After hearing the excitement about Mel Gibson’s return feature, Hacksaw Ridge, I was sorely disappointed upon seeing the film. I didn’t think it was a particularly good movie, Andrew Garfield is essentially playing Forrest Gump, Vince Vaughn is woefully and hilariously out of place, the sets look near-lifetime movie quality, as does Simon Duggan’s alternatingly antiseptic and chaotic cinematography. The characters are skin deep despite an incredibly fascinating true story and central character. The real Desmond Doss was a hero in the truest sense of the word, and he deserves a much better telling of his story.
Beyond the many flaws of the film, I was even more troubled by the glee with which the film seems to approach the battle sequences. Gibson has always been an aficionado of gore and violence (South Park’s skewering of him gets more and more believable with each movie), but there is an undue focus on it here. There is most certainly gore in the gold standard of WWII battles in Saving Private Ryan’s Omaha Beach sequence, but there appears to be less joy taken in it. The men on Omaha beach are scrambling in a terrifying mission and just trying to survive. In Hacksaw a character picks up the dismembered corpse of a fellow soldier and uses it as a shield to run into battle.
That is Smitty, Doss’s foil played by Luke Bracey of Point Break Re-Make anti-fame. He acts as a sort of nice representation of Mel Gibsons true feelings about warfare. He pays plenty of lip-service to Doss’s pacifist beliefs, but in the end, it is Smitty running into battle like a bad-ass hero killing dozens of faceless Japanese soldiers that becomes the John Wayne in Green Berets hero until his glorious, dramatic, and bloodless death. This is the individual depiction of the great warrior talked about in Whitney Terrell’s recent New Republic article decrying the deep lack of complexity in modern war films. He posits that the films of the Vietnam War Era, were far more reflexive and approached the war with a critical eye rather than the one of heroism and unquestioning support we have seen in films about the debacle in Iraq.
The ‘great man’ trope in war films has made a return, the article notes The Hurt Locker, American Sniper, and Hacksaw Ridge as guilty parties, I would argue that Fury fits the bill as well. For all the moral vagueness of the film, it clearly adores and worships Brad Pitt’s vile and vicious tank sergeant. It leans into some of Hacksaw Ridge’s worst hagiographic (and gory) impulses. It’s especially interesting there that a man who actually speaks the language of the enemy hordes continues to see them as subhuman and worthy of murder. He is also the only character to get a dignified and dramatic death. The act of mercy on the part of a young SS soldier at the end of the film does not redeem the aimless violence throughout the rest of the film.
These films, rather than taking a critical eye or a questioning stance to warfare as the greats of the genre tend to do (though there are also grievous errors, see Saving Private Ryan’s Uppham subplot), are more along the lines of the rallying zealous war-cries. The fodder of hawks and jingoists. What makes Hacksaw Ridge one of the more disappointing of the genre, is that the film is ostensibly about a pacifist, but he is forgotten the second the battle starts because Gibson could not reconcile the main character’s ideals with his love of violence and pure excitement at staging a gory battle sequence. Rather than seeing the horror through the eyes of the main character, we are shown a more detached view, roaming the battlefield to see heads, arms, legs, and torsos explode. There is also very little attention given to perhaps the most incredible thing Doss accomplished, he attempted to save two Japanese soldiers among the 74 he lowered from the ridge. Rather than use this as an opportunity to comment on the equalizing nature of death and war, it is quickly mentioned almost as a joke. The film is overly simplistic and pays an almost offensive lip service to Desmond Doss and his ideas while presenting a gory and very single-minded film. This leaves me mystified at all the praise the film has received. It’s another notch in a sad trend of recent American war films.
You can check out Terrell’s article <HERE>.
The article is heavily about Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and whether Ang Lee was true to the book’s decrying of the commodification o the warrior, however I admit I needed to skim those parts as I have yet to see Lee’s latest film.