After a decade or so in the wilderness, Mel Gibson may have made the movie that will bring him back to Hollywood respectability, and he couldn’t have timed it better if some clairvoyant had shown him the surprising election results of 2016 when he first conceived this project. America really needed a hyper-violent, xenophobic, feel-good story about a humble Southern Christian fundamentalist peacenik WW2 war hero played by an English actor, and Hacksaw Ridge is it.
As you have probably heard by now, the film follows a couple of years in the life of Demond M. Doss, a real-life Congressional Medal of Honor winner who was a medic in the ugly battle for Okinawa. Opening in a sepia-glow America about to manifestly meet its destiny in the fiery cauldron of the battle for the South Pacific, the story follows Doss as he falls in love with his plucky and faithful gal Bertha, while at the same time responding to his personal call of duty. As his Christian beliefs do not permit him to kill, he endures cliché after moldy cliché from his Sergeant (a role ripped to tatters by of all people Vince Vaughn), his fellow soldiers, and a succession of officers who either cannot, or will not believe that he is capable of going into action as a medic without first learning the proper arts of war.
The screenplay veers from one base to another, covering them all: the hero’s deep and unshakable faith, the gradual winning over of his colleagues and officers in the army, the revelation of his past as protector of a mother abused at the hands of a drunken father. We even are privy to a modest portion of his wedding night, when the pair of virtuous virgins, faithful to their vows, are about to have, well, ahem, relations for the first time. (Pan away to metaphorical curtains wafting.)
After what seems from here to eternity of making sure we know that the hero corpsman is indeed made of the right stuff, Mel gets on about the real business of the film, which is to expose us to the bloodbath at Okinawa, and this is where the film gets really energetic. Doss’s unit is to tackle the eponymous Hacksaw Ridge, and after making sure we really do get Mr. Gibson’s full share of ready-digested tropes of “lead-up to the battle” from every war film ever made, we watch the soldiers inexplicably scale up a massive hundred-foot rope ladder in order to take on the evil “Japs” at the top of this cliff. That the evil Japs in question, who are lying in wait at the top of the ridge, are not wily enough to cut the rope ladder down as the Americans ascend it, thus depriving us of the gore that is to follow, either explains why they lost the war, or is a set design idea that flies so strongly in the face of military logic that we would be better off ignoring it if we don’t want to be the only ones laughing in the theatre just as everyone else is girding themselves for Very Bad Things to happen.
And happen they do. Arriving at the top of the cliff, the hundred-odd Americans encounter a landscape blasted by the naval bombardment that was to have softened up the Japanese forces. The blasted landscape is also strewn with so much blood and guts, and so many severed limbs and heads that showing them nearly brings the story narrative to a halt. After making the point that war is a nasty business, the Caucasian forces encounter the enemy, who fall upon them with the WW 2 hardware that we all know from many a movie. The horrific images of flesh being pierced, flayed, blown up, of heads shot-through, are composed with a kind of fanatical desire to make us see how truly awful a thing it must have been to have been in combat. I could not help but remember that in the years after the Second World War, Hollywood was not permitted, and did not permit itself, this kind of imagery. I have a strong suspicion that those who had seen it, so to speak, in the flesh, had enough trauma in their memories to need no further reminder. Saving Private Ryan reset the boundaries of war movies, and Gibson has beyond a doubt made a conscious choice to extend them very much further. I’m glad I wasn’t watching this film in a cinema of the future, in which, if you pay extra, you will no doubt be able to be splashed with real blood.
The violence of the battle is there to present in high relief the heroism of the unarmed Medic Doss. However, Gibson is also means to remind us about what stout-hearted killers are his armed fellow Americans. While failing to show us that the unit has any cogent command or leadership (apart from Vince Vaughn, strangely-armed with a British Sten gun that never runs out of ammo, exhorting his men forward like Sergeant Rock of old), the battle scene smashes home the point that the USA produced fantastic soldiers to fight “The Good War.” The G.I.s recover from the initial shock of the Japanese ambush, push forward bravely, and destroy a pillbox before they are driven back by a massive horde of Nippon soldiers, leaving Desmond on a field of battle where he must scurry around under the very eyes of the Japanese, dragging mutilated but still-living Americans to the edge of the cliff, where he lets them down by rope to the waiting afterguard.
Having spoiled the main plotline for you, I will say that the actual history on which the film is based has already provided the spoiler, because everyone in the theatre who has a Twitter account knows that the man on which the story is based did in fact survive the war, and was in fact presented with the Medal of Honor. Knowing aforehand that the hero would not be killed took a big bite of the tension of the story, in spite of the bloodletting. The set-piece also suffers because, all the way through Doss’s ordeal, we keep wondering why the Japanese don’t just cut the damn ropes anchoring the huge rope-ladder and rid themselves of the pesky American assault force for good and all. Maybe it’s just me, but with this much verisimilitude of carnage on the battlefield, I cannot detach my mind from such a tactical malapropism. It’s like watching a supposedly realistic war movie suddenly invaded by the cinematic logic of The Expendables.
Doss is finally removed from the battlefield, having saved a large platoon worth of his buddies. By this time, the Corps of Engineers (one presumes) has created a sort of zip line under which his wounded form slides towards the bottom of the Ridge, and Director Gibson takes this cinematic opportunity to make sure we get it: his hero has achieved apotheosis, complete with heavenly light bursting through cloud. The moment is no more subtle than the lighting effects in The Ten Commandments, as his hero comes down from Golgotha and ascends into God’s grace at one and the same time.
I think it’s a worthwhile enterprise making films that show us that war is horrible, that it is fought by brave people, and particularly in the case of the two major wars of the 20th Century, was fought by civilians who laid their life on the line for patriotic or (more impressively) anti-fascist reasons. This film’s agenda seems stranger. Mel is using this quite amazing historical incident of a non-violent man’s struggle to help his fellow man as inspiration to make a declaration about Christian virtue, all the while bathing the film stock in carnage. It’s as though Gibson has morphed into the character of Desmond Doss. John Oliver pointed out a while ago that Mel Gibson has a penchant for being tortured in his movies. One wonders if in the martyred figure of his protagonist, Gibson isn’t in fact making a movie about his own martyrdom; surely goodness and mercy shall follow Mel all the days of his life, a stalwart Christian flayed and criticized by a Hollywood that has become more Vince Vaughn than John Wayne. The heavenly choir that accompanies the wounded Christ-figure down from the Golgotha of Hacksaw Ridge is in fact singing the sweet prince Mel Gibson himself to quietus, and at last the illogical image of the rope-ladder becomes clear: it is not a piece of second-war equipment, it is Jacob’s very Ladder. about which (in my brief stint in Sunday School) we used to have to sing the following childlike hymn:
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder/We are climbing Jacob’s ladder/ We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
Soldiers of the Cross.
This all makes sense in view of Gibson’s affiliation with a radical branch of the church that offers blood sacrifice as a central trope. The radical piety of a Lamb bathed in the sacrificial blood of stalwart Americans, and of a lot of very dehumanized Asian people, seems like an all-too timely panacea for a nation deeply wounded and divided by the events of November 2016.