Mel Gibson is a filmmaker with strong beliefs, one of which is the redeeming power of spectacular, voyeuristic pain and violence.
So in the blood-soaked tradition of “Braveheart,” “The Passion of the Christ,” and “Apocalypto,” Gibson offers “Hacksaw Ridge,” a tale of faith and carnage based on the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), one of only three conscientious objectors to win the Medal of Honor.
A Seventh-day Adventist, Doss hails from an idyllic town in Virginia, with spectacular mountain views, homely interiors tinged with period sepia, a pretty nurse to woo, and a drunken father who beats him (curiously, this violence is never shown). As a kid Doss roughhouses with his brother and nearly kills him with a brick. Afterward, in one of several epiphanic moments, he contemplates his deed, gazing in shock at a framed, illustrated copy of the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. He has become a soldier of peace.
World War II puts that faith to the test. Doss enlists as a conscientious objector to serve as a noncombatant medic, a point of view that doesn’t go over well during basic training with the beefy clichés in the barracks. As in the first half of “Full Metal Jacket,” Doss undergoes harsh hazing by comrades who think he might be a coward and a liability. Also, as in “Full Metal Jacket,” the drill sergeant is one of the best parts of the movie, in this case with an intimidating, absurdist wit, played by Vince Vaughn.
The film to this point has touched on many psychological and ethical complexities, though only superficially. But on to the choreographed graphically detailed combat (less shocking in this age of zombie makeup). Here Gibson is at his best, depicting the battle of Okinawa with an initial assault on the title objective that evokes “Saving Private Ryan,” “Seven Samurai,” and “Starship Troopers.” The scene unrolls with fire, viscera, and shredded limbs in a smoking, Dantesque wasteland. It is epic in scope, intimate in detail, and otherworldly in its dimensions, like the Bayeux Tapestry with special effects and a stentorian soundtrack.
But this is a spectacle with a problem. Doss doesn’t kill, he saves lives, single-handedly rescuing 75 wounded soldiers stranded atop the cliff-faced ridge.
However, other people do the killing for him; in one case he drags a casualty on a stretcher across the battlefield who blasts away at the enemy chasing after them. Later, seeing Doss as an inspiration and good luck charm, the men insist he join them in another assault on the ridge. That despite the fact that it is a Saturday, and thus the Sabbath according to his Seventh-day Adventist beliefs. His comrades let him compromise by saying a prayer. As for the other moral contradictions, they will have to be taken on faith.
★ ★ ½
Directed by Mel Gibson. Written by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight. Starring Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, and Vince Vaughn. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 138 minutes. Rated R (for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images).