“With the world so set on tearing itself apart, it don’t seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together.”
– Desmond Doss, Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
Sometimes you see a movie that profoundly impacts your life, changing the way you view the world and teaching you a little something about yourself. The Rocky films taught me that even the underdog can triumph in the face of adversity, while The Lord of the Rings trilogy taught me about the necessity of social support in the long and perilous journeys we take to reach our goals.
Hacksaw Ridge (2016) taught me a truth that I’d overlooked this whole time.
Until now, I figured the filmmaking medium had nothing else to offer in terms of substance, much less in terms of violence. I thought I had seen it all, from arms and limbs getting blown off to intestines getting ripped out. Of course, violence isn’t a rare commodity in films these days, but it almost never means anything. On the other hand, Mel Gibson’s latest war drama displays its violent imagery in such a way that leaves you particularly on-edge, obscuring the distinction between what’s real and what’s fictional.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Hacksaw Ridge, this biographical World War II film follows the story of Desmond Doss, a man who became the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor for his awe-inspiring courage in the line of battle. The beautiful thing about Hacksaw Ridge is that it is more the exception than it is the rule: Desmond Doss never picked up a weapon once, and saved 75 men. It’s an important story to be told, but even more importantly it’s a movie that everyone should see at least once in their lifetimes.
What set Hacksaw Ridge apart so drastically from every other war film I’ve seen is that it disturbed in a way that not even Saving Private Ryan could pull off, and Saving Private Ryan is known for triggering PTSD episodes in actual war veterans who fought on Omaha Beach. It didn’t help that the theater I was in had the sound jacked up to what seemed like 100 decibels.
In the film Black Hawk Down, another fantastic war film by Ridley Scott that I urge everyone to see, the character named “Hoot” (played by Eric Bana), says “Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window.” And he’s right. Whatever political quarrels that are responsible for the battle you find yourself a part of seize to matter once it starts raining gunfire, and Hacksaw Ridge illustrates this unsettling maxim quite well. The first 75 minutes of the film could best be described as a standard PG-13 tearjerker, taking time to establish Desmond as a man who stands by his principles without question. However, the second half hits you like a truck: men are alarmingly incinerated alive, stabbed, blown up, ripped to shreds, and torn apart. The shock of it all is so immobilizing that you’d almost forget what’s happening.
If the phrase “Hell on Earth” were taken literally, then Hacksaw Ridge is about as close as you could get to it, and in that respect Gibson conveys his overall message effectively. This message, which no other director (not even Spielberg) has been able to articulate enough, is that war is a circumstance that you never want to find yourself in. It’s a brutal, bloody, disgusting, disorienting, confusing, and chaotic mess of events in which your closest friends can indiscriminately and quite frustratingly, die in the blink of an eye. As much of a knack for violence that Gibson has, Hacksaw Ridge makes it perfectly clear that you should be averted, and not attracted, to war.
Ultimately, it’s Desmond’s altruism and refusal to take a life that counterbalances Gibson’s horrifying depiction of the chaos on the Pacific Theatre. I walked away from the film with a deeper appreciation for the heroes that have fought for our country, and the sacrifices they have made to bestow the freedoms and liberties that I benefit from every day. At the same time, I couldn’t help but feel selfish, pondering why it had to take a movie for me to really appreciate the people who’ve put their lives on the line. Now, every time I see an American flag, I always commemorate their fortitude and most of all, their bravery.
Hacksaw Ridge also made me rethink my current religious stance. Before, I always considered myself close-minded to the prospect of faith, but then I saw what faith can do for people: it can save their lives. I figured, “Well, if it was Desmond’s belief system that saved these 75 men, then obviously religion can’t be all that bad.” Therefore, I no longer treat religion as a glorified, money-making institution, but rather as a force for good in the world. In addition, while I was deeply agitated by the film’s abominable spin on violence, I at least took solace in knowing that there is an intrinsic decency in man that transcends even the worst atrocities that he is capable of committing.
I want to say that Hacksaw Ridge is a 100% accurate portrayal of war, but really, it isn’t. Indeed, the film does a stellar job at giving the audience a clear picture of war, but at the end of the day it is still “just a film.” Real war is much worse than what is depicted in movies, and we can all say that we know what it’s like, but we don’t—we can’t. We would need to have fought on the front lines ourselves to authentically empathize with the trauma our heroes have suffered through.
Again, I encourage you to see Hacksaw Ridge if you haven’t already. I can understand why the film isn’t for everyone, as the war sequences were too much for even me to stomach, yet it exemplifies a kind of richness that’s hard to find in media. And that, in itself, is the mark of a fantastic film.