Christians are wondering whether to steel themselves and take it the blood-bathed violence in Mel Gibson’s new war film, Hacksaw Ridge. I saw it on opening day, and for what it’s worth, my impression is that the war scenes are not too bad. The gore and guts are ferociously R-rated, but most of the carnage is seen as the camera pans piles of dead bodies. There are moments of bullets tearing through soldiers and more than enough footage of entrails bleeding into the dust, but after a while it just becomes rather cartoonish.
In terms of compelling battle scenes, this new film is on a par with Saving Private Ryan, which is probably the gold standard for war stories. Ryan’s story has more depth, but this tale of conscientious objector Desmond Doss is wonderfully inspiring. My one criticism is that, just as in the Tom Hanks film, the bullets and explosions and dust go on for a gratuitously long time and don’t really add to the film’s impact. After just a few minutes of pow! pow! pow!, most audiences can say, “I get it. War is brutal and mostly fruitless. Move on and please develop the dramatic thread.” It would have been good to have more film time explore the persecution Doss endured in boot camp. (Although Vince Vaughn nearly steals the show with some wonderfully dark humor.)
It would also have been interesting to more deeply explore Doss’s Adventist convictions about weapons and warfare and the Sixth Commandment. His commanding officers rightly point out that “Thou shalt not kill” refers to murder, and not to a necessary defense of one’s country. Some more delving into that theological question would have added to the dramatic tension.
But Andrew Garfield’s performance is a tour de force. Interestingly, this war movie has almost no foul language in it. And there are several truly poignant moments; at the end, one of this medic’s most bitter enemies says to the blood-streaked hero, “Never in my life have I been so wrong about a man.” If you don’t tear up at that, man, you’re not human.