of Gibson’s pronounced personal foibles, he remains a skilled filmmaker. In that respect, Hacksaw Ridge is less his cinematic redemption than an affirmation.