Hacksaw Ridge (2016)


Hacksaw Ridge is a dramatization of Desmond Doss’ heroics in the Battle of Okinawa in which he saved approximately 75 soldiers’ lives.  Doss (played by Andrew Garfield) was a medic and a conscientious objector, the first to win the medal of honor.

Doss fought for the right to go to war without a gun, choosing to save lives rather than to take them in one of the movie’s most oscar-baity lines.  Also, Doss is Jesus Christ.

This movie is about a pacifist, and it’s so gory, but it’s video game gore rather than any sort of attempt at realism.  The movie seems to take pleasure in the way bodies are torn apart, and if it’s at all shocking at first, it’s not after we’re so desensitized to the experience.  Sure, you might say that’s the point, war is desensitizing, but the film never wanted that to be the case.  It’s like director Mel Gibson wanted to upstage himself in every scene, showing something even more gruesome and drastic, yet it had diminishing returns.

The first half of this movie is boring, packed full of exposition, cliches and it might as well be any number of other World War II films.  The second half is an all out blitz of blood, guns, guts and orchestral music characteristic of any Hollywood movie trying to win over Oscar voters.

I’m being a little negative, so let me take a deep breath and pretend to be a conscientious objector to this movie, who goes to see it anyways, because I did.

We first meet Desmond Doss as he lies on a stretcher, shrapnel wounds in his legs.  This proves to be one of the final scenes.  Then we flashback to sixteen years earlier with Desmond and his brother Hal as kids.  Again, this isn’t really necessary.  Every big budget movie like this, especially biopics or any movie based on a real person, seems to think it’s necessary to show us what the protagonist was like as a kid.  I mean, an entire trilogy was centered on that with Star Wars.  “Darth Vader’s scary, right?  Well here he is as an eight year old.”

So the movie shows Desmond and Hall running around, best friends.  They fight a lot, but it’s a boys will be boys thing.  We also meet his father (played by Hugo Weaving) who is an alcoholic and a survivor of World War I.  One day the fighting between Desmond and Hal escalates, and Desmond grabs a brick and slams it across Hal’s head.  It’s a shocking moment, particularly because we think Hal might be dead.

Desmond is horrified by what he did, and that should be enough of a story beat to tell us, “this is why he’s against violence.”  But it doesn’t stop there.  Caught in a trance, young Desmond is drawn to a framed drawing of the ten commandments on the wall in his childhood home.  He stares at it without blinking, and we get a close up of the commandment “that shall not kill” just to really drive the point home.

We get it, he’s nonviolent because he almost killed his brother, and he’s a boy of faith.

Suddenly we flash forward fifteen years, and Desmond is working at a church because he’s a good kid, and he can do no wrong, and everything about him is perfect.  He hears a commotion outside and saves a kid’s life by using his belt to make a tourniquet around the kid’s leg, suppressing the bleeding from a cut artery.

Desmond follows the kid to the hospital, and in a slow motion shot we see how mesmerized he is by all the injured people.  It’s clear he sees something here, something he can fix.  Then he notices a nurse named Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), and he falls in love with her because of course there’s a love story in this movie.

Desmond tries to make a move on her, and he’s incredibly nervous which is supposed to be charming, but it’s a little unnerving.  I don’t mean to be simplistic or degrading, but in his interactions with Dorothy, Desmond seemed mentally challenged.  It’s supposed to come off as him losing his train of thought because the nurse is so beautiful, but it really is painful to watch.

So they fall in love, as you’d expect.  Then they are to get married as Desmond tells her he has to enlist because he has to do something to help his country.

So we get all the basic training scenes, and it’s like Gibson just watched a bunch of World War II movies as research.  You get the large tent in which they all sleep on cots side by side.  You get the yelling drill sergeant (Vince Vaughn), the male-aggression of the other soldiers, the obstacle course, etc.  The movie just runs through the motions.  It’s yada yada-ing basic training.

So Doss says he can’t hold a gun, this causes a problem, and the other soldiers begin beating him up because we have to show how much suffers, like Jesus.

