Hacksaw Ridge is an intensely violent film about pacifism. That may seem like an oxymoron, but here, context is everything. Mel Gibson’s World War II film is about the pacifism of real-life conscientious objector Desmond Doss. Doss was a Seventh-day Adventist who served as an army medic and saved the lives of his fellow soldiers without once picking up a gun.
Doss’ story is amazing and a great example of selfless faith in action. Hacksaw Ridge works hard to show just how strong his faith needed to be to reach that level of courage. But the film never makes Doss into a dynamic character, and shows no interest in doing so, which is a major weakness.
Hacksaw Ridge falls into two parts: Doss’ life before the war, and his experiences after he joins the army. Growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Desmond (Andrew Garfield) is raised by an alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving), a haunted World War I vet who takes out his self-loathing on Desmond’s mother (Rachel Griffiths). A childhood incident in which young Desmond nearly kills his brother causes him to reject violence completely.
To the dismay of his family, Doss signs up to be a medic during World War II out of a sense of patriotic duty but faces opposition during basic training when he refuses to touch a gun. The devout, courageous Doss overcomes the hazing and legal challenges the army sends his way. He proves his mettle on the battlefield, willingly throwing himself into harm’s way to save his brothers in arms.
Throughout the film, Doss is shown as a gentle, selfless person who wants to do good. While he occasionally gives in to outbursts of anger, they’re rare, and immediately regretted. At several points, he’s shot in ways that connote sainthood (including one moment in which Gibson literally gives his lead actor a halo by placing a brightly-lit window behind him in the shot). The effect of this portrayal is much like a superhero film, where the superpower on display is faith in God instead of heat vision.
While that’s a nice perspective for a mainstream movie, it’s also a problem. Having a hero who’s constantly on the right side of the battle, and never learning new things about themselves or others isn’t just uninteresting, it’s unrealistic. This approach is the same issue that’s plagued the Christian film industry for so long, and there are parts of Hacksaw Ridge that express a similar level of preachiness.
The film’s brutal battle sequences also pose a problem. The intent is to show the horror of war in as hellish a way as possible, and Gibson does make the battlefield look like a blasted nightmare landscape. But once the fighting gets underway, the shocking violence — soldiers whose legs are shot away in front of us, explosions that blow off men’s faces — is so frequent that it’s hard to know where to look. After several minutes of this, all that ultraviolence loses its effect, and all that’s left is a long, confusing barrage of ammunition.
It is possible for war films to explore themes of grace, compassion, and conflicting belief during battle, while also depicting complex characters (the 2005 film Joyeux Noel springs to mind as one example). Hacksaw Ridge does present a good contrast between its thoughtful, gentle hero and a setting that’s anything but. However, the effect of seeing that character’s unwavering, steadfast faith instead of the inner struggles it must have taken to get to that point misses a big opportunity for teaching and discussion.