In Hacksaw Ridge, a conscientious objector must prove himself in battle 

Mel Gibson is back with a biopic of the World War II hero who never fired a shot.

click to enlarge Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge, which opened in wide release last weekend, represents Mel Gibson's directorial comeback after years in the professional wilderness, following the July 2006 publication of a DUI arrest report that quoted him as saying, "The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world" and the July 2010 leak of a recorded phone call in which he told his then-girlfriend, "You look like a pig in heat, and if you get raped by a pack of niggers it will be your fault." Gibson apologized for both slurs, attributing the first to alcoholic insanity and the second to the trauma of a messy breakup, and he's been sober for nine years. But some will never forgive him; writers for the Atlantic and the Daily Beast recently slammed the director for failing to exhibit the proper contrition during an appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. Hard as it might be to separate Gibson's despicable sentiments from his latest movie, that's what I'm going to do, because Hacksaw Ridge will tell you all you need to know about Gibson's yearning, misshapen heart.

Reviled as a man of hate, Gibson has taken as his subject a man of love: Desmond Doss, the devout Seventh-Day Adventist who served as a combat medic in the U.S. Army during the last days of World War II but, as a conscientious objector, refused to take up arms against the Japanese. During the Battle of Okinawa, Doss mounted a daring rescue operation that saved about 75 wounded men, and after the war he became the first CO ever awarded the Medal of Honor. Doss was a paradoxical figure, in the war but not quite of the war, and his story offers Gibson a chance to indulge both the bloodlust of his Oscar-winning Braveheart (1995) and the Christian theology of his controversial blockbuster The Passion of the Christ (2004). Yet Hacksaw Ridge isn't the sort of movie that welcomes paradox—it's a war movie, full of war-movie conventions. It celebrates Doss for his idealism and commitment but follows the familiar narrative arc of a man having to prove himself in combat.

Doss is an extraordinary subject in that he was motivated by God and country in equal measure. Growing up in Lynchburg, Virginia, he registered for the draft in 1937 and enlisted shortly after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, yet he followed his religion strictly and refused to carry a rifle. "I wanted to be known as a noncombatant, but the Army had no such classification," he remembered in the book Beyond Glory: Medal of Honor Heroes in Their Own Words. "I did not want to be known as a CO because they were refusing to salute the flag or serve the country in any way, shape, or form, and they were having demonstrations." Doss was so devout that, stationed in the Pacific, he subsisted on dog biscuits rather than eat the pork rations provided. Yet he routinely volunteered to accompany his fellow soldiers on patrol: "I knew these men; they were my buddies, some had wives and children. If they were hurt, I wanted to be there to take care of them. And when someone got hit, the others would close in around me while I treated him, then we'd all go out together."

The early scenes of Hacksaw Ridge show young Desmond being shaped by the Christian faith of his gentle mother (Rachel Griffiths) and the post-traumatic stress of his cruel father (Hugo Weaving), an alcoholic veteran of World War I. There's a lot of phony boy-meets-girl stuff between the gangly hero (Andrew Garfield) and a prim nurse at a local hospital (Teresa Palmer). But the movie picks up once Gibson has Doss in uniform and the young man's martyrdom commences. In basic training, Doss is branded a coward for his refusal to fight and mercilessly ridden by his commanding officer (Sam Worthington), his drill sergeant (a droll Vince Vaughn), and his fellow recruits. Smitty (Luke Bracey), the company bully, steals Doss's bible and makes him grovel for the enclosed photo of his fiancee. Later, in the middle of the night, some recruits jump Doss in his sleep and beat the crap out of him, though he refuses to rat them out the next morning. His CO status is respected only after a court-martial hearing where his father shows up in uniform bearing a letter of protection from a brigadier general.

Screenwriters Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan have conveniently erased the three years separating Doss's induction in 1942 and his ultimate deployment to the Pacific theater; that's a necessity, because they're constructing a story in which Desmond redeems himself in the eyes of his fellow men. You couldn't ask for a more horrific testing ground: Okinawa was the last, biggest, and bloodiest battle of World War II, claiming the lives of more than 12,000 Americans and 110,000 Japanese. U.S. forces landed easily along the southwest shore but, heading inland, faced well-entrenched and desperately committed Japanese forces who fired from concrete pillboxes amid the limestone hills and hid in networks of caves and tunnels. Re-creating the battle, Gibson embraces the Hamburger Helper aesthetic of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, blood and viscera spraying all over the place as Doss and company face their first withering firefight. In standard war-movie fashion, Doss and Smitty must save each other in combat, and Smitty goes first, shooting the Japanese soldier who's about to bayonet Doss and then humbling the grateful CO with a silent look of reproach.

No genre cliche can obscure the heroism of Doss's rescue operation along the Maeda Escarpment, which won him the Medal of Honor. As part of the 77th Infantry Division, his company was ordered to take a 30-to-50-foot rock cliff, at the top of which lay several pillboxes; Doss, who had a talent for knot- tying, had anchored a giant cargo net to drape down the side of the cliff so that multiple men could scale it at once. The fighting was hellish, Americans advancing on the Japanese with bazookas and flamethrowers (Gibson loves the fire, and there are numerous shots of men wriggling around engulfed in flame). Scores of men were wounded, and the company pulled back. Doss, the only remaining medic, remained atop the cliff for five hours, using a thick rope to lower wounded men over the side. The Japanese were known to target medics, but for some reason they let Doss complete his mission. The incident provides a hell of a climax for Hacksaw Ridge, with Doss carrying Smitty on his back after the latter takes a bullet in the assault.

Early in the movie, when Doss refuses to pick up a rifle, his sergeant and commanding officer ask him why he's serving in the army if he's a conscientious objector. "I'm a conscientious cooperator," Doss explains. The line begins to make sense at the climax when, as part of the rescue, Doss finally grabs a rifle, rolls a blanket around it, and uses them as a makeshift litter to drag his wounded sergeant to safety; as they retreat, the sergeant opens fire on the Japanese with his machine gun. Doss wins the respect of his comrades, and of Gibson, by demonstrating his bravery, not his pacifism—if that's even the word for what he believes. The Battle of Okinawa was so horrific, presaging the carnage to follow if the U.S. attacked the Japanese mainland, that it helped convince President Truman to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His act prompted decades of soul-searching about the future of humanity, yet that sort of thinking never really penetrates Hacksaw Ridge. It's the story of one man keeping his slate clean while the rest of the world goes up in flames.  v

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