Posted Tuesday evening, December 6, 2016.
“Lord, help me get one more”: Andrew Garfield as Army medic Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to earn the Medal of Honor, prepares to help to safety one of the seventy-five wounded soldiers he rescued during the battle of Okinawa in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge.
I could have done without the Ascension into Heaven at the end, but overall Hacksaw Ridge is one of the best-made and most moving religious movie I can recall ever seeing.
It’s also a pretty good war movie. A little corny and hackneyed but on the whole exciting, chilling, heart-sickening, and compelling, realistic not just in its depictions of the horrors of war but in suggesting what it was like to have to fight in that particular war.
But the fighting in the Pacific Theater in World War II is the background to a story about one soldier’s religious convictions and provides the circumstances under which the faith of that soldier, Private Desmond Doss, a US Army medic (played magnificently by Andrew Garfield) who was the first conscientious objector awarded the Medal of Honor, is revealed and tested.
I said Hacksaw Ridge is one of the best religious movies I can recall seeing, but I might not have ever seen one like it to recall. Hollywood doesn’t specialize in movies about people’s religious faith---there have been countless religious epics, saints’ biographies, and domestic dramas, melodramas, and tragedies in which main characters happen to be priests, nuns, ministers, and rabbis, but in all the ones I can think of, the existence of God is taken as given and so the characters’ faith isn’t really at issue---and I haven’t seen enough foreign films to know how often filmmakers in other countries have tackled the subject.
The only movies I know of that deal with religion and faith seriously are those sentimental "Christian" movies that all seem to star Kirk Cameron and tell the same old story about one sinner, backslider, or non-believer finding his or her way to Jesus, and I’ve never watched one of those all the way through. From what I’ve been able to tell, they’re mostly empty of thought, empty of heart, and when you get down to it empty of real religion and faith because they’re empty of doubt---as in the Hollywood religious epics, the existence of God is a given and only the characters in need of redemption doubt and since there’s no doubt on the audience’s part that they will be learn the error of their ways doubt is simply a plot device.
Hacksaw Ridge is not empty of thought or of heart or of doubt---World War II is still one of the strongest arguments against there being a God worth believing in.
No one outright asks “Why have the heavens not darkened?” They don't need to. We can see that several good characters have already asked and answered it for themselves: “Because there’s no one there to get angry.” And the question is obviously at the back of Doss’s mind as he wrestles with his own doubts and fears.
Doss would have a different answer than that of his fellow soldiers and his father, a World War I veteran who’s still traumatized by watching his best friends slaughtered in Belleau Wood and lost all his faith right there on the battlefield: “He must have his reasons.” But he’s not sure that if God revealed those reasons to him he’d find them persuasive.
Doss doubts. Not the existence of God or even the righteousness of his pacifism. He doubts his own strength to be true to his beliefs. When, trying to explain to the officer presiding at his court martial why he wants to stay in the army, go to war, but then go into battle with nothing but his medical kit, he says, “With the world so set on tearing itself apart, it don’t seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together,” his idealism along with his humility shine through, but there’s a quaver that suggests he’s trying to convince himself as well as explain himself.
The look on his face that follows tells us he’s not sure he’s convinced.
Like Jesus in Gethsemane, he would like the cup to pass him by.
Most of the movie takes place back in the United States, in scenes of Doss’ growing up in the Virginia lowlands, his courtship of the girl who became his wife, and his basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, in which his faith and courage and integrity are revealed and then tested. The outcome is never really in doubt. We know the history. But it often feels in doubt. There are many moments when we think, “He can’t do this! He can’t carry on!” This is due partly to the deftness of director Mel Gibson’s storytelling, but it’s mainly due to Andrew Garfield’s brilliant acting.
I’ve had people tell me they won’t see Hacksaw Ridge because of Gibson. I think some of them are put off by memories of The Passion of the Christ and its sado-masochism and (debatable) anti-Semitism. Most, however, are repulsed by Gibson’s personal repulsiveness. To say Gibson was an alcoholic during the worst period of his repulsive---and criminal---behavior seems an understatement and it certainly doesn’t excuse him. But friends and critics say he’s sobered up and has been trying to make amends. Jodi Foster believes in him, for what that’s worth.
