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Hacksaw Ridge

November 4, 2016
Hacksaw Ridge

On some level I have to thank Mel Gibson for helping crystalize a question that has been floating around in my head for some time: what moral weight, if any, is borne by horror?

I should back up to explain. Since Tom Brokaw coined the term “The Greatest Generation”, there has been a steady return to World War II movies from the morally-conflicted Vietnam movies that ruled Hollywood at the time. And there has been a steady increase in the violence and brutality on display. In part this comes from the same “gritty, realistic” place as the recent Superman and Batman movies, so you can imagine how much I buy that argument. But it also suggests that part of what made The Greatest Generation, well, great is how much they went through. Even when you get away from the overt machismo, Angelia Jolie’s Unbroken is designed from the title down to praise Louie Zamperini as much for sheer stamina as anything else.

But now we come to Hacksaw Ridge, which positions Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) not just as a Great Man, but as a Good Man. The greatness at least seems beyond question. During the attempt to take Okinawa, American troops had to scale a four-hundred-foot escarpment to even reach the battlefield. When driven back, Doss refused to seek cover, instead personally carrying 75 casualties one at a time and lowering them down the cliff on a rope. His goodness, too, I’m sure of. As crazy as it seems, he carried out this and all his other duties as a front-line medic without so much as a sidearm, in obedience to his beliefs as a Seventh-day Adventist.

The question, though, is how does the director present this goodness to the audience? It is unquestionably virtuous of Doss to go back into harm’s way, but do we need — and here I must apologize to any squeamish readers — to see a bullet blow one man’s face into a spatter across another man’s face? Do we need to see limbs turned into hamburger in order to believe in the danger Doss faced? My question to Gibson is whether he includes the shocking level of gore out of some belief that it lends greater moral weight to Doss’ actions.

It’s tempting to say that of course it’s just cynical pandering to audiences that, like the one at the screening I attended, break out into whoops and cheers at the sight of metal ripping through flesh. As much as Gibson may say he means Hacksaw Ridge as an anti-war film, he runs face-first into Truffaut’s observation that the cinematic treatment almost necessarily glorifies what it depicts, and he shows no care to avoid that result.

But I don’t believe Gibson is cynically courting this audience while claiming the opposite, nor do I believe that he was simply too clueless to think of any other way of directing the battle action. I believe that the horrifying violence is an intentional choice on his part, stemming from his own belief that suffering is correlated with goodness. Remember, this is the man who turned the Passion narrative into a sadomasochistic spectacle. And, when it comes down to it, I don’t agree with him.

The whole idea points to Gibson’s position as a virtue ethicist, believing that actions are Good because they follow certain prescribed rules. The more Doss must endure in the process of adhering to his rules, the more strongly his adherence signals his virtue. Rescuing his fallen comrades with no way to defