After scandals and controversy led to his very public downward spiral and subsequent exile from Hollywood a decade ago, Mel Gibson has kept a pretty low profile. The Oscar-winning actor and director of Braveheart and one-time evangelical darling (for directing the blockbuster Passion of the Christ) has been gradually redeeming himself of late, beginning with an acclaimed starring turn in Blood Father this summer.
Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson’s first directorial outing since 2006’s Apocalypto, should expedite his return to respectability. The World War II epic, which received a 10-minute standing ovation when it premiered in September at the Venice Film Festival, is artistically masterful and thematically timely. It is sweeping and surprising cinema of the sort that feels more and more rare in Hollywood’s current funk of recycled franchise junk.
A title with the word “hacksaw” in it is perhaps appropriate for a film that is jarringly two-halved, in many senses. The first is literal: The film is structured in two parts. The first half is set in rural America, in homes and army bases and courtrooms; relative civilization. The second is set on Okinawa in World War II, far from civilization and love and peace; relative chaos. When the shift happens from the first to the second half it is bloody and bracing.
Depicting the pivotal battle of Hacksaw Ridge in April–May 1945, the film’s brutal second half contains some of the most visceral and well-choreographed cinematic battle scenes since the bar-raising opening of Saving Private Ryan. Between the in-your-face violence and a structure that draws attention to itself, Hacksaw Ridge reminded me of a Quentin Tarantino film, particularly (in a weird way) the decidedly two-halved Death Proof. Though Hacksaw’s first half has a pastoral, almost Capra-esque tone, vibrant and sunny and green, the second half is sharp-edged and industrial, muddy and hellish and gray.
Some may observe a dissonance in this, a film about pacifism that ends up being as bloody a war epic as any in recent memory. Is Gibson glorifying violence here even as he tells the story of a nonviolent hero? It’s a similar question some levelled at Gibson’s Passion, which juxtaposes images of flesh-ripping bloodletting with Christ (Jim Caviezel) uttering lines like “love your enemies” and “those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.”
Can a film’s point about non-violence, sacrifice, and love be made effectively by confronting the audience so bluntly and unapologetically with the gory horror of violence? This is a question that informs Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ, and now Hacksaw Ridge, and it’s another aspect of the film’s two-halved nature: its thematic duality.
The true story of Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor, Hacksaw Ridge is about conflicts of many kinds: duty to God versus duty to country, individual freedom versus communal responsibility, healing versus killing, love versus hate, and so on. The film is also about an internal war, of course, as Doss (brilliantly played by Andrew Garfield) wrestles with maintaining his faith convictions amidst extraordinary pressures to compromise.
A devout Seventh-day Adventist, Doss joins the army during World War II in spite of his pacifist convictions and refusal to bear arms. He volunteers to be a medic, where he aspires to save lives rather than take them. His convictions make him unpopular in his unit. Fellow soldiers taunt him, beat him, and pressure him to quit, yet Doss is determined to serve his country as a medic, thrust into bloody battles without a weapon to defend himself.
Coming as it does just a few days before the most divisive US presidential election in recent memory, Hacksaw Ridge ponders a timely question: How can we live alongside one another amidst differences, bearing with and respecting one another’s convictions, even when we vehemently disagree?
This question has been at the heart of many of America’s recent struggles, not least the explosive debates about how to balance First Amendment freedoms and nondiscrimination protections. What happens when a wedding-cake baker’s conviction about same-sex marriage conflicts with a gay couple’s desire to not be treated differently than a heterosexual couple? What happens when a Christian college’s convictions about sexuality conflict with the government’s interests in equal rights and access for sexual minorities?
One cannot help but think of these religious freedom skirmishes in watching Hacksaw Ridge, which explores similar questions: What happens when a man’s religious convictions conflict with his call of duty in war? What happens when an individual’s conscience has consequences for others, as in the soldiers fighting alongside a gunless Doss in battle?
This is where the rubber meets the road in religious liberty debates. Pluralism is all well and good when a “to each their own” ethos allows people to do their thing in the privacy of their own homes and communities. It’s when one’s personal expression has implications on others that it becomes a problem.
I interviewed Gibson about Hacksaw Ridge and asked him what he thought his film had to say about the present debates about religious liberty.
He said the film “creates a puzzle” and begs questions in people’s minds about where they would stand if faced with a similar scenario.
“People have to be discerning about who they are and who other people are,” Gibson said. “How do you make that work without big clashes and upheavals?”
Gibson added that conflicts of this sort are a “fact of life” and that the important thing is that we “deal with what’s around us in the best way we know how, holding staunchly to what we believe.” He admitted this is no easy task, however, as “things become less and less clear-cut all the time.”
Hacksaw Ridge isn’t a film trying to solve America’s religious liberty dilemma, and overstressing a parallel between Desmond Doss and Hobby Lobby would be foolish. But at a time in American culture when everything is politicized (the NFL, bathrooms, Skittles, hurricanes, etc.), it’s hard not to read an election season release like Hacksaw Ridge through that lens.
But the message of Hacksaw Ridge is not so much political as it is human. It ponders a world where skinny pacifists and G.I. Joes can not only tolerate one another but be good friends. This is explored in the film’s dynamic between Doss and Smitty (Luke Bracey), a veritable killing machine who at first loathes Doss for his convictions but then comes to respect him. Is it possible in our highly partisan, fractured republic for people of vastly different backgrounds and convictions to coexist peacefully together? If it is, the film suggests, it will only happen in the context of relationships where we can listen to and begin to understand each other.
Ultimately Smitty and the other men in Doss’ unit come to respect him because they see that his convictions are genuine. His faith isn’t a cover for any ulterior motive and his convictions are in no way about self-preservation. Rather, they are for the flourishing of others.
From start to finish in Hacksaw Ridge, the faith of Desmond Doss is central. It is tested, but it is never in doubt. There are very few major Hollywood films that have characters like this. And contrary to some perceptions (or wishful thinking) about one’s faith, Doss shows that while it is deeply personal to him, it is not private. It is something that has bearing on how he lives, how he works, and how he serves and loves people around him. Of course this is where conflicts can arise, but it is also where faith shows its relevance. What’s the point of faith if it’s just an individualistic, consumeristic, private indulgence? Faith without works, said James (2:17), is dead. But faith in Hacksaw Ridge, though surrounded by much death and killing, is very much alive.
Brett McCracken is a Los Angeles–based writer and journalist, and author of the books Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide (Baker) and Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker). His website is brettmccracken.com.