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Mel Gibson’s ‘True Story’

Bravery and conscience on ‘Hacksaw Ridge’

Nov. 8, 2016
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Nothing would serve Mel Gibson better at this time in his career than a good redemption story. After lying low for a decade following bad publicity spiked by embarrassing public incidents and personal troubles, he returns as a director with Hacksaw Ridge. Plucked from the annals of history, Hacksaw Ridge recounts the story of Pvt. Desmond T. Doss, the World War II conscientious objector who received the Medal of Honor for bravely tending to wounded G.I.s on Okinawa. Gibson stands by his account. Rather than the usual “Based on a True Story,” the caption at the onset insists: “A True Story.” 

One imagines the dialogue and the neatly framed lynchpin scenes derived in part from the imagination of screenwriters Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight, not from transcripts of actual events, but we’ll take it on credit that the story is accurate in all its essentials. Doss was a backwoods pacifist, a Seventh Day Adventist from the Blue Ridge Mountains who took his mother’s words seriously and literally: “To take another man’s life is the most egregious sin in the world.” In a bit of apt casting, Doss is played by Andrew Garfield, previously known for the latest incarnation of Spider-Man, the ultimate nerdy hero. Garfield’s Doss is a grinning bumpkin two degrees left of caricature yet sincere as the day is long. No coward, Doss could have ridden out the war in a defense plant, contributing to victory with no danger of spilling blood. And yet he had an obsessive determination to serve under his own terms as an army medic.

As unbending as an iron fence post, Doss made his enlistment difficult by punctiliously observing every rule his conscience enacted. He could have been transferred to the Medical Corps after completing basic training, but fails for refusing to touch a rifle. To his mind, handling a deadly instrument constitutes a step toward taking lives. The army is not amused.

Unlike such previous films as Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, which diverged from the norms of commercial moviemaking, Hacksaw Ridge is firmly in the tradition of old-fashioned Hollywood storytelling with its succession of sentimental moments broken by graphic depictions (and allusions) to the bloody mayhem of combat. War isn’t made pretty in Hacksaw Ridge. The gore isn’t discretely concealed. 

The most emotionally powerful scenes belong to Doss’ father (Hugo Weaving), a World War I veteran psychologically scarred by battle, regretful of his decision to enlist and initially scornful of both his sons for their willingness to serve. The film’s ethical argument is interesting. Although Doss proves himself courageous as well as useful on the Okinawa battlefield, saving lives rather than taking them, his fiancé, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), is probably correct for calling him “prideful and stubborn” for his refusal to compromise. Why not pick up a rifle, do the drill and get on with being a medic instead of facing a court martial? And the officers and non-coms who belittle him at first, including his sergeant (Vince Vaughn playing serious), are allowed to make their point: “What do you do when everything you value in this world is under attack?” Here’s one answer: If everyone had taken Doss’ stand, the swastika might be flying over much of the U.S. today.

Hacksaw Ridge

Andrew Garfield

Teresa Palmer

Vince Vaughn

Directed by Mel Gibson

Rated R

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