“I’m not a conscientious objector, sir. I’m a conscientious co-operator,” explains Andrew Garfield’s Desmond Doss, now bereft of his Spiderman protein shake buffness, instead carved out of rippled hardwood by U.S. military basic training, yet still lanky enough that Vince Vaughn’s Army sergeant dubs him Private Cornstalk.
Doss is, however, technically lying. Which is why he’s now in front of his commanding officer Capt. Glover (played by Sam Worthington, with likely one of the worst down home accents ever), telling him why he can’t pick up a gun but has enlisted anyway as a combat medic.
Doss IS what’s called a CO (conscientious objector), which is at the crux of Mel Gibson’s WW2 epic: why would a skinny, vegetarian from Virginia, unwilling to train on Saturdays let alone carry a gun, want to persist in military service? Why would anyone, even a medic, go to war unarmed?
We’ll go into the details of this moral paradigm, in a bit. First, hats off to Mad Mel for helming a war epic run through with deep principles. Say what you will about the man but he knows how to make the human shine amid the fog of war. We’ve seen it in his depiction of fatherhood amid the French-American war in The Patriot, the savage grit of Apocalypto, and of course in Braveheart. And Hacksaw Ridge is no different. Aided by an excellent script from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan and Australian writer Andrew Knight, Gibson sends his meek lamb Doss into the chaos of Okinawa fairly naïve, hugely idealistic, and greatly unprepared; a combo that usually gets soldiers killed, firm belief in the armor of God notwithstanding.
This is a true story by the by, and despite small dramatic tweaks and character amalgams, the story of Desmond Doss can be Googled. A documentary called The Conscientious Objector is also available in full on YouTube if you want to jump the gun and see how it all ends. But I recommend going into this one cold.
The suspense and craft of the screenplay is undeniable, in a visual language that is carried square on his shoulders by Garfield with a default wide, awed-at-everything eyes and expression. He’s chided and brutalized by his co-trainees and even his father Tom (Hugo Weaving as a grizzled WW1 vet with a bad case of PTSD), points out the folly of wanting the world to conform to your beliefs, as he and Desmond stand in front of the tombstones of his father’s friends: “You gotta sit and think and pray about everything. Look at cha: you’re doing it right now!”
It’s not an unfair assessment at all. Later, it’s echoed for emphasis by Vaughn’s Sgt. Howell as he tells the rest of the recruits that Doss is a despicable CO: “Do not look to Pvt. Doss to save you on the battlefield! For he will be undoubtedly be too busy wrestling with his conscience to assist.”
So what exactly is a CO? A pacifist who wants no part of the military, even as a non-combatant. He is a peacenik and advocates of non-violence. In legalese he is an "individual who has claimed the right to refuse to perform military service on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience, or religion. In general, conscientious objector status is considered only in the context of military conscription and is not applicable to volunteer military forces.” COs in the U.S who refused to serve in the military when they were drafted were usually jailed or classified as mentally ill. But by 1940, COs were finally offered alternate service from war, as fire fighters or menial handymen in psychiatric hospitals. Quakers, Mennonites, and Seventh Day Adventists usually availed of CO status due to their moral and ethical attitudes towards violence.
Garfield’s time in Silence, Scorsese’s rambling love letter to Catholicism, looks like it’s served him well in portraying Doss, despite clunky dialogue that would make a lesser actor fold. He is a contemplative monk in trousers and a fuzzy sweater vest, imbued with joy despite domestic trauma in the first part of the movie. We get to know him as both ordinary and scrupulous. Helping out a man in a car accident outside the church he’s working at as a handyman sends him to a fortuitous trip to the local hospital full of vets and a beautiful nurse (Teresa Palmer) that he instantly falls in love with. Later, we also find out the personal reasons why Doss was motivated into his CO-ness.
By the time they’re deployed, Garfield eschews the obvious and exaggerated superhero expressiveness that made him giant in Amazing Spiderman, and the outbursts of caricature we first saw in The Social Network when he played Eduardo Saverin. It’s in the second part of the movie that Gibson’s directorial hand goes into full swing, crafting images of violence like sigils of theatrical grandeur with our eyes as tablets. Okinawa’s massive and towering Maeda Escarpment (Hacksaw Ridge to the Allies) is a steep and looming 400-foot cliff—something right out of a Boschian hell—bristling with heavily fortified machine-gun nests, booby traps, and screaming Japanese soldiers with bayonets pouring out of caves and swarming over foxholes like a Zerg horde.
A far cry from the grass and trees palette of the U.S. training grounds, and most certainly a world away from Private Doss’s musings in boot camp about how to circumvent Army regulations and all the bullying he received so he could go to this devastation. Doss’s face looking up at the climb to the Ridge says it all: “I fought the Army to go to this?!”
After the full-length documentary on Doss was released, that documentarist also secured permission to make a movie adaptation of his life. But it took more than a decade for producer Bill Mechanic to convince Mel Gibson to accept the project. “I first sent Mel the script for Hacksaw Ridge in 2002, and in 2010, and then again in 2014,” recalled Mechanic. “…Up until the third time I sent it, Mel had been more interested in directing projects that he’d developed himself. In 2014, he read it overnight and by the morning he was essentially in.”
It might be hard, after everything that’s happened in Hollywood, not to look at Hacksaw Ridge as Gibson’s petition for redemption (a potential shot at the Suicide Squad sequel director’s chair has also been reported)—especially when you behold the final, lingering shot (you’ll see!). But what’s clear is that with this movie, we’ve been given one of the most graphic accounts of life during wartime, from someone who literally walked among his enemies unarmed.
Mel Gibson wrote in his “Director’s Statement” on the movie: “In a cinematic landscape overrun with fictional ‘superheroes,’ I thought it was time to celebrate a real one.”
Hacksaw Ridge is nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Mel Gibson), Best Actor (Andrew Garfield) and Best Film Editing. It is rated “R-16 Without Cuts” and opens in Philippine cinemas on Feb 22, 2017.