Thanks to an invitation through the Ethos Centre for Christianity and Society, based in Victoria, Australia, I spent last evening at a preview screening of Mel Gibson’s new film, Hacksaw Ridge. I thought while it was fresh, and since it hasn’t come out in Aussie cinemas yet, I don’t think, I’d offer a short evaluation.
We all hate spoilers, and this bit of fluff will give you time to look away…
Alright, in very brief, it’s the story of an unusual war hero, an American pacifist who went to fight on the Pacific front in WWII, voluntarily, but wouldn’t handle, let alone fire a weapon on principle. His name was Desmond Doss. And his principles were related both to earlier personal experiences and to Christian beliefs.
(I actually know some Americans, friends who have nearly the same level of distaste for guns of any kind. Just thought I’d put that on record. You can’t judge a book by its bookstore, I always say. From now.)
Okay, I won’t tell you how it all came out in the wash, but offer some pluses and minuses, while still trying not to spoil the plot.
- 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. Which is not to say I have any 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. We Aussies do alright in the movie business, per head of population, I hope you’ll agree. Agent Smith, I mean Hugo Weaving, is a great actor in anything he does, and as the troubled WWI veteran father he is very convincing, I thought. He has specially aged his face to look right for the part, and runs that face with aplomb. 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 and Richard Roxburgh. Oh, and they say that Mel Gibson, directing his first film, I have it on reliable authority from Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hacksaw_Ridge#Development), since Apocalypto, is also an Aussie, I think from an apocalyptic outback area.
- Even the non-Aussie actors act well. The lead playing Desmond Doss is Andrew Garfield, the guy who eventually gets the short end of Mark Zuckerberg’s partnership stick in Social Network. He is really good here, IMHO. And I don’t know whether you like Vince Vaughan or not, but as Sergeant Howell, he gets to give his machine gun quite a workout on this one. Some funny lines early on, too. I didn’t really know the female lead who plays the hero’s wife, Teresa Palmer, but…oh wait, turns out she’s an Aussie too. To my Aussie ear, her Southern accent was pretty convincing, but then, I don’t hear many convincing Aussie accents from non-Aussie actors, so I’m sure the same principle works both ways. In my defence, I did live in the South for 2 1/2 years myself – Chattanooga, Tennessee. I did meet a few Southern gals along the way, but never giving blood, as our hero does here. (Spoiler alert…after the fact.)
- 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. Just saw Horrible Histories do their Charles Darwin song on TV, ‘Natural Selection‘; clever song, except of course it’s about the church and backward Christianity getting in the way of progress, again. Hardly the whole story, if you’ve read about nineteenth-century science and religion. Well, this time the hero has Judeo-Christian principles of a certain stripe, mixed into a complex of personal motivations, and things his gun-avoiding stance is essential to his own fidelity to God, a promise to be kept, and so he sticks to it through thick and thin, with the evident approval of the movie makers. Not so unusual for a Mel Gibson movie, given The Passion of the Christ, but unusual in the entertainment world more broadly. Kinda refreshing.
- The moral in this morality tale: I don’t think I’m giving too much away to tell you that Desmond’s pacifism is the core conviction that he carries around, and that, having just enlisted in the army (to be a medic), he finds some parts of basic training not to his taste, or others find him not to theirs. There are some brief conversations about the pros and cons of this pacifist stance, taking up in effect the question of whether there is a category of ‘just war’, and what would happen if everyone on the home team was a pacifist when there was a threat on the horizon. Fair questions, although explored only in brief as far as dialogue goes. The movie is more about how Doss’s convictions play out in action…which brings me to…
- The conflicted way the moral point is made. 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 we know that our friend Gibbo has a little bit of a taste for the runny red stuff, and the corpse count in this little epic is pretty exponential. I’m digressing to my second point, which is:
- The saturation of brutality. Even people who like lots of corpses might have their fill in this one. Slasher flick fans? Don’t know – none in my immediate family. But take a human body, and imagine how many different sections you can roughly remove, and what the other part looks like. I can’t think of a single possibility that wasn’t strewn out on the battlefield somewhere. Tops without bottoms, bottoms without tops, you name it. The older we get, the harder we are to shock, but there was a lot. Just saying. In defence of the film, reading about the setting, the battle for Okinawa in April-June 1945 was evidently very brutal, and they talk about a ghastly battle field of blended soil and rotting corpses. It wasn’t pretty. Could we have had a little more subtlety? Might the point have suffered if it wasn’t confronting? Back to the first point:
- The conflicted way the moral point is made, pt. 2. 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 isn’t new in film generally, is it. Sit down for a bit of entertainment, and by the time you go to bed, you’ve seen a couple of hundred people killed by having their heads blown off, throats torn out, all that sort of thing. With explosions. It’s just like a nip of port for settling the soul before nodding off. What is wrong with the world, in this case the media world? I’m inclined to sign up for the Desmond Doss fan club. But I wonder whether the tellers of his story aren’t still quietly enjoying the carnage against which his personal story is set. Am I the only one sensing a tension here? Your opinion?
- There could be a bit of a racist or xenophobic element. History is history, and a lot of bad stuff went down in the WWII Pacific arena. Maybe you have a family history there, and maybe there are some very bleak memories of 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, is it? The Japs just get slaughtered in droves in this one, and I just wonder whether at some point, past wrongs and history notwithstanding, it isn’t time to say, I think we have to stop killing, in vicarious entertainment fashion, Japanese/Russians/Arabs/Germans/American Indians and those big-brained guys in Mars Attacks. Why do our stories always require us to mentally participate in mowing down legions of enemy? I worry about humans sometimes. I know it’s kind of a cardboard cut-out cannon fodder thing, like stormtroopers in Star Wars, destined to die at the first laser bolt despite their papier mâché armour. But it’s a bit unhealthy, don’t you think. It is possible to go a bit easier, even in a war movie. Terrence Malick’s Thin Red Line was a bit lighter on the slaughter, and nicely art house to boot.
- Plausibility gap: just one that bothered me, in a mostly tight story. The American soldiers spend half the movie climbing up and down a big cargo net to reach (sometimes) Japanese-controlled territory. Don’t the Japanese soldiers carry anything sharp? Like bayonets? They look sharp in all the stabbing scenes. Why not cut the net down?
You might think with that preceding caning that I didn’t like the movie, but overall I really did. The thing that tips the scales firmly into positive territory is that the central character, Desmond Doss, though he seems a simple, almost naive character, combined real convictions with genuine goodness and mind-blowing bravery, and he isn’t just a fictional concoction, but really did those things. The key act of endurance and bravery, which “I might have mentioned once or twice, but I think I got away with it,” no, which I haven’t let out of the bag, is actually what happened, it seems. See the movie and find out, or google ‘Desmond Doss’ and check out his Congressional Medal of Honor citation. What he does is beyond belief. I left full of admiration for the man, and that sense has stayed in the back of my mind for the 24 hours since seeing the film. For that reason, I recommend it to you. Just leave the kids, and any spouses like mine, firmly at home when you see it. Word to the wise…