- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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Mel Gibson is back on a redemption tour. After some violent and anti-Semitic comments and drunken behavior many years ago, America’s favorite Australian has been released from his Hollywood gulag to bring us this paean to God and ultra-violence.
The reviews are favorable (at 86 percent Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) but the box office seems a bit paltry, up against more family-oriented strange superheroes, arriving aliens, and trolls. But you can get standard reviews elsewhere. You come here for the military viewpoint. Spoilers!
I’d say that Hacksaw Ridge is a good but not great movie. Gibson directs the story of real-life conscientious objector Private First Class Desmond Doss, whose valorous behavior in Okinawa earned him the first Medal of Honor given to a conscientious objector. While the movie does a noble job in telling the true story, there are some significant dramatic adjustments.
The first half of the movie highlights Doss’ Seventh-day Adventist, small town upbringing and the painful splash he makes during basic training when he refuses to touch a gun or work on the Saturday Sabbath. I am not an Adventist, but I know many. Doss is revered in the Seventh-day Adventist community and this portrayal of his faith was on target. (Read the previous link, it’s enlightening). Needless to say, the Army was most displeased with Doss but he is eventually allowed to stay, as a medic, in a position he called “conscientious cooperator.” Gibson doesn’t spare the viewer some trademark evangelizing.
The second half of the movie shows Doss with his unit during the assault on the Maeda Escarpment, aka Hacksaw Ridge. Coming at the end of the war, in the assault against Okinawa, Hacksaw Ridge was indeed a last desperate holdout for the deeply entrenched Japanese Army. Doss “the Coward” distinguishes himself with a demonstration of truly astounding valor. He is attributed with saving the lives of 75 fellow soldiers, while he also was injured. But the movie becomes pure war porn. Gibson has been in violent films throughout his career (Mad Max series, Lethal Weapon series, etc.) and he’s directed Braveheart, Apocalypto, and The Passion of the Christ — each very violent in their own right.
I mentioned my worries on this subject when I reviewed Fury. The one-upmanship inherent in the Hollywood business is growing disturbing. The cycle seemed to start with Saving Private Ryan, then Black Hawk Down, then We Were Soldiers, then Fury — each with increasingly diminishing returns. I have no issues with appropriate violence in proper service to a story.
But I worry at ultra-violence for its own sake, seemingly intended to titillate the audience rather than inform them. I saw this film on Veterans Day with quite a few vets in the auditorium. Certainly they can appreciate what they are seeing, indeed many might have a PTSD relapse, but does the rest of the audience? The woman next to me recoiled repeatedly, and rightfully so.
I ‘splained to my movie-going friend that “in the best horror movies (e.g. Jaws) often what is not seen is more powerful than making a graphic display of blood and guts.” Hacksaw example: At the climax of the film a Japanese character, who has never been introduced before but we presume is the commander of troops, commits ritual seppuku (and more). Without context — and none is offered — it has no meaning. If the audience knows little of military history, it’s just a graphic demonstration to provoke a thrill. Seventh Day Adventists who might most want to view the movie are perhaps least likely to enjoy it for these reasons.
I usually get a little choked up in movies like this. But this one simply left me numb. Only the denouement, which featured a catchup with the real-life heroes of the Doss story, held any emotional heft.
So the beginning is a bit corny and the ending is overly graphic, but Desmond Doss did a hell of a thing. If you don’t know his story, be sure to see this movie. Perhaps a rental to better absorb the carnage in smaller doses.
“Hunter” is an Army RC infantry Colonel who is glad he didn’t have to climb the net at Hacksaw Ridge. This review represents his own views and opinions, which are not necessarily those of the Army or the Department of Defense.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons