When Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) was a boy in Virginia, he would play with his brother, and sometimes that play would erupt into a scuffle, then a fight. His father (Hugo Weaving) had been a First World War veteran and the experience had shattered him, but he was still not averse to being strict with his sons, so when Desmond went too far with one fight on the lawn, picking up a brick and walloping his brother with it and knocking him unconscious, his father wanted to beat him. His mother (Rachel Griffiths) persuaded her husband to do otherwise, seeing the boy had been affected enough by his misguided actions, and so began a trail to World War II, where he wanted to help - but refused to fight.
Although he had intermittently tried acting comebacks after his PR disaster personal problems, it was this film that saw Mel Gibson welcomed back to something approximating Hollywood respectability. Drawn from Doss's biography, it took the true tale of a pacifist and made it the most violent film about a conscientious objector ever made, positively relishing those combat sequences that dominated the second half with somewhat unseemly dedication. Here, as in so many other movies, war was Hell, but it made for some captivating images of gore and bloodshed nevertheless, at least according to Gibson's stylings. However, the effect was a curious one, and not as hypocritical as you might expect.
This was largely thanks to Doss as an individual, a highly strong-willed man who did not use that will for violence as so many could and did, but to help his fellow human as best he could. Appealing to the director, he was also a deeply religious man, and it was that faith that drove him on, a Seventh Day Adventist who stuck to the tenets of his beliefs and all the quirks that went with them, if quirks was the right word. This meant joining up for the U.S. military once his home nation entered the war, yet refusing to fight, a paradox that left everyone else wondering what on earth he was hoping to do there since for the overwhelming majority, joining the army meant being prepared to shoot and blow the enemy up.
What Doss hoped to do was train as a medic, not picking up a gun but a medical kit instead, which as we see was almost perverse for the mood of the time, so against the prevailing spirit of the world was it. Gibson and his screenwriters Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight started this unlikely yarn off with an apparent rural idyll, a small town that was idealised for its solid values and country charm, yet as David Lynch had done with Blue Velvet they were keen to show that that apparently placid, wholesome surface can fall away to reveal the harshness of life, be that the young Desmond almost killing his brother while playing, the incidental character who is gorily trapped under a truck, or the soldier with the serious burn scars who emerges from the hospital and glances as Desmond, all reminding him and us that this is not paradise on Earth by any measure.
Even though there are aspects that make us think of what we hope to receive in Heaven, be that inner peace, the requited love, or good company – even a nice landscape. If you did not believe in Heaven, this would not necessarily be a movie for you, as Gibson made it clear that he was pushing a religious agenda, but this was no fire and brimstone as you might have been inflicted with by his The Passion of the Christ, it was a far more ethically positive message than the one where we were told that we had to suffer horribly before receiving our reward. Here this was certainly part of that, but not because anyone here was a sinner, they were more misguided and Doss was there to show them up that killing was no way of getting through life albeit in an atmosphere where murder was not only sanctioned, but the only way they were informed they could survive. Our hero proved that wrong, and for all the misty-eyed representation of all he held intellectually dear, there was genuine steel in the way it was presented. Not exactly unironic, but certainly unaware of some contradictions, or unwilling to acknowledge them, Hacksaw Ridge was more interesting than many slicker war movies. Music by Rupert Gregson-Williams (did we need the angelic choir?).