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Film Review: Hacksaw Ridge

Friday, 11 November 2016  | Andrew Brown


In a rare spouse-and-childless cinema outing, thanks to a free ticket from Ethos, I spent a recent Wednesday evening at a preview screening of Mel Gibson's new film, Hacksaw Ridge. It opened in Australian cinemas on 3rd November, but chances are you have not been out to see it yet. A popular handling of a meaty ethical issue such as war and pacifism seems well worth a little reflection from the perspective of a Christian worldview.

The story

Hacksaw Ridge is the story of an unusual war hero, an American pacifist named Desmond Doss, who voluntarily went to fight on the Pacific front in WWII, but wouldn't touch a weapon on principle. His ethical principles were related both to his personal history and to his Christian beliefs. The personal history centres around the violence brought into Doss’s childhood home through an alcoholic, war veteran father; the Christian beliefs, a literal commitment to the biblical commandment against killing in the framework of his Seventh-Day Adventism. These combined in Doss’s mind, according to the film’s portrayal, with a conviction of his personal obligation to God not to lift a weapon in anger. I’m trying not to spoil the surprises, so I’ll say no more about the plot here, but offer some of the movie’s pros and cons as I saw them.

The ups

  • It's a true story. I really like that in a story. Particularly in an uplifting story rather than a degrading and depressing one. And this guy's personal record was certainly uplifting. This story was brand new to me, so I have little idea which bits of the movie were embellishments of the real version. But if it was even half true, it's a great and a good story.
  • It has a large Aussie contingent. It was great to see the accomplished Hugo Weaving as the troubled WWI veteran father, having especially aged his face to look right for the part. Sam Worthington as Captain Glover has that same tough-guy look that worked so well in Terminator...8(?). Other Aussie actors in the line-up are Rachel Griffiths, Teresa Palmer (a new face to me) and Richard Roxburgh. Not to mention that Mel Gibson, directing his first film since Apocalypto, is reputedly from an apocalyptic outback area of Australia.
  • Even the non-Aussie actors act well. Playing Desmond Doss winsomely is Andrew Garfield, seen earlier in Social Network. He projects a believable modest hero. Vince Vaughan, as Sergeant Howell, gives his machine gun quite a workout, and gets some funny lines too. But the Aussies are so busy delivering what, to my rather untrained ear, seem to be realistic Virginian accents in this movie that it isn’t easy to tell exactly who the US actors are.
  • Christianity doesn't get shredded in this one. What a nice change. In English murder mysteries, the psychopath is usually a troubled and sexually repressed priest, except in Father Brown, where the clerical stocking is on the other...foot. Anyway, we Christians get a bit tired of all the ignorant hammering. So this time the hero has Judeo-Christian principles of a certain stripe, mixed into a complex of personal motivations and a kind of back-woods simplicity that is nonetheless not set up for mockery. This isn’t unexpected for a Mel Gibson movie, given The Passion of the Christ, but unusual in the entertainment world and kinda refreshing.
  • There’s a real moral in this morality tale. Doss’s pacifist convictions don’t gel all that well with the overall army boot camp environment. The hot water he finds himself in raise a few brief conversations about the pros and cons of this pacifist stance, touching on the question of whether there is a category of 'just war', and what would happen if everyone on the home team was a pacifist in a crisis. Good questions, only briefly explored, since the movie is more about how Doss's convictions play out in action.

The downs

  • There’s quite a bit of carnage. Now it's to be expected that a story about a principled pacifist stand might play out against a background of conflict, though it's just a touch unusual for a conscientious objector to actually wilfully enlist! Hey, that's in the real story. But our friend Mel has a bit of a taste for the runny red stuff, and the corpse count in this little epic goes exponential. The battle for Okinawa in April-June 1945 was evidently brutal, and witnesses talk about a ghastly battle field blending rain, soil and rotting corpses. It wasn't pretty. But could we have a little subtlety? Terrence Malick's Thin Red Line was lighter on the slaughter, and nicely art house to boot.
  • The moral point is compromised by the carnage. I just wonder whether, in a film about a pacifist hero, there isn't just a little too much under-cover enjoyment of the carnage. It’s a familiar experience: sit down for a bit of entertainment, and by the time you go to bed, you've seen a couple of hundred heads blown off, throats torn out, that sort of thing. With explosions. What is wrong with a world that gobbles this stuff up? I'm inclined to sign up for the Desmond Doss fan club. But does the slaughter in the background overwhelm his own good example here?
  • There’s a whiff of cowboys-and-Indians. History is history, and a lot of bad stuff went down in the WWII Pacific arena. Maybe you have some bleak family stories, perhaps still unmentioned, about what the enemy did. Those things are real, though the badness in humanity is never all on one side of the ole national/ethnic divide. Here the Japs just get slaughtered in droves, cardboard movie cannon fodder in the mold of Star Wars stormtroopers. It's a bit unhealthy, don't you think? It risks reinforcing xenophobia rather than reducing it.

Conclusion

Despite these reservations, the factor that finally tipped the scales to the positive side for me was that the central character, Desmond Doss, though almost childlike in his innocence, combines real convictions with genuine goodness and mind-blowing bravery, and that isn't just a fictional concoction; he really did those things. The incredible act of endurance and bravery at the film’s centre actually happened, by all accounts, and earned him a Congressional Medal of Honor. I was left with a lingering admiration for the man, and for that reason, I recommend it to you. Just leave the kids, and any adults anything like Doc Martin in blood-viewing terms, firmly at home.

Andrew Brown grew up in coastal NSW before undertaking theological studies in the US and in Queensland. He completed his PhD with the University of Queensland while pastoring a small church in north-eastern NSW and now teaches Old Testament at Melbourne School of Theology.



Comments

Ian Hore-Lacy
December 1, 2016, 9:36AM
I agree except for last bullet point. The truckloads of American corpses balance the dropping Japs IMHO.

Sadly I think the movie may not run very long because it is so very foreign to the spirit of this age, and some will see it as twee.

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