There are two movies in Hacksaw Ridge: the well-meaning tale of good-natured pacifist Desmond Doss; and the brutal, otherworldly days he spent at war. These two pieces feel so disparate in tone and entertainment value that it’s easy to conclude the filmmakers are more fascinated by the battle story.
A few critics have credited the director with making the violence excessive. Look at A.O. Scott’s review in the New York Times: “Mr. Gibson’s appetite for gore is without equal in modern Hollywood.” And Richard Brody in The New Yorker: “Gibson has made a movie that’s nearly pathological in its love of violence.” Sure, violence is a driving theme for Mel Gibson; I didn’t try to sit through The Passion of the Christ or Apocalypto. But the suggestion is that Hacksaw Ridge enjoys its gore too much. Would Scott and Brody assume this if someone else directed the movie?
It’s true, Hacksaw Ridge is most interesting when it’s on the battlefield. We wade through the dull early scenes of Desmond Doss growing up, courting his wife, and training as a soldier so that we can get to the title location. The troops are sent to Okinawa, 1945. And yes, Gibson ratchets up the intensity when the battle begins. Does this mean the violence he shows is over-the-top? After watching this movie, I’m wondering how you could shy away it. Over 4,000 American Army men were killed in Okinawa that year. Their deaths were surely brutal. The men on this hill met a barrage of bullets and a relentless charge of armed Japanese soldiers coming at them. I can’t imagine what a less terrifying account of the battle would look like.
I’ve been thinking about the war movie’s responsibility. Maybe it’s more justifiable for a filmmaker to honor the horror and graphic waste of life than to overlook it, or shy away from it. Would a PG-13 version of Hacksaw Ridge have much value? This movie doesn’t flinch, just like our protagonist doesn’t when he’s called to serve. If the movie only focused on his heroics, and not the full context of what he saw and survived—all without a gun in his hand—then we’d have an emptier view of Desmond Doss.
Gibson and writers Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan find compelling ambiguities in their depiction of Okinawa. Their main character lays out his own uncertainities before shipping out; he’s a man of faith, a Seventh-day Adventist who wants to go but will not fight. Did he expect the violence he saw out there? How did those days on the field shape the rest of his life? Unfortunately, we don’t get those answers. Even with Andrew Garfield in the lead, the movie pays tribute to Desmond without really breaking into his head. (It’s not a great movie outside of the battle at Okinawa.) But the audacious chaos of battle gives him the drive to push forward.
It seems silly to argue that the violence is exploitative or unnecessary. The fight is riveting and horrifying. How better to honor the duality of a pacifist at war?