Greatness is usually phrased as a value statement in America, but today it only seems to raise questions. When exactly was America great? Is it not already great, or was it never great at all? Moreover, is it still possible to live a great life when thrust into circumstances which seem unchangeable and pre-determined by someone far away?
Hacksaw Ridge is based on the life of WWII Army Medic, Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), a Christian pacifist who served in the Battle of Okinawa and became the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor. The film has been celebrated as Mel Gibson’s first commercial and critical success after ten years as an exile from the industry. All the epic, gory and moralistic hallmarks of Gibson’s filmmaking career are perfectly positioned to promise exactly what we’re in for from the outset.
The name “Hacksaw Ridge” refers to an apocalyptic cliff edge on the Japanese Ryuku islands where battle scenes take place. The movie picked up two Oscars for best editing and sound mixing, but the cinematography is the real selling point. Other than Saving Private Ryan, it’s hard to recall a film that so vividly casts the viewer into the hell of a warzone landscape. In sequences reminiscent of Full Metal Jacket we are taken through bootcamp in a troop alongside Doss’s, leaving a rare and unmistakable feeling of frisson as we go to war as fellow comrades in the squad. This cinematic voyeurism incites as much terror as glory; one shot that is sure to become a staple of war film iconography shows a paralysed Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) reduced to only his eye as Doss is forced to bury his commander alive to hide his body during an enemy siege.
Gibson proves to be much weaker when he reduces Doss’s civilian life to a sort of cliché nativity. The father-son relationship and the romance scenes seem designed to elicit familiar groans as they attempt to force the exceptional essential facts of the story around a ‘relatable’ emotional roadmap. Invoking motherhood and apple pie might have been necessary to compensate for Gibson’s attempt to retell part of US military mythology, but UK audiences risk leaving the movie feeling talked down to and unreceptive to the main message.
Indeed, Gibson never really explains why a pacifist like Doss would voluntarily enlist for war. While Hacksaw Ridge presents fighting in WWII as a moral given, the idea that the Second World War was an exemplary ‘just war’ to ‘end all wars’ was developed well after Pearl Harbor. If we are to apply Doss’s principles to our own lives, then contingencies of these sort need to be cleared up. But infidelity to the true course of history has come to represent Mel Gibson’s trademark. On more than one occasion, Braveheart has been raised in my history modules as the gold standard in bad history. Christopher Hitchens, who invented the term “Antitheist” to describe his own brand of militant Atheism, claimed offence on behalf of Christians in his reaction to Gibson’s portrayal of the life of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ. Yet Gibson speaks the language of mythology not history. On these terms, Hacksaw Ridge is a welcome parable for our times.
Hacksaw Ridge is showing at the Dukes until Thursday week 17.