Film and Book Reviews

Conscientious objector's inspiring faith


By Tim Kroenert

November 17 2016
Hacksaw Ridge contains scenes of gruesome war violence.

Watching any Mel Gibson-directed film, it’s hard not to be reminded of the filmmaker’s cameo on The Simpsons, where he frets that his remake of Mr Smith Goes to Washington is not violent enough. True to form, Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson’s based-on-fact account of US medic Desmond Doss’ experiences during World War II, contains some of the most gruesome war violence ever put to screen.

That said, this is a story with its feet planted in humanity, and the gore of the battle scenes underscores the human stakes. A conscientious objector, Doss (Andrew Garfield) will go on to receive the Medal of Honour after saving 75 of his comrades while under fire during the Battle of Okinawa. But that comes later.

The early portion of the film deals with Doss’ upbringing in Virginia, where he learns to repress violent impulses, assimilated from his abusive and alcoholic father Tom (Hugo Weaving). It’s troubling that Doss’ mother, Bertha (Rachel Griffiths), the object of Tom’s abuse, becomes marginal as the film progresses, while Tom, a veteran of World War I, benefits from a redemptive arc. Still, the characterisation and Weaving’s performance are suitably complex.

Doss begins courting Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a nurse, whom he will later marry. At around this time, horrified by the attack on Pearl Harbour and feeling duty-bound to do his bit for his country, he enlists in the army.

During training, his refusal to so much as touch a rifle puts him at odds with his superiors. The middle portion of the film deals with Doss’ efforts to win his right to conscientious objection, while still doing his military duty. Vince Vaughan shows up as the sergeant who oversees Doss’ training, and provides a humorous, humane twist on the stereotypical loud-mouthed officer verbally bludgeoning his charges. By the time these and other characters arrive amid the horrors of the Okinawa battlefield at Hacksaw Ridge, we are well invested in their fate.

The film’s triumphalism and religious overtones are heavy-handed (subtlety is not one of Gibson’s gifts), especially when the two merge: there is no doubt on whose side God is in this battle. Yet Doss’ own Christian faith is inspiring, central as it is to his commitment to not bearing arms, even in the face of humiliation during training and hardship during battle. A moment when, under heavy fire, he pleads with God to speak to him, and is answered by a muffled cry of “Help me” from the battlefield, is spine-tingling stuff.

Rated MA15+ for graphic violence.