"Big Four" Highlights


The Battle Within

Mel Gibson movie explores war, faith and conscience

By Brian Caulfield, FFG Editor

The first scene of Hacksaw Ridge ironically shreds any notion that war can be staged or conveniently contained. Once engaged, it breaks out in unpredictable ways and lays waste all in its path – both the just and the unjust. Soldiers rush forward in uncertain formations, bullets from every direction tear through unsuspecting flesh, mortars blast apart bodies; blood spurts, heads roll, artillery shells hit preset coordinates, killing enemies and allies alike. The term “theater” when applied to war – as in Pacific theater – is a gross misnomer, the film tells theater-goers. Battles across borders have never been fought according to script.

Desmond Doss receives Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman.

In his first stint as director in 10 years, and true to the form of Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson mixes gore with the glory, and no one escapes unscathed. Not even a conscientious objector. Desmond Doss, who carries a Bible but will not touch a rifle, is the central character of this engrossing, fact-based World War II film. The real Doss, who passed away in 2006, rescued scores of wounded men from the battlefield and was the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Portrayed by Andrew Garfield, the character is a Seventh Day Adventist, whose experience with family violence turns him against guns. Doss enlists as a conscientious objector, to be trained as a medic, but his unique status is ignored by his drill sergeant, who calls him out for cowardice. After other boot campers rough him up and demean his manhood, Doss is told by the commanding officer to quit the Army and work stateside for the war cause. But he insists on the battlefield, where he hopes to save lives while others kill. He doesn’t question the justice of the war, or the motives of the men who fight it; he simply insists that his conscience will not permit him to carry a gun, while at the same time claiming that he would not be able to live with himself if he stayed home while others fought for him.

An apparently simple farm boy, Doss develops into a complex character. Garfield plumbs his depth with a perplexing combination of goofiness, earnestness, Bible piety and steadfast bravery that leave the viewer wondering what really makes him tick. Contemplating his role in the world war breaking out around him, Doss fights a battle within his heart and mind. Even his fiancée, played flawlessly by Teresa Palmer, questions his motives as she visits him in prison while he awaits court martial, calling him stubborn and proud. With Christian conviction, Doss admits to the charge, yet insists that there’s something deeper to conscience than acknowledging his sinfulness and unexamined motives. The court-martial scene is the weakest of the movie, with some unlikely hijinks by his father, a shell-shocked First World War veteran, but in the end the Army allows Doss to serve on the front lines as an unarmed medic. The presiding officer declares, “You are free to run into the hellfire of battle without a single weapon to protect yourself.”

Doss lands on Okinawa, where his fellow soldiers afford him a grudging acceptance. After Navy ships bombard the location, the men climb Hacksaw Ridge, a Japanese stronghold that is the key to taking the Pacific island, and meet with a wall of gunfire. Down go men whom we’ve come to know during basic training, their personalities, strengths and weaknesses showing as they face the inhuman conditions of napalm and bayonet combat. Amid the blood and guts, however, Gibson does not overlook the human and divine elements of suffering and death. Doss rises above the fray, risking his life to drag the wounded to safety, returning to the battlefield again and again to rescue “one more,” with God’s help.

Gibson has spent the past decade under a cloud he brought upon himself by questionable comments about women, Jews and other ethnic groups. We will see if his attempts at reconciliation with Hollywood and audiences bear fruit. Yet he can still make a movie that entertains as it informs and uplifts the spirit. This bated-breath, heart-stopping, R-rated (for violence) film is a tribute to veterans and today’s active military, who suffer from a range of wounds beyond the physical. It is also a statement about faith, conscience and religious liberty, in a culture that tends not to honor these values.

Gibson has said of Hacksaw Ridge, “It’s a love story, not a war story.” This is true. As an impossibly thin and exhausted Doss drags his wounded sergeant to safety at top speed, with the gritty leader firing on the advancing enemy while sitting on the retreating tarp, there is a close-up of fierce love in Doss’s eyes, a dramatic portrayal of the familiar biblical line, “Love is stronger than death.”