“Hacksaw Ridge” is intended to inspire. It does. It tells the story of Desmond Doss, the only conscientious objector to ever win the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery. He was a young man who swore never to touch a firearm after nearly killing his brother as a teenager. Determined to be part of the country’s defense in World War II, he absorbs overwhelming abuse during his training but refuses to compromise his principles of gentleness. Interestingly, it is his brutal father who takes his part and rescues him from the military tribunal that seeks to punish him for his rejection of the implements of violence. An homage to the angry God the father of the Old Testament? Perhaps, for indeed, more than any cinematic character in recent memory, he is a Christ figure, turning the other cheek, succoring even his enemy as he tends even to a wounded Japanese soldier. The gory scene in which he returns again and again to the gruesome field of a lost battle, bringing out the wounded, is a perfect harrowing of a perfect contemporary Hell.
“Hacksaw”was directed by Mel Gibson, a name odious among Jews for his anti-Semitic tirade in the wake of a traffic stop in 2006. Gibson’s Passion of Christ (2004) projected Christianity’s founder on the giant screen as the victim of numbingly repetitive brutality, culminating in the Crucifixion. The late Christopher Hitchens, no great lover of religion even in its more culturally housebroken iterations, was unsurprisingly disparaging of The Passion, terming it a “twistedly homoerotic spank movie.” But he was wrong. From the point of view of a believing Christian, for whom the Passion, Jesus’s suffering on behalf of mankind, was a theological watershed and the source of mankind’s hope for salvation, the movie was moving and accurate. There is no tedium in watching the seeds of salvation sown. But something was missing from The Passion as it brought the message of the self-sacrifice of the son of God to life. It treated faith, but it ignored works. For Christianity also features as a central message, a pervasive image, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’s most sustained teaching on humility and compassion, the text where man is offered the opportunity to become a disciple of the Divine.
Hollywood insiders have mumbled the suggestion that Hacksaw Ridge is Gibson’s effort to reinstate himself in the good graces of the entertainment industry’s shakers and movers who have shunned him since his display of hatefulness. If it is true, I think we should consider accepting his regret. Indeed, Hacksaw provides America’s entertainment universe with a hero who gloriously reconnects our Christian country-- a country that has resisted Europe’s stripping off of its Christianity, but whose faith-paint is chipping badly—with its noblest myth, a human silhouette that counters violence with love, that draws vast strength from faith and deploys it to defend the weak. This is not only the story of Christianity at its best-- the Christianity that invented hospitals, sustained the struggle for civil rights and dignified service to the poor –it is also the story of the best in America, the alternative to the John Wayne myth of making the world good by killing bad guys.
I found Hacksaw gratuitously gory, just as was The Passion. But there is a vast difference. In The Passion, the brutality provided a contemporary presentation of the depths of man’s capacity for cruelty, a depth from which only the death of God’s son might raise us. In Hacksaw the carnage serves as the black velvet against which the diamond of man’s capacity to mobilize faith to access miraculously heroic strength is shown. That picture is a gift to our nation, and I for one, am grateful for Desmond Doss’s story and to Mel Gibson.