My feeling is that movies aren’t the work of one person, not even if that person is Alfred Hitchcock, and by refusing to see a movie because of its director or one of its stars means you are in a way holding someone else’s bad behavior against a bunch of artists who aren’t responsible for that behavior. Plus, given how many people it takes to make a movie, odds are, whatever movie you go to, there are more than a few members of the cast and crew who are guilty of as bad or worse behavior than any of Gibson’s. You have to make your own judgment calls, but if you don’t see Hacksaw Ridge because of Gibson, you’ll be missing out on a terrific performance by Garfield. And as far as I’m concerned Hacksaw Ridge is much more of an Andrew Garfield movie than it is a Mel Gibson film.
Hacksaw Ridge could not work without Garfield as Doss. As was the case with Daniel Day Lewis in Spielberg’s Lincoln and Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, this is a movie about its star’s performance. Garfield has to convince us not that Doss was a saint but that if there are saints they’re ordinary human beings very much like Desmond Doss. We have to believe that he believes, that his faith is pure and simple but he is not simple-minded. We have to believe that his faith never flags even at his darkest and most despairing moments when his faith in himself is shaken. And we have to believe that his faith sustains him and gives him strength but it does not give him supernatural powers or let him walk (run, crawl, scramble on hands and knees) through the valley of the shadow of death without fear. There are no miracles in Hacksaw Ridge and we’re allowed to see that Doss was lucky not divinely protected. If his faith saved him in battle, it was because it gave him the courage he needed to keep moving. And in that way, his faith helped him save seventy-five wounded men during the worst of the fighting on Okinawa.
If there was a miracle, the miracle was Doss himself.
On top of it all, Garfield also has the very tough job of convincing us his character is a truly nice and likable guy.
Again, he doesn’t play Doss as a saint or a simpleton. He gives him an aw shucks, bashful country boy charm, to be sure, but adds a sly sense of humor and a touch of mischief and an undercurrent of anger. Doss could kill. He just refuses to.
He’s also sexy.
Sexy enough to cause Dorothy Shutte, the self-controlled, wary, church-going nurse he falls in love with before he joins the army, to act like what she’d have called a “brazen hussy” in his company, surprising the devil out of herself but not him---Doss is not without self-confidence.
As attracted as she is, Dorothy, played by Teresa Palmer, who’s Australian but looks and sounds as though she couldn’t have come out of any other time and place but the rural South in 1943---and that’s not all due to make up, hair styling, costume, and a good dialect coach. Palmer seems to understand the spirit of the place that shaped Dorothy’s character---could not and would not fall in love with Doss if she didn’t believe he was as good and sincere and devout as he appears to be. And her believing in him---Dorothy’s in Doss and Palmer’s in Garfield as Doss---goes a long way towards helping us believe in Doss and in Garfield.
The same goes for the other main supporting actors. Much of the success of Garfield’s performance is due to the ways they portray first their doubt---in Doss---and then their growing faith---again, in Doss.
This is important. Doss doesn’t convert anyone to religion. He converts them to believers in his belief.
MOst of the members of the rifle company Doss is assigned to despite the Army’s being officially aware of his conscientious objector status and his requesting to be sent to a medical unit don’t know what to make of Doss to begin with. Some suspect him of being a coward. Some think he’s a nut. On the whole though their resentment has a practical basis. As far as they’re concerned, soldier who won’t carry a gun is for all intents and purposes not a soldier and there not someone other soldiers can rely on in battle. Even the ones who are believers themselves think his religious convictions are dangerous. Few of them, though, resent Doss personally. They actually like him and---grudgingly---respect him for his tenacity. Some develop sincere affection for him. That includes the company captain, played by Sam Worthington, himself a religious man, and the sergeant---I’m not going to tell you who plays him because, in case like me, you don’t recognize him right away. I don’t want to spoil any surprise, except to say that it was a fun moment when I finally realized who it was and said to myself, “That’s right! I remember! He’s a good actor!”
Only one of Doss’ fellow soldiers is outright hostile. Smitty. Of course, there’s a Smitty. The company also includes Teach, Tex, Lucky, Chief, Hollywood, and Ghoul. The nicknaming is true to life which is why it’s a cliche in just about every World War II movie. But Gibson is obviously fond of old war movie tropes. Smitty is sure from the first that Doss is a shirker trying to pull a fast one to get out fighting. But the deeper root of his resentment seems to be Doss’ belief that there is a God and life has meaning and purpose. This goes against what Smitty knows from experience to be true and he takes it as a personal affront.
