Movie Review: Hacksaw Ridge

November 14th, 2016 16 Comments



On Veteran’s Day I went to see Mel Gibson’s World War Two movie, Hacksaw Ridge. I almost didn’t go because the title made me think it was going to be just another manly, hairy-chested, two-fisted, courageous war movie filled with stirring heroics and a few heartwarming moments. One of the few reviews I read (in a national newspaper I deign to identify) primly shook a reproving finger at director Mel Gibson’s “appetite for gore,” and for making “a rousing celebration of the thrills of battle,” which didn’t do anything to inspire me, even as it praised the movie generally. (Keep those two phrases, “appetite for gore” and “the thrills of battle” in mind.) I decided to go when it finally dawned on me that this was a true story.

On one level Hacksaw Ridge is in fact a manly, hairy-chested, two-fisted, courageous war movie, because those physical virtues—and in war, those are virtues—are contrasted against the very different virtues of deep religious conviction and adhering to one’s beliefs even under unimaginable duress.

Very briefly, in both real life and the movie, Desmond Doss was a Seventh Day Adventist and conscientious objector who not only refused to kill or fight, but even to touch or carry a weapon. With those slight impediments to the soldier’s life, but with a strong sense of patriotism and duty, he enlisted in the Army with the objective of becoming a medic and serving his country and his fellow man by saving lives. He ended up as the only conscientious objector in World War Two, and the first ever, to earn a Congressional Medal of Honor for, in President Truman’s official words, “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty.” In battle, mind you, without ever touching a weapon. He also won three Bronze Stars with two Oak Leaf Clusters and “V” Device, three Purple Hearts with two Oak Leaf Clusters, and a slew of other medals.

And it is the contrast between the quiet, humble, and absolutely unshakeable courage of Mr. Doss’ convictions and the physical courage of his fellow soldiers—the rare and shining courage so many young men show in war—that makes up the heart of this extraordinary movie. Mr. Gibson makes Doss into a Christ figure, not in any superficial, symbolic sense, but rather in the very real sense of the Christ within us all. The difference between Mr. Doss and the rest of us was his own vastly increased awareness of and sensitivity to the Christ within, and the duty that demands. Mr. Doss also clearly had the kind of courage—both moral and physical—very, very few people possess.

Reducing the plot and message to a handful of words makes the movie sound like a boring sermon. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mel Gibson and the screenwriters (Pulitzer-Prize-winner Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight) clearly understand that the single most important function of any work of art is to evoke an emotional response, and Lord have mercy, do they ever! Every single character in this movie is fleshed out and made real, made sympathetic in their reality, proving that all people are far more interesting and have far more depth and humanity than we can ever completely know. More conventionally, they create a love story (again, based on real life) between Mr. Doss (played by Andrew Garfield) and his fiancée (played by the exquisite Teresa Palmer) that makes you ache for a happy ending.

I want to go back to Mr. Gibson’s “appetite for gore” and “the thrills of battle.” Perhaps I am reading more into this than I should, but there is a minginess and smug self-righteousness in those pejorative phrases that diminishes Gibson’s brilliance as a director, and diminishes too the sheer horror of war that Mr. Gibson was clearly trying to emphasize because, after all, it was that terrifying horror that Desmond Doss’ faith enabled him to overcome. (The greater the obstacle, the greater the victory; it’s a well accepted tenet of storytelling.) I know a little bit about what a bullet can do, and I have twice had to clean up the bloody consequences of violent death, but even with that knowledge, it is hard to imagine what the Greatest Generation saw and endured during that unspeakable war. Go back and read For Esmé, with Love and Squalor¸ and remember that J. D. Salinger’s oblique and sanitized reference came from his experiences on Utah Beach on D-Day, in the Battle of the Bulge, the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, and liberating various concentration camps, yet that short story created a furor when it was published just for alluding to the reality of what was. And the truth is, what was, what those men lived through, did, had done to them, saw, heard, felt, smelled, was incomprehensibly, unimaginably appalling. Part of the genius of Mr. Gibson’s direction is that he makes it as unrelentingly and horrifyingly real as he can, not because he has an appetite for gore, or because he is trying to create cheap secondhand thrills of battle (there is no thrill, except in bad John Wayne movies, only terror), but because he wants to create what even that same critic described as “a taste of hell.” It is so real, so terrifying, so nightmarish, that the only things lacking—that I know of personally—are the pain and the smell.

