It was said that Desmond Doss, who served in World War II without weapons due to his pacifist Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs, turned down all book and movie requests about his war experiences, wary of the possibility that his life and faith would either be inaccurately portrayed or used for sensationalistic reasons. Despite this, his story has been dramatized in Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson’s first directorial effort in a decade. Doss’ son has asserted that the film is accurate – although, from my layman’s perspective, certain scenes and passages of dialogue felt so contrived that they had to have come from the mind of a screenwriter. I also now understand Doss’ concerns over sensationalism; the portrayal of his pacifism is so heightened and in-your-face that it comes off as emotionally manipulative.
I don’t know if Gibson, a devout Catholic, shares in Doss’ non-violent beliefs, although it’s obvious that his film uses religion to send an anti-war message. The vast majority of the soldier characters, who do resort to violence, engage in several protracted battles of astounding brutality – soldiers are graphically blown apart, set ablaze, stabbed, and shot up – and end up either dead or severely wounded; this is in stark contrast to Doss, who fires not a single shot and gets through every battle with nothing more than a dirty face and a few superficial wounds. It must also be noted that he serves as a medic, which is all about healing, not harming. At a certain point, he’s regarded by the rest of his squad with the same reverential awe of a saint.
I have no objection to Doss as a person or even as a dramatized character. What I do object to is the filmmakers using Doss’ personal beliefs as a tool for proselytizing. It’s as if moviegoers are being told that they should follow Doss’ example, if not because peace is preferable to violence, then because it’s what the Lord commands. At the risk of stating the obvious, not everyone believes the same way as Doss. Hell, not everyone believes the same way as Gibson; he has actually stated that his own wife is likely to end up in hell simply because, though a Christian, she isn’t Catholic. He’d have a field day with me. No, I’m not an atheist, but I certainly don’t adhere to the doctrines of Christianity, or any other religion.
But let me get off of my soapbox and return to Hacksaw Ridge. To be as fair as possible, there are aspects of it that I liked. Andrew Garfield’s convincing portrayal of Doss, for example, could very well get him noticed by the Academy and the Hollywood Foreign Press. And while I didn’t like that the battle sequences were in the service of Gibson’s agenda, I appreciated the fact that he refused to shield audiences from the very repulsive, very bloody realities of war. As with any good violent movie, you shouldn’t be entertained by what you see; you should fully believe that bullets are tearing through flesh and bone, and that arteries spurt blood, and that rats will come out of their holes and feast on the corpses rotting on the battlefield, and you should be disgusted by it.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t make up for Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan’s less-than-compelling screenplay. Despite Doss’ son vouching for the film’s authenticity, there are specific scenes that I simply couldn’t buy into. Consider the day Doss first arrives at Fort Jackson; he meets his sergeant (Vince Vaughn), who, in true Hollywood fashion, immediately finds and takes advantage of the new soldiers’ smallest or most obvious flaws. This would include an inexplicably naked man, who’s forced to go through his day of basic training in the same state. I admit that I’ve never served in the Army, but this is a ludicrous extreme I refuse to believe an actual sergeant would go to – to say nothing of the fact that it adds crude humor to a film that shouldn’t have any.
Also consider the scenes after Doss makes his religious beliefs clear to his unit; the sergeant and his captain (Sam Worthington) are initially so aghast by his audacity that, for a time, they actually conspire to turn the other soldiers against him. Naturally, the soldiers respond with contempt. They even beat the crap out of him one night. But of course Doss is very a strong-willed and patriotic young man, which is to say that he not only refuses to give up and go home but also doesn’t divulge the names of the soldiers that beat him. Really, how likely is it that this actually happened? Just before the end credits of Hacksaw Ridge, we see interview footage of the real Desmond Doss three years before his death; maybe it would have been better to take the remainder of that footage and release it as a feature-length documentary. At least then, I’d know that his beliefs were his own and wouldn’t be used by the filmmakers to preach at us.