Ultimately he gets his way, and then suddenly we’re in the war.  Gibson loves the slow motion shots of people being torn apart by bullets and bombs as well as flamethrowers torching lost souls who run around in desperation.  I get it, war is hell.

The one thing that is in every war movie is the shot of two guys lying prone, facing enemy fire.  Then one of them says something to the other, and the other lifts his head to get a better view and then is instantly blown away by a shot to the head.  The other guy looks on in horror.  It’s a striking image, at least it was in Saving Private Ryan, but now it’s in every war movie.

So it’s all out carnage, and then everyone retreat except for Doss who runs back into the smoky, currently-being-bombed landscape, dragging injured soldiers back to safety and lowering them down a steep cliff one at a time.

The other soldiers who never believed in him, begin to see the bodies being lowered down and realize Doss is still up there, saving lives.

Everything is shot well and cut together nicely, and this is the best part of the movie, because it’s the reason the movie was made, for that specific sequence.  Then Doss comes back down, everyone calls him a hero, he sees all the soldiers he saved, and everything is great.  But then they have to go back up the next day, and this is another scene that was yada yada’d.

The soldiers climb back up the cliff, they defeat the Japanese soldiers, Doss does a flying karate kick to punt a grenade, his leg gets wounded, he’s carried back to safety, but right before being lowered down another soldier retrieves his bible and hands it to him.  Then Doss is lowered down the cliff, but the camera swings around him so that it looks like he’s being ascended to the heavens.  The end.

This movie was quite offensive to the Japanese soldiers.  All we see them do is kill Americans, kamikaze themselves and the U.S. soldiers, kill themselves in shame and I think that’s about it.

There is no humanizing the other side, because they are the other.  The movie is meant to peak with the U.S. obliterating the enemy, thus winning the battle.  It’s a damn movie about saving lives, and the part of the movie we’re supposed to be cheering at is when hoards of unnamed, faceless Japanese soldiers are set on fire.  Jesus.

Okay, okay, I’m being negative again.  Let’s talk about some of the positives.  How about that scene in which Doss drags Vince Vaughn’s character through the battle field like he’s on a sled, and Vaughn mows down the enemy?  That was a little absurd and cartoonish.  How about the scene after the first battle in the ditch when Doss finds some common ground with the soldier who beat him up earlier?  That was formulaic.

How about when that soldier picked up a dead guy’s torso and used it as a human shield while sprinting towards countless Japanese machine guns?  That was… something.

I really didn’t like this movie, but everyone else did.  Why?

I’ll try to give it the benefit of the doubt.  It’s a Christian movie about a good guy who does good things, and everyone realizes he was a hero all along.  There’s no character development.  Doss doesn’t realize that maybe carrying a weapon in war isn’t such a bad thing.  It’s reasonable to think having a gun on you just in case might not be a bad idea.  His wife even suggests this to him, and he turns away from her, astonished that she would say such a thing, but her logic is sound.  She says, just carry the weapon to appease them, but then don’t use it.  You’re not helping anyone by being locked up.  WHAT SOUND LOGIC!  Yet he can’t bear to hear those words.  *Note: I do know this is based on a real person, so my gripe is with the dramatization of his choice, not with the choice itself.  I can’t help but think the scene of him punching the door of his prison cell didn’t happen, but Gibson thought it would look good.

And yeah, he has his principles, not to kill.  That’s admirable, but he punts a grenade in the middle of the battlefield.  While he may have saved some people, he undoubtedly killed others.  In that particular scene, people were everywhere.  There’s no way everyone was unscathed.

Again, there’s no growth.  Doss is a hero at the beginning, but nobody knows it, then he’s a hero at the end and everybody knows it.  He learns nothing.

So yeah, he’s Jesus Christ.  He takes a beating, but he doesn’t complain, he endures it.  But I’m sure Jesus had some growing pains during his lifetime.  Jesus probably learned a lesson or two, so why not show Doss learning something?  And why did it have to be so violent?  You might say, “it’s war, it’s violent,” but every war movie is violent, and Saving Private Ryan did it way better.  This violence is cartoonish, like it’s always a story someone heard from a friend of a friend of a friend.

