Say what you want about him, but Mel Gibson does not go halfway. The 60-year old director, who has one more Best Directing Oscar than Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, Robert Altman, and Spike Lee, has shown in films like The Passion of the Christ (2004), Braveheart (1995), and Apocalypto (2006) that he has the courage of his convictions and vision. Such intentional conviction makes the end of Hacksaw Ridge (2016) a bit of a headscratcher when the vision goes from courageous defense to inspirational slaughter.
The film, about real-life conscientious objector Desmond Doss, has a classic 3-act structure, beginning with Doss’ upbringing in rural Virginia, followed by his enlistment and training in the army as a medic, and ending with the battle of Okinawa. At various times the film brings to mind Sergeant York (1941) when it wrestles with the biblical prohibition against killing, Forrest Gump (1994) when it shows a simple-minded man who’s in love and who’s got to save Bubba (or in Doss’ case, just one more wounded man), and Saving Private Ryan (1998) when it shows the horrors of war.
The central tension in the film is over whether or not it is morally permissible to take up arms, even in defense. World War II is often held up as the ultimate modern example of when war is necessary. Doss’ argument against picking up a rifle is that the Bible says ‘Do not kill’ (the 6th commandment) and he figures he is doing his part to serve his country by helping care for those who are wounded. He doesn’t judge anyone else for fighting and killing, but that doesn’t make it easy for him around men who feel judged by his moral stance, and it certainly doesn’t make it easy when enemy soldiers are running towards him and all he has is a medic bag and a helmet.
In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas, building on the Apostle Paul and Augustine, postulated three main criteria for a just war: First, just war must be initiated and waged by a properly instituted authority such as the state. Second, war must be fought for a good and just purpose rather than for money, new land, or power. Third, peace must be a central motive even in the midst of violence. Just war theorists typically add the ideas of war as last resort, comparative justice, probability of success, and proportionality of expected benefits weighed against expected harm. Of course, for Christians who are not pacifists, any just war theory starts with the assumption that the best interpretation of the 6th commandment is a prohibition against murder and that it does not contradict the power of the sword to punish evildoers and wage war that is given to the state by God (Genesis 9:6, Romans 13:1-4).
Mel Gibson, of course, is religious and even if we didn’t know that about him personally, we would be able to tell from this film’s direction that the filmmaker is on the side of his religious protagonist. One scene in particular makes this abundantly clear, when Doss is being lowered down from the ridge on a stretcher while the camera cranes below him, giving us the feeling of his being lifted to heaven, a Christ figure having obeyed the Father and given up his life for his friends.
The biggest problem here is that the film seems to be talking out of both sides of its mouth. On the one hand, it shows the beauty of pacifism, and that it takes real courage to resist violence. But, on the other hand, there is a scene near the end of the film where Doss’ courage is the very fuel that drives his fellow soldiers to finally finish of their Japanese enemies, a scene that is played with the same passion and bloodlust that we saw when righteous William Wallace united the clans in battle against evil Edward the Longshank’s army.
But maybe, at the end of the day, that’s just the personal contradiction that Doss had to live with and that Gibson is showing us: how can a man work for an army that is waging war while being against war? A pacifist necessarily takes the view that no war is just, but if you help a nation win a war, whether or not you personally eschew violence, you’ve lent your support to the cause of a nation at war and to the just war theory, whether you intend to or not.
Francois Truffaut has been quoted by Roger Ebert as saying “There is no such thing as an anti-war film,” because it’s almost impossible to keep from having a hero in a war film and thus to make certain aspects of war inherently appealing, particularly in cinematic imagery and storytelling. Whether or not Truffaut actually said that, Gibson’s film certainly is Exhibit A of that theory. Maybe making an anti-war film wasn’t Gibson’s intent, however, and at the end of the day, I am grateful for this picture of courage and love in the face of great obstacles and real persecution (particularly because it really happened!).
It’s hard to read the Bible and not see that it is occasionally necessary to take up arms, whether in self-defense or in defense of another. However, it is equally difficult to read the Bible and not see that one of the defining characteristics of God’s people ought to be peacemaking. We live in a world where violence is necessary, and yet we long for a world where swords (and machine guns) will be turned into plowshares.