Movie Review: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
It’s Mel Gibson, so it’s God and gore again. Question: Is it God because of the gore? In Mel’s worldview, does the gore—the suffering, the awareness that we are meat and food for rats —lead us to God? Make us search beyond ourselves? Lift us up?
I liked “Hacksaw Ridge,” by the way. The first half is sweet, the second half harrowing and bloody. It’s mildly, unapologetically corny and not overlong.
But it begins by stealing from one of the greatest movies ever made.
The Thin Red Likeness
This is the open. We get slow-motion shots of war in the Pacific: men charging and yelling and screaming in pain and dying; and all the while a voiceover with a thick Southern accent talks about God:
Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? Walked with? The brother. The friend. Darkness and light, strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face?
Sorry, that’s Pvt. Train from Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line,” one of the greatest movies ever made. This is what we hear in “Hacksaw Ridge.” It’s the voice of our main character, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), the second conscientious objector, after Sgt. York, to win the Medal of Honor, and the first to do so without carrying a weapon:
Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the Earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and His understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall. But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar like wings on eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not grow faint.
It’s interesting comparing the two voiceovers. Malick’s is all question marks. It’s uncertain, questioning, probing. It’s trying to translate the awful dichotomy of the world into the oneness we long for.
Doss’ voiceover begins with a question, too, but it already has the answer (God), which it then tells us. It’s not even Doss telling us; it’s Isaiah 40, 28-31. What it says prefigures the movie’s big moment—Doss, all alone at night, rescuing 75 wounded men, one by one, who were left behind on Hacksaw Ridge—but the promise within the verse sounds odd to my secular ears. It’s a little too quid pro quo: You give God belief, He gives you energy. It’s full of the suspect promises of a late-night infomercial. Apparently God is to us as spinach is to Popeye.
From that Malick-esque open, we cut to 16 years earlier and two brothers hiking and playing and fighting in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. In the midst of a wrestling match on the lawn, young Desmond picks up a rock and clocks his brother, nearly killing him. In the horrified aftermath, he stands before a religious painting and its depiction of Cain and Abel, so near to what he himself did, and finds God.
Now a leap forward. Desmond is in his early 20s helping out at church when there’s a car accident out front. (The streets of rural Virginia, 1941, prove suprisingly dangerous in this film.) His makeshift tourniquet saves a leg, and at the hospital he comes across a beautiful nurse, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), whom he stares at starry-eyed. Their courtship is sweet. Then war calls. Despite being a Seventh-day Adventist who won’t touch a gun, Desmond signs up. He needs to do his duty.
A few thoughts on his platoon:
- I never bought Vince Vaughn as the tough-talking drill sergeant. He’s not actor enough. Also not in shape enough. At one point, he threatens his men during a march by saying they’ll have to keep going until he drops. Me: “I’ll take those odds.”
- At least, in this quintessential story, Vaughn is American. Everyone else, and I mean everyone else, is Aussie: mom (Rachel Griffiths), pop (Hugo Weaving), girl (Palmer); Smitty, Teach, Grease, Vito; Capt., Lt. Col., Col. Was it cheaper this way? Is Mel just prejudiced against Americans?
- The platoon itself is all walks of life: the tough Brooklynite, the cowboy, the Jew, the hillbilly, the card shark. Was it really like this back then? Or was it only like this in the movies back then?
- Speaking of: There’s an odd character, Zane (Luke Pegler, Aussie), who is nicknamed “Hollywood” because he loves his own looks so much. He’s got a cheesy Clark Gable moustache and a body that’s way too buff for the times. We first meet him naked, doing chinups. Once at Okinawa he's a bit cowardly. Is this Mel’s attack on Tinsel Town? Full of preeners whose muscle doesn’t match their spirit or soul?
I was a bit confused by the date they landed on Okinawa. You get the sense Doss signed up shortly after Pearl Harbor (he did: April 1, 1942), yet after basic training it’s suddenly May 1945. Where have they been for three years? Turns out Leyte and Guam, where Doss won the Bronze Star, but, for dramatic effect, Mel skips this and pretends the platoon is green.
That said, he handles the main set piece—Hacksaw Ridge, a.ka. the Maeda Escarpment—well. Does he go over-the-top with his battle scenes? Probably. It’s Mel. But we get a real feel for what it’s like to face a group of men trying to kill you. Also for how quickly our bodies become hamburger.
Aussie cast, Chinese aud
You know what’s shocking about “Hacksaw Ridge” besides the carnage? The fact that it took so long for Hollywood to tell the story. But apparently Doss didn’t want his story told. In the 1950s, producer Hal B. Wallis gave it a shot, with WWII hero Audie Murphy in the lead, but Doss wouldn’t budge. It wasn’t until 2001, two years before his death, that he was finally convinced that his story should be seen on the silver screen.
Another shocker: Where was the audience? The people who say Hollywood is ignoring them and their values? This thing has God, country, good reviews, Academy Award nominations, and it was helmed by their man, crazy Mel, whose “Passion of the Christ” grossed $370 million in 2004. Yet “Hacksaw” grossed almost as much in China ($62 million) as it did here ($66). USA? USA? USA?