People say that every war movie is really anti-war, but this one really felt the opposite.  I got the sense, through watching the slow motion battle scenes of people on fire, that they deserved to be on fire.  That seems ridiculous, but the fire imagery, in the context of Christianity and the idea of Heaven/Hell, promotes the idea that the battle is hell, and you know who ends up in hell?  People who deserve it.  This isn’t exactly what I think, but it’s the way I felt watching this, mainly due to the time the camera spent smothering you in shots of people on fire.

Doss just takes a short trip through hell so he can clean up other people’s mess and return to heaven.  Doss was always in heaven.  We see him climb that mountain with his brother, shot from below so we’re looking up at him.  He climbs the same mountain with his future wife.  We see him on a ladder washing the church windows, and again he’s way above us because he’s heavenly, and we’re forced to look up to him.

The same thing happens with him on the cliff, the other soldiers who already retreated are now looking up at him.  Finally we look up at him when the camera pans below him, really hitting the nail on the head that he’s punched his ticket to heaven.

And to make Doss seem so perfect, the script calls for almost everyone else of significance around him to become assholes.  One guy even admits he’s an asshole.  It makes Doss seem like the only good guy in a world of assholes, violent assholes at that.

I still can’t get over the end, with them lighting the Japanese soldiers on fire.  The movie celebrates their victory in battle more than it decries war.

Lastly, Garfield’s accent was ridiculous.  After listening to the interview at the end with the real Doss, I got the impression that the voice was spot on, but it still felt absurd.  The voice sounded like an impression of a southerner, and it simplified his part of the country. It felt a little degrading, like “even a southern simpleton can do this,” while making every other character to be from Brooklyn to show that real America is in the south.  It both complements and talks down to them.

There were so many stereotypes.  Even when Doss first shows up to bootcamp, the movie is immersed in character types rather than real characters.  You have the Native American, the guy called Hollywood, the Texan and the list goes on.

I read somewhere an interesting concept that the military simplifies your view of the enemy as a soldier.  To make killing more palatable, you’re supposed to see the enemy as evil.  This movie encourages that idea, so on some level it makes sense.  We see the enemy the way the soldiers see the enemy.  Except that we’re supposed to see this carnage through the eyes of Doss who is supposed to be above that.  But does he see the enemy as real people?  No.

The other argument is that we never see the enemy through his eyes, and there’s some weight to that.  We see the aftermath through his eyes, but so much of the battle is shot from a more omniscient perspective so that we can see maximum action.  At that point it’s no longer shot from Doss’ POV, but… why?  Why are we seeing war as this bloodbath outside of Doss?  Doss is our way into the story.  We see what Doss sees except suddenly we’re everywhere at once.  Maybe you’re okay with that, but it also goes back to simplifying the enemy into monsters and stereotypes.

Then, of course, we do see the enemy in moments of privacy, such as the opposing general allowing himself to be beheaded out of the shame of losing.  So we’re not in anyone’s POV anymore, we just see what happened.  This would seem to mean it’s a more objective perspective, but it’s so saturated in “We are America they are other,” and it’s a little disturbing.  I’m aware of the trouble Mel Gibson has gotten himself into, so this all felt like a love letter from Gibson to everything he believes in while simultaneously making evil everything he doesn’t believe in.  It’s a stark dichotomy, essentially saying that there are in fact sides.  There is no middle ground, we are nothing like them, they are nothing like us.

Lastly, there were moments like the following throughout the film.  When Doss returns to the tent to see all the people he saved, they are bandaged up and wounded.  One of them is a guy with no legs, having them blown off in battle.  This is only hours after he lost those legs, but he’s not shaken.  Instead he’s surprisingly calm and gives Doss a look like “you did good.”  Really, that man would be so incredibly messed up whether from a combination of body-numbing drugs or pure shock.

Every character is a reflection of what we would want to see if we were Desmond Doss.  When we put ourselves in his position, we want to see everyone be thankful for what we did and acknowledge our heroism.  Doss doesn’t, of course, because he’s humble and Christian.

I apologize for being so negative, the wound from seeing this movie is still fresh.

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