Faith on Film: Hacksaw Ridge

Andrew Garfield in “Hacksaw Ridge.”

Dir. Mel Gibson. 139 minutes.

Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) was a religious extremist of a different kind: his upbringing as a Seventh-day Adventist convinced him so deeply that “thou shalt not kill” that he was unwilling to handle a weapon. Nonetheless, during World War II, Doss enlisted as a combat medic, single-handedly dragging 75 injured men to safety during the Battle of Okinawa.

During basic training, Doss was harassed and pressured to drop out by other recruits who regarded him as a coward for refusing to fight. Here, “Hacksaw Ridge” undermines our expectations. When our underdog is pushed around by a towering bully during act one, we expect him to get his licks in by act three. But, in this case, David doesn’t defeat Goliath — he convinces him. During the climactic battle, Doss saves the lives of several men who had humiliated him during basic training, compelling them to admit that Doss is no coward. It would be unbearably corny if it weren’t also factual.

Standing in contrast to our gentle hero is the utter savagery of the film itself. Battle scenes are disorienting and strangely paced, leaving the viewer barely able to grasp what’s going on. With characteristic disregard for woke norms, director Mel Gibson builds up the Japanese as an almost inhuman adversary, impervious to the extreme violence that leaves American soldiers terrified or numb. Whatever one thinks of Gibson’s general outlook, it took an auteur to accomplish a film like this one.