Smitty would rather live than die and he thinks Doss’ supposed religious principles increase the odds of the latter. But it infuriates him that anyone thinks he should think it matters one way or the other.
It’s not a surprise, then, that Smitty’s is the only soul Doss saves.
Ultimately, it’s the bodies Doss saves that are important---seventy-five according to the citation that went with his Medal of Honor. His commanding officer put the number at nearer 100. Doss himself thought it was more like fifty. Seventy-five was their compromise. The only soul whose salvation Hacksaw Ridge is concerned with is Doss’. And we don’t have to believe he has a soul in the religious sense. We just have to believe that he believes and that his being true to his beliefs is crucial. What the other characters think of him is a reflection of what Doss thinks of himself.
Hacksaw Ridge is something of a contemporary Pilgrim’s Progress, and there’s an appropriately allegorical feel to the story. Gibson is the right director for the material since as a storyteller he’s always been drawn to the stuff of legend, fable, and myth.
The odd thing is how true to the actual history much of the movie is. Poetic license is taken, naturally, for narrative convenience and thematic effect. Events are compressed and rearranged. Some characters are composites. Incidents that in real life played out haphazardly and over the course of weeks and months are concentrated into dramatic action and dialog that never took place. The entire two and a half months long battle for Okinawa is condensed into what seems like twenty-four hours. The real Desmond Doss had a sister and a brother. His sister isn’t in the movie in order to point up the Cain and Abel parallels that frighten the very young Desmond about his own violent urges and set him on his pacifistic path. But most of what happens happened and, in fact, Gibson decided to leave some of Doss’ heroics out of the final cut because he thought audiences wouldn’t believe it.
Smitty, by the way, is played by Luke Bracey, another Aussie who makes a more convincing American than many American actors, and if there’s any justice he’ll be star in his own right soon.
Hugo Weaving plays Doss’ father, looking dissolute and dissipated but with enough of the young hero he once was still rising to the surface if only to express his unending grief to make us hope for his redemption. When he shows up at his son’s court martial wearing his old doughboy uniform, its tightness seems to be holding him together, and while the conceit is contrived and hokey the image of Weaving mustering the last of his pride to save his son is heartbreaking.
Rachel Griffiths is a quiet and soothing presence as Doss’ patient and forgiving mother. I mentioned how impressive Palmer is as Dorothy and the importance of the job she does helping us believe Garfield’s Doss is as every bit as good a man as he’s supposed to be.
But still this is Garfield’s movie to carry. And he rarely stumbles under the weight. In his best scene, he’s essentially alone and has no dialog except for a one-line prayer he recites over and over as, his exhaustion growing, he drags one wounded soldier after another from the battlefield: “Lord, please help me get one more.”
It’s in that scene that the war movie rises to the level of the religious movie and the two become one movie.
Hacksaw Ridge is about a Christian’s faith but it’s not a “Christian” movie. But it did call to this former altar boy’s mind a lesson from my Catholic school days that also informs one of my favorite episodes of M*A*S*H.
The nuns taught us that we should try to live our lives in imitation of Jesus’. We are more than Christ’s children, they said. He lives on in all our hearts and that makes all of us him. This is what’s behind “Whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters…”
In the M*A*S*H episode, “Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler?”, a bomber pilot has cracked under the pressure of his guilt and killing his brothers and sisters. He believes he’s Jesus Christ. When asked by a psychiatrist what he’s doing in an army hospital in the middle of the war, he seems baffled that the answer isn’t obvious.
“I’m Christ. Where should I be?”
Doss is too humble to say it, or even to think it, but that’s his answer to the army and to himself when his superiors ask and he doubts himself. And if Garfield had actually had to say it, we’d believe it whole-heartedly.
What is he doing in the army? What is he doing on top of Hacksaw Ridge?
“Where should I be?”
Hacksaw Ridge, directed by Mel Gibson, written by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight. Starring Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Sam Worthington, Vince Vaughn, Hugo Weaving, Luke Bracey, and Rachel Griffiths. Rated R for graphic depictions of battlefield violence. Now in theaters.