“Hacksaw Ridge” begins with the phrase “A true story.” Not “Based on a true story,” but “A true story.” Director Mel Gibson wants people to know he didn’t have to apply a coat of Hollywood gloss to the life of Desmond Doss to make it more cinematic; Doss actually saved dozens of injured soldiers while serving as an unarmed combat medic on a horrifically bloody World War II battlefield. In telling Doss’ story as it happened (with some compositing to ensure a reasonable running time), Gibson has made a straightforward film with a simple message: when you stay true to your convictions, you can accomplish great things.
At least that’s what I took away from the movie. Others might see it as an affirmation of Christian faith. Doss refused to even touch a weapon because of his belief in the biblical commandment to not kill. When he then drags the bodies of 75 injured soldiers off the battlefield at Okinawa without falling prey to the enemy, some claim his achievement was a miracle. My point is not that I agree or disagree with their assessment, but that Gibson does leave a little wiggle room for personal interpretation.
That alone is a miracle because Gibson clearly has tremendous awe for Doss. This is made clear not just through the story, which follows Doss as he endures persecution during boot camp, but in the occasionally grandiose imagery, which casts Doss in a decidedly heavenly aura. In a shot of him being lowered on a stretcher from the ridge of the battlefield, parts of his body shredded from a grenade injury, his arms splayed to the side, Gibson is perhaps trying too hard to show Christ in the young man.
Despite this and other overstated moments, “Hacksaw Ridge” works, largely because of the admirable job Gibson and his writers did building the character of Doss. Instead of painting him as an idealist who acquired his convictions from a Sunday school lesson, Gibson presents a more complex character arc in which Doss develops his principles partly through his experiences growing up as the son of an alcoholic and abusive father, and partly through his own dalliances with violence early in life. Instead of allowing these formative moments to plant seeds of cynicism and aggression in his spirit, Doss somehow maintains an “aw shucks” naiveté that recalls a time very different from the one in which we live today. His boyish innocence has its charms, though, as seen in his blossoming romantic relationship with Dorothy Schutte. Their early scenes reminded me of an old movie romance – the kind that melts your heart and makes you smile.
Gibson contrasts these verdant, sun dappled scenes, which are set in Virginia, with the extreme carnage of the battlefield. As the director of “Braveheart” and “Passion of the Christ,” he’s no stranger to gore, and his past work serves him well as he renders the physical horrors of war in grisly detail, with severed limbs, loose guts, spurting arteries, and more filling the screen in a dark red pageantry of death. Yet I’m surprised at how wrong many critics have been about this aspect of the film. Gibson was not, as many have claimed, glorifying violence even as he tried to deliver an inspiring message of pacifism; rather, he underscored Doss’ bravery by showing the gruesome realities of war.
Actor Andrew Garfield does remarkable work as Doss. Not only does he convey a sense of character through the mechanical aspects of his performance – such as Doss’ Southern accent and lanky movements – but he hits all of the right emotional beats as well. In his face, we see the birth of new love, the swell of Doss’ patriotism, the resolve of his personal convictions, the terrors of war, and humility that formed in the marrow of his bones. We also see the simplicity of Doss’ path. Doss had a gift and, he believed, a calling as a combat medic, and he was going to fulfill his duty on his terms, regardless of the cost.
“Hacksaw Ridge” is not a deep film. There’s no rich subtext, nor are there deeply embedded metaphors to unearth; rather, it aims only to tell a simple story about a man who refused to compromise his beliefs and went on to do great things. That doesn’t mean “Hacksaw Ridge” is shallow. It was designed to inspire others and to give people a sense of purpose, and when a film hits its target, it deserves applause, no matter how broad the target.
As I type this, I’m less than one mile away from Chattanooga National Cemetery, where Doss is buried. It’s humbling to be near him. Watching “Hacksaw Ridge” had the same effect on me. As I left, I wondered, “What have I done with my life? How can I make a difference? Could I stand strong in less threatening circumstances?”
As a film, “Hacksaw Ridge” is a solid piece of work but not a classic. However, as art meant to shift the hearts and minds of its viewers, it approaches greatness.