The U.S. soldiers in Mel Gibson's WWII drama Hacksaw Ridge, out Friday in wide release, must ascend a vertical ridge on the island of Okinawa to confront thousands of caped Japanese combatants who, according to the wartime mythology of the time, could not wait to die on the field of battle.
In some of the grittiest and most well-coordinated battle cinematography since Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, Gibson has produced what may be classified as a great war movie. But for a tailspin into heavy-handed Christian imagery late in the film, Hacksaw Ridge is an accomplished visual and emotional feast for the ultraconservative Gibson.
Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spiderman, The Social Network) stars as Seventh-day Adventist Desmond Doss, a true-life conscientious objector who nonetheless wished to serve as a medic in WWII. He was deployed to the Pacific theater and was ultimately awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism, the first conscientious objector to be thus decorated. Garfield, a Brit, tries out a neighborly Carolinian drawl for the role; and he's nearly as successful as his countryman Jude Law, who played Carolinian Thomas Wolfe in this year's Genius.
Doss falls in love with a nurse, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), on the eve of basic training, a courtship no less romantic for its brevity; in fact maybe more so, given that the stakes had rarely been so high for American lovebirds, stakes that Doss' father, a WWI vet (Hugo Weaving), knows all too well. "Better to have loved and lost," right? Doss is buttressed by his love for Dorothy (and, if his trusty bible is any indication, for God) as he's mocked and beaten by the other soldiers in his division, corn-fed beefcake Smitty (Luke Bracey, from Point Break) chief among them. Despite the best efforts of his superiors (Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington), Doss prevails in his quest to serve without bearing a weapon, per the dictates of his faith.
The second half of the film, then — after all these back and forths about the ways religion and morality fit into the messy realities of war —recounts the battle which made Doss a WWII legend. During a gruesome amphibious assault on the ridge and a sustained battle thereafter — grenades, bullets, bayonets, body parts — Doss refuses to retreat. He singlehandedly collects more than 70 injured soldiers on an active battlefield. The attacks and counterattacks on the ridge recall Saving Private Ryan's Normandy beach invasion in more ways than one, and add to Gibson's impressive "epic" action credentials (Braveheart, and Apocalypto, a personal fave).
The big downfall of the movie was its late-arriving reliance on syrupy heavenly imagery. Most of us are either uneasy or actively perturbed watching sappy religious stuff onscreen, if seldom actually moved by it. And the thing is: Doss' miraculous feat, his relentless bravery in the face of death, is already so profoundly moving — so gripping, too — that attempts to amplify it along an evangelical bandwidth weaken what's already been conveyed in the story. We know that Doss is a super religious guy. We know his faith has been integral to his actions (though a personal history with violence seems equally important). And we've seen those who doubted Doss adjust their opinions.
So why must Gibson inundate us with these dime-store Heaven is for Real gags: this slo-mo post-battle baptismal cleansing, for example; these beatific pleas, from Doss, during an active battle, for his bible; these gooey cumulous clouds, suffused with light, as Doss makes his angelic gurneyed descent to the beach? Show, don't tell, the old saying goes. But in the final 20 minutes of Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson is no longer content to show; he feels compelled, for whatever reason, to preach.