One last comment about any reviews you might have read: I read a few reviews after seeing the movie and they all seemed to dwell at length on Mel Gibson and his moral shortcomings. Why, I wonder? When did we start equating the art and the artist? Mr. Gibson had, apparently, a long struggle with alcoholism and offensive behavior when he was drunk. So did the late Senator Ted Kennedy, but it was usually glossed over by the press, including the famous incident that resulted in the death of a young lady. If I didn’t go see movies made by people who hold radically different political views than I, I’d probably never see anything.

This a brilliant, devastating, triumphant movie. It got a ten-minute standing ovation at its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. It got a prolonged round of applause from an audience of veterans and others at a small theater in the mountains of California. It, the director, the writers, and the magnificent cast, deserve all the applause in the world.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Haven’t seen the movie, but it will be interesting to see if the Academy will nominate/award this movie and if Hollywood in general will accept him back into the fold.

  2. Anonymous says:

    You had me at: “…just another manly, hairy-chested, two-fisted, courageous war movie filled with stirring heroics and a few heartwarming moments.”

    Been meaning to go all week, have to make it happen this week.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I think that Hollywood movie critics are against Mel Gibson because he is a Conservative. Also, he is strongly Catholic. I don’t remember these same critics panning “Saving Private Ryan” for being extremely violent.

  4. Anonymous says:

    My husband’s uncle who was in World War II was a conscientious objector. He refused to carry a gun due to religious objections. He became a medic in the war and won a Purple Heart because he carried a wounded man back to safety under gun fire. Unfortunately, he died during the war and was buried in Troy, Michigan.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Mr. Doss deserves all of the applause in the world. What an honor it must have been for the director, the writers, and the cast to tell his story.

    I’ve had the discussion with a number of people about the graphic nature of the Hanks/Spielberg mini-series, “The Pacific,” and this, while not as prolonged, seemed far more graphic. But I say that not as a criticism, simply an observation, it was gruesome, it was the “taste of hell” you referenced, and necessary in fully understanding the story of Desmond Doss.

    The resounding sound when I watched this movie was muffled crying, and outright sobbing, throughout the theater. And I may have been sobbing the loudest of all.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Hello JP,

    Hacksaw Ridge will come to Germany in january. My husband and me will probably end up like this: He watches Hackman Ridge and I Florence Foster Jenkins….
    and we’ll hopefully meet again at the exit ….

    Until Friday 😉

    • Anonymous says:

      Hi JP (Sorry not replying to this but I can’t send this the “regular” way as the submit button doesn’t show up. Hope that makes sense)
      Just wanted to wish you a happy birthday. I remember the first time I saw you on television. My husband (boyfriend at that time) and I were watching Magnum PI and he said “who are these two guys” and I said “I have no idea but the blonde one is really cute”. I was hooked on Simon and Simon since then. I think you are an excellent writer and you should write your biography because the stories you have told so far of your life and your family are captivating. Again have a fantastic birthday and many more to come.
      Nancy Ontario Canada

  7. Anonymous says:

    Hello JP,

    congratulations to your birthday today!!! 🙂 🙂 🙂
    I don’t know how many times I’ve already said happy birthday to you since I read your blog… It has become such a firm and constant part of my life. I always find something new in it and it’s the finest, the most honest and diversified blog I know. The internet is so full of nonsense but your blog is like an island of knowledge and truth. Your birthday is always a good opportunity to thank you again for all you write. Thank you so much!
    I wish you all the best for the next year, success and particularly a good health for you and everyone else who is in your heart.
    On my search for an appropriate quote as a little delight I for you I found this:

    “Be the master of your will and the slave to your conscience”

    I admit it doesn’t quite fit the occasion but I couldn’t get it out of my mind because it fits even more to your personality as I see it 😉
    All I want to say is just stay as you are!!!!
    Have the best possible day today and many, many happy returns!!!!
    I’ll have a glass of red wine on you tonight, if you don’t mind 😉

    God bless you and your family (two- and four-legged) 🙂 🙂 🙂


  8. Anonymous says:

    I will never understand the horrors of war nor do I want to see it onscreen. I do donate to charities that provide services for veterans because I believe it is the least we should do to show gratitude for the sacrifices made by soldiers.

