Director Mel Gibson/2016
Hacksaw Ridge is the true story of Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield) who was the first Conscientious Objector to win the Medal of Honor for his bravery and service in World War II. Just as unlikely as a pacifist being a hero in war is Mel Gibson finding redemption in Hollywood, yet with this film, both are seen to be true.
Mel Gibson returns to the directing chair for the first time since 2006’s Apocalypto, which is also the same year of his infamous drunken, anti-semitic meltdown that has all but sunk his acting career. Yet, Gibson, for all of his faults has always clung to his faith as a means of hope, despite claiming to be a poor practitioner of his Christian beliefs. With Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson has found a man who in many ways is the polar opposite of himself, yet a fellow spiritual sojourner whose full commitment to Christ just might be the inspiration needed to help Gibson towards the forgiveness he has asked for, and the redemption that he craves.
Desmond T. Doss is a man who has seen first hand the depravity of man. After almost killing his brother in a childhood fight, Doss takes seriously the commandments of God that killing is a sin. Having witnessed his father Tom’s (Hugo Weaving) drunken guilt-fueled rage and abuse towards his mother, including almost shooting her with a pistol, Desmond has made a commitment to himself, as a means of fully putting his faith in action, to never pick up or shoot a firearm again.
Desmond longs to be in the medical field and meets a beautiful young nurse named Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) while he is donating blood. His innocent nature and cheesy demeanor is exactly what she is looking for, and in return, she gives him the type of love and support that he is going to need.
When the war breaks out and his brother Harold (Nathanial Buzolic) decides to enlist, against his father’s wishes, Desmond feels the desire to help, despite being a man who detests war. He sees an opportunity to become a medic, and feels he can serve his country in a capacity that allows for him to save lives, rather than violate his beliefs and take human life.
This is Gibson’s redemption and we are witnessing it as a backdrop to a most compelling story of a genuine American hero.
Gibson transitions the film subtly as Doss attends basic training, showing the contrast of the military mindset with Doss’ peaceful ways. Doss clashes constantly with his Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughan), and his fellow soldiers, especially Smitty (Luke Bracey) who doesn’t trust someone in his unit who won’t be willing to pick up a gun and support their unit in the midst of battle. And while Doss is a conscientious objector to war and the taking of life, Gibson never allows him to be depicted as a coward.
Andrew Garfield plays Doss with a very visible strength that allows him to face and accept the consequences of his actions, without blinking an eye when faced with being asked to compromise his convictions. A man willing to run headlong into battle without carrying a weapon, might sound crazy, but it definitely requires strength.
Despite depicting some serious themes such as alcoholism, domestic abuse, and the struggle of military training, Gibson roots the feel of the film in the very innocent and respectful times of the early 1940’s. Once Doss and his unit ascend the rope ladder in Okinawa to try to capture Hacksaw Ridge, the innocence of the first half of the film is dropped and it is replaced with the very real hell of war. If there was any doubt that the director of Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ was actually behind the camera in the first act, then the second act will confirm that he is squarely in-control.
Gibson understands the warring nature of the soul. He understands that darkness and light often exist in the same space and the contrasting intensity of Doss’ sweet nature in the midst of brutal violence bring this out fully. But despite the jarring escalation of violence in war, Gibson makes sure that Doss is shown to be fully committed to remaining the same man of faith and conviction, even in the face of what he is now witnessing. In fact, it his faith that leads him to serve God by serving his fellow soldiers, saving more than 75 men in battle. The act of heroism that is on display in this film is one that is bound to inspire many today, especially in a world that is seeing so much darkness.
Desmond T. Doss may be trying to hold to his convictions and serve, but it his ultimate redemption in the eyes of his fellow soldiers who doubted his worth during training that stands out the most. And in directing this film, Gibson is much the same. He may simply be trying to tell a compelling story, but it is his redemption in the eyes of his industry, and the larger movie-going public that will stand out the most. This is Gibson’s redemption and we are witnessing it as a backdrop to a most compelling story of a genuine American hero. Gibson, like Doss, finally deserves his honor, and with Hacksaw Ridge, they will both finally receive it from the public at large.