reviewed by Tom-Tom
The problem with most faith-based movies, speaking as a fellow believer, is that they don’t add up to a real experience in the real world. Afraid to offend its narrow target viewers, e.g. frequenters of places of worship, those who don’t use vulgar language, at least on their respective Sabbath, and those who squirm at said bad language, violence, or sex scenes, the filmmakers give a rose-colored depiction of a ever-so-slightly flawed world easily surmounted by simple adherence to faith-based principles. Once detractors easily fall into line at the efforts of the sinless main characters to appeal to their shared humanity, it all usually ends in an “Awww, shucks, you’re right, man” contrived conclusion. Folks who aren’t particularly religious find the whole rose-colored plot implausible and this stokes the flames of their believers=weirdos/idiots idea further. Certain political parties and attempts at “educational” reform further stoke the flames. In 2004, Director Mel Gibson released The Passion of the Christ and the faithful finally got to see their Savior whipped, beaten, crowned with a thorny crown, staked through hands and feet, and hung up high to suffer a long painful death by asphyxiation and blood loss to be finally impaled by a spear. This was a major breakthrough in faith-based movies which always considered the delicate sensibilities of the faithful.
Here, again, with Hacksaw Ridge, is Mel Gibson with a faith-based movie but one set in the real world with merciless detractors and the unflinching fields of gritty, horrible war, one of the worst the Allied or Axis Powers fought: at the Battle of Okinawa. The entire first half of the film introduces us to Andrew Garfield’s character Desmond Doss who, after a childhood scuffle with his brother which almost results in murder, and a similar altercation with his father later in life, he swears never to touch a gun. Along the way, he saves a man injured in a car crash and after seeing him to the hospital, he becomes interested (with the help of a cute and young nurse there) in learning basic first aid and medicine in the hope to save lives. War arrives and he seeks to join just like his younger brother and his father before him. Papa Doss is played with great emotion by the great Hugo Weaving, who has shown us time and time again that he can do anything. He is a WWI veteran drowning in grief at the death of his fellow soldiers and the nation’s willingness to let their sacrifices turn into a forgotten thing of the past. He’s none too proud to see his sons about to embark on the same journey. He gives a memorable line which should be a necessity in any film attempting to be faith-based at all, “It won’t be hard, it’ll be impossible. You know whatever beliefs you have in your crazy head now, they won’t ever play out. It don’t work that way. And if by some, I don’t know, miracle chance you survive, you won’t be giving no thanks to god. .”
Desmond goes through basic training enduring insults and ridicule but laughing it off as well rather than brooding sulkily all the time. Even when beaten in the night from all sides similar to the basic training scene in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” he refuses to call out his attackers but insists that he “sleeps hard.” The penny drops when, despite nearly full marks during basic training despite all the extra duties he gets for his choice not to use guns, his commanding officer gives him a direct order to touch and handle a gun to which he refuses. Eventually events prevail that he is allowed to go to the front in the capacity as an unarmed medic. This is the arena in which almost every single faith-based film fails. Based on the first half’s light and philosophical tone, we expect to meet a war zone where all the bullets miss and the good guys easily prevail with our lead believer unscathed and protected by his faith. That it doesn’t quite happen like that is the understatement of the year. The war zone is a freaking war zone. It is a merciless meat grinder into which the troops are thrown in. They are shot at from behind smoke and mowed down in terrible, horrible, shockingly graphic form. I was so grateful for this that I almost wanted to cry. A true test of faith. There are quite a few situations he gets into in which a weapon could have saved lives. It is a harrowing final hour and one of the finest war scenes ever filmed.
I only wish there could have been more depth to the Japanese forces other than somehow surviving barrage after barrage of Navy battleship cannon fire and coming out from caves in seemingly endless wave after wave. We see only what the Americans see: an insistent, incessant foe. There is a sort of diminution of the Japanese forces as people. Even the wakisashi (short blade) the commander commits the inevitable seppuku seems shorter than standard. The sight of frail and dirty Japanese soldiers bowing on all fours before the eventually victorious American soldiers seemed a bit much, like the end of any episode of Mito Komon. Other than that, the film excels in many facets and is hopefully one that both believer and everyone else can enjoy together.