If there’s one thing Mel Gibson knows how to do, it’s how to put his heroes—and his audience—through the crucible. Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson’s first directorial effort in a decade, pits a man of conviction against a world that does not understand, much less appreciate his strongly held beliefs, and then lets the world assault him in every way possible, especially physically. The man’s heroism is proven by his ability to stay true to his convictions to the end.
Those last three sentences (minus the first clause) could serve as a basic plot description for Gibson’s two most lauded directorial efforts – Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ. (I’m sure the production companies behind Hacksaw Ridge are hoping for a similar level of success with this film as Gibson found with those.) This time Gibson’s suffering servant is a Seventh-day Adventist medic assigned to an infantry unit in the Pacific theater of World War II. Desmond Doss is about as good a “good ol’ boy” as you can imagine – he cleans stained glass windows and compliments the church choir, he rescues friends who sustain accidental injury, he doesn’t eat meat, he observes the Sabbath, he loves his momma, he’s true to his girl, and he readily joins the Army even though he refuses to touch a gun. He doesn’t even call himself a “conscientious objector.” He prefers the term “conscientious cooperator” instead.
That’s all true, too, as are most of the events depicted in Hacksaw Ridge, including Doss’ courageous feat of rescuing 75 wounded men alone over the course of twelve hours following a bloody day of fighting on the deadly ridge that runs the length of Okinawa. The complete story of what Doss did and survived is actually a little more remarkable than what is chronicled in the film. The filmmakers decided to elide a few of the things that happened, because they feared testing the audience’s credulity. Read more about Doss’ real-life actions here.
Note that I haven’t used the term “pacifist” in this review. That’s because Doss, as depicted in the film, isn’t a pacifist, and Hacksaw Ridge isn’t about pacifism. Pacifists believe that war is unjustifiable. In the film, Doss explicitly states that he believes WWII is just. He just doesn’t believe that he should personally kill anyone. He sees his way of helping the war effort to be saving his fellow soldiers instead of killing their enemies.
Hacksaw Ridge certainly isn’t pacifist either, not that this should come as a surprise to anyone given Gibson’s filmography. The movie is as violent a war film as I’ve ever seen. The battle on Hacksaw Ridge is traumatic for the audience as well as for the soldiers on screen. Gibson knows how to put his audience through the wringer, and he uses all his powers here. Hacksaw Ridge features the most intense combat scenes I’ve seen since Saving Private Ryan.
Gibson also situates heroic acts of violence alongside Doss’ salvific acts. Doss’ fellow soldiers are good with their guns, and though I didn’t tally them up while I was watching the film, I imagine we see more Japanese soldiers destroyed than we see American soldiers saved. Rather than doing this as a way to please both pro- and anti-war audience members, Gibson does this because his movie is solely concerned with the preeminent value of personal conviction.
Gibson ends the narrative events of Hacksaw Ridge with a beatific moment punctuated by an ascension-referencing camera move and a series of heads-up testimonies from men whom Doss rescued, Doss’ brother, and from Doss himself. They testify to Doss’ courage and conscience. Hacksaw Ridge is about the good results that follow people who display strength of conviction whether those people are holding a gun or not.
There is, of course, truth in that, and as a kid I cheered characters who showed courageous conviction without qualification. As I’ve matured I’ve learned that conviction alone isn’t enough. Those convictions must be tested against a higher moral order. Doss’ convictions are rooted in his understanding of the Bible – that’s good. His fellow soldiers’ convictions are rooted in their patriotism – that can be good. But it is not wise to praise Conviction uncritically. Since Hacksaw Ridge is a WWII movie, I’ll name-check Adolf Hitler here, because I don’t think we can doubt he was a man of conviction too, but his convictions were evil.
Our consciences need an external referent. They must be beholden to our worshiping communities, to our neighbors, to moral order, and ultimately to God. We don’t need a new law; we need a new understanding of the kinds of people we’re supposed to be. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… and love your neighbor as yourself.” Who is your neighbor? Neighbors are those who have mercy on others—friends, strangers, even enemies—and, thankfully, Hacksaw Ridge reminds us that Doss saved wounded Japanese soldiers too. Doss loves his enemies and prays for those who persecute him, his fellow soldiers included, and that, I think, is his most courageous act of all.
You might also find these reviews of Hacksaw Ridge helpful: