Nonviolence is both the focus and antithesis of Mel Gibson’s current awards-worthy war film, Hacksaw Ridge. The bold and courageous display of heroic pacifism beams brightly within a backdrop of infernal violence.
Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge: What We Learn from Nonviolence
Mel Gibson’s latest directorial entry has garnered heaps of praise from critics and moviegoers alike. It is gaining momentum going into awards season, though it remains to be seen if Academy voters can overcome their disdain toward Mel Gibson and his previous questionable antics.
The film’s portrayal of combat medic and World War II hero Desmond Doss (played convincingly by Andrew Garfield) is striking and affecting. It straddles the line between two disparate extremes: nonviolence and war. There is also tension between Doss’ morality, informed by his religious beliefs, and the secular world he inhabits.
Towards the end, the movie prods and prods at the thick, gooey wound caused by the depiction of a hellish battlefield that is both brutal and overwhelming. But it does so with a strange sort of gentleness.
Is There a Place for Nonviolence in War?
While Hacksaw Ridge does not really grapple with that question directly, it does conclude with an affecting depiction of bravery against all odds. In case you’re still unfamiliar with the story: A Seventh-day Adventist combat medic, Desmond Doss, was awarded the Medal of Honor for saving over 75 individuals while overtaking the Maeda Escarpment (aka, Hacksaw Ridge) in Okinawa, Japan during World War II. All without carrying a single weapon.
Early parts of the movie (pre-battle) attempt to provide viewers the reasoning and motivation behind Doss’ moral fervor. Ultimately, this is done more for the sake of story structure. Even though some of the early events depicted may have had lasting impact on him, it’s hard to pinpoint why Doss really did what he did. (Doss’ real family attests that he was always a “good person,” intent on helping others.)
What’s more stunning, though, is that the most unbelievable aspect of the story really happened. He really went into battle without a gun. He really saved soldiers that had once scorned him. And he was really awarded a Medal of Honor for his heroics.
The battle sequence in the film is visceral and unrelenting. I can’t even begin to imagine what the reality would have been like. Yet, this one individual made a choice to go against the grain. This decision (and depiction on film) does seem to be telling us something. But what exactly?
A Tale of Two Movies
Before getting into that, it is worth pointing out the dual nature of Hacksaw Ridge. The pre-war segment is optimistic and upbeat. It tells the story of good-natured Southern boy Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield does a mostly great job) meeting life’s challenges with a smile and a charming wit. But for the final third, there is a sudden jolt.
For example, while watching the film with my wife, she wondered out loud, “is this a Disney movie?” responding to the (mostly made-up*) romance between Doss and his nurse/girlfriend/fiance/wife Dorothy (Teresa Palmer)–yes, in the film it happens nearly that fast.
But as soon as the action turned violent, she could barely look at the screen and cringed even at the sounds of violence engulfing her.
Guts and Glory
Violence is bad enough. But Gibson-laden violence is another thing altogether, as viewers of Braveheart, Passion of the Christ, and Apocalypto can attest.
I don’t know how necessary it was to create a tale of two movies, given that the audience that came to see a movie like the first half might not like the body-part infused shower depicted during the second, and vice versa.
What is interesting about the contrast, however, is that the cognitive dissonance oozing out of the film about a conscientious objector in the midst of a war creates an uneasy (but perhaps healthy) tension. He truly fights violence with nonviolence. Unlike most of Gibson’s other films, this film presents a hero that actively “fights” against violence without having to resort to it.
Does Hacksaw Ridge Make a Statement About War… and Beyond?
In addition to the obvious differences in tone between the two parts mentioned above, there is also a subtler contrast taking place throughout the movie. There is certainly something at stake here. A nation is at war with a formidable enemy. But how does a religious zealot like Doss partake in something as complex and morally questionable as war?
Sometimes it’s hard to land on solid, moral ground. Watching Doss, it’s obvious where he stands, and he’s not moving. But even if you don’t land on the same side he does, it doesn’t automatically put you on an opposite “side.” Just like the soldiers who fight alongside him, viewers may not agree with Doss’ decision not to carry a firearm. But this is one of the rare instances where conflicting personal beliefs do not have to become polarizing, even though there are quite costly consequences foreseen. Instead, these different viewpoints work in tandem in a situation that is anything but simple.
At times, the overt religious overtones seem a bit heavy-handed. Doss is depicted as standing steadfast to his beliefs, shaped by early experiences in his life. It is undeniable that his sharpened conscience was shaped by his love and commitment to God, and even just a gander at Doss’ biography and statements over the years can attest to that fact.
However, in the film, his zeal does seem out of place, and sometimes it may feel a little bit like proselytizing. When he pulls out his little Bible in boot camp and the other recruits start bullying him, it seems a bit on the nose. But as the action transposes to the battlefield, that zealousness turns into bravery, and that bravery becomes heroism.
Sometimes Zeal Can Be Good
Ultimately, it is important to overstate Doss’ fervor because that is precisely the reason he did what he did. If anything, it is probable that Gibson had to tone down the language and religious references in order to satisfy larger audiences. The real Doss was a pillar of virtue, and he was bold and unwavering in his devotion to God. When asked if he ever doubted even a little bit and considered carrying a gun, he was resolute.
“I knew if I ever once compromised, I was gonna be in trouble,” says Doss in The Conscientious Objector documentary, “because if you can compromise once, you can compromise again.”
There’s a moment in the film where an exhausted Doss is lowering a wounded soldier, and in his despair he calls out, “One more, Lord. Help me get one more.” He repeats this prayer/mantra as he returns with more and more soldiers.
Now, whether this sequence is miraculous or just powerfully human, the film does not seem to sway one way or the other (I’m sure different viewers may have different opinions on this). What is clear is that what motivates Doss is a real belief that God will help him if he asks. Without that conviction, Doss would have been unwilling or unable to accomplish this incredible feat.
In, But Not Of…
“Be in the world, but not of the world.” It is a common phrase often used in Christian communities. It has always struck me a bit awkward and odd. Regardless of your beliefs, you will always be of the world, because we all come into it (and out) the same way. Whether we are “set apart” by faith or belief, we are still wrestling against the same evils that plague this world. We can choose to be escapists or fighters. We can be political, satirical, hopeful, spiteful, heroic, or cowardly. But we are all in the same brutal battlefield.
Hacksaw Ridge presents a very interesting and worthy commentary on how we can continue to move on in this incredibly divisive period in history. What would it be like responding to hatred and instigation with a resolute and active commitment to peace. Consider working alongside the same people that have ridiculed you in the past. Imagine attacking complex problems such as racism, bigotry, entitlement, and yes, even violence—with even just half the commitment displayed by Doss.
We’d all be heroes then.