The following was commissioned by Flickering Myth
Henry Bevan on Hacksaw Ridge and our attitude towards violence…
A ultra-violent pacifist movie. That’s the oxymoron greeting you when you watch Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson’s film about Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a conscientious objector involved in the Battle of Okinawa.
The film is open to multiple readings. Some are obvious, with Doss’s comparison with Jesus shown through Christ poses and self-sacrifice. You can’t accuse Gibson of subtlety. There are also some unnoticed readings, mainly how Gibson comments on how society has become desensitised to violence. This is why a film about a pacifist is full of blood and gore.
Normally this isn’t an issue. Hollywood’s output is often flippant towards violence. Some filmmakers have built careers off a casual gunshot. Superhero movies are filled with meaningless and rampant destruction. Gibson has called out the genre, and irony has reached new levels with the news he’s having a “first date” with Warner Bros. about Suicide Squad 2, a meaningless sequel to a film that is the very definition of the word “meaningless”.
Gibson’s filmography has never shied away from splatter effects. Braveheart features his character being hung, drawn and quartered. The Last Temptation of Christ is full of whipping, and Apocalypto has human sacrifices. But, his violence has a point. After Saving Private Ryan, making a sanitised war film is unacceptable — filmmakers must show the horror and with Hacksaw Ridge Gibson overcompensates so he can shock us out of apathy.
His soldiers act like macho video game characters, often shooting from the hip or using fallen comrades as shields. As we are introduced to Doss’s fellow recruits, they are throwing knives at each other. Instead of playing cards, they throw knives. The film sets this up as an excuse for Serjeant Howell’s (Vince Vaughn) sarcastic asides, but it informs us this world views violence as an everyday occurrence. The characters don’t flinch at the prospect of killing. They, like us, are desensitised to violence.
The recruits haze Doss because he won’t take up arms. The characters are not phased because they believe he’ll get them killed, they’re phased because he wants to save lives. The army may pretend they care about his life, but he is expendable. Doss’s refusal to fire a gun impacts the US’s agenda. They want to go all scorched earth on the Japanese. Doss wanting to save people is a sign of resistance to the war.
It’s an anti-war sentiment Gibson exploits in Hacksaw Ridge‘s best sequence as Doss saves everyone he can find, regardless of the flag they wear. As the war destroys the world, Doss succeeds in “putting a little piece of the world back together again”. The pointlessness of war is dramatically highlighted. Whilst the film is more austere during this sequence, a bit of video game violence sneaks in. As Doss drags Howell to safety on a makeshift sleigh, and Howell shoots the approaching army, the film can’t help itself and slips into some old-fashioned co-op antics.
This is where the violence becomes satirical. In a world where drones turn war into a video game and everyone plays Call of Duty, Gibson gives us a bit of bite. By reminding people of their own adventures on a WW2 simulator, including a quick first-person camera angle down a machine gun scope, Gibson condemns our lackadaisical attitude towards violence. The reason the violence in this movie about a pacifist is so extreme is to make us pay attention. It’s to make us realise violence is not normal, and we shouldn’t treat it as such.