    I’m sure this is a good movie according to your review, Jameson, but I will never see it unless it is heavily edited on network television.

    Carla In California

    P.S. Happy Birthday Jameson!!!! 🙂

  9. Anonymous says:

    We normally wait for movies to come out on DVD….lol But, I am sure this is one my husband will bring home to watch.

    I grew up during the Vietnam War (I think we can call it that, war, instead of conflict). I remember my folks being on to my brothers about their grades and how they were going to maintain a good grade point average. I remember the numbers they put out on TV every night, it was numbing, even for me (I was born in 56).

    My husband said he ‘saw the writing on the wall’, as he wasn’t a great student, and enlisted in the Navy at the old age of 17. Two weeks later his mom got his draft notice. Harley was stationed on the U.S.S. Ranger (aircraft carrier). He could tell some funny stories, some sobering stories and some bitter stories about his experiences.

    The reality hit as to how young he was when he went in, when he stopped our son and told him that it was the 40th anniversary of when he reported to boot camp. Jake was 17, when he told him this. To look at the son, and then the husband, brought tears to my eyes.

    These men and women deserve more than what our current Administration is doing for them. Hopefully, it will turn around soon.

    Hope your day is a great one! 🙂

    Mary Ellen

  10. Anonymous says:

    Happy Birthday even though it is a day late.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Hi Mr. Parker,

    Belated Happy Birthday! Praying for good health and happiness!

    I have a complete set of Simon & Simon and enjoying it very much. I bought the set last year to bring it back home to retire. It cost me a lot but the joy it’s giving me is worth every penny of it.

    Best wishes,

  12. Anonymous says:

    I I’m a bit late to this discussion, but wanted to add that my father was a conscientious objector during Korea. He was drafted at the age of 23. ( I wasn’t born until 67 so this was a long time before me.) In contrast to Mr. Doss, my father did carry and learn to use a weapon, but made it respectfully clear that he would not fire it against another human being because that was morally wrong. Initially he was slated to go to Korea, but at the very last minute was kept stateside. This was something that my dad kept from other people later on in life, as he was afraid that he would be labeled a coward. Being a conscientious objector was not merely a means to an end for him, and if the Army would have put a weapon in his hand and put them on the front line he would have done so. But he was the son of a Church of God preacher, and an aspiring preacher himself, and went on to establish a church in the city in which he was stationed throughout the war. Although many would disagree and ridicule, I think the role of a conscientious objector is, amongst the atrocities we are desensitized to because it is common in war, be a reminding voice that none of this is acceptable, and should not be taken as common.

    I have a deep appreciation for combat veterans, and have worked with them on occasion ( I am a therapist specializing in the treatment of sexual abuse and PTSD). I also have respect for Mr. Gibson’s work as an artist, and glad he decided to publicize this particular story, but this is not a movie I will see. Not because of any moral stance against it or him, but because it is my job to listen to the worst and most vile of human behavior all day, everyday. I need to get away from the malicious nature of unchecked humans in my free time.

    • My sister had the same reaction you did, and I can’t blame either of you. It is not an easy movie to watch; at least the war scenes are not. I was never in the military (I tried to enlist at one point, but the Army decided they could stagger on without me) so my experience getting shot was very different from the military paradigm, but there were moments during the movie when I had trouble staying in my seat. I admire what you do. I was fortunate enough to stumble into the hands of a very good and sympathetic psychologist who helped me get through PTSD, and I’m sure you hear enough in your work to satisfy all your needs for horror.

      • Anonymous says:

        I won’t see that movie either. I just can not sit through that kind of violence.

      • Anonymous says:

        We are then linked in mutual admiration. 🙂
        There is a psychologist at USC by the name of John Briere who has done extensive research on PTSD. I’ve heard him speak several times at various conferences. He formulated a theory of what makes an event traumatizing. It must have 3 things: 1. To what degree did you feel your safety was compromised? 2. To what degree did you feel things were out of your control? 3. Did you feel like somebody meant to hurt you? If the answer to the third one is yes, your chances of developing PTSD after that event go up by 33%. This is my favorite theory by far because it allows the complete individualization of experience, and explains why two people can have vastly different reactions to the same experience.

        I’m so very thankful that you found a good psychologist. So many are not very good, unfortunately. I tell people all the time that therapists are like plumbers: you have to look around to find one who really knows what they’re doing and won’t charge you an arm and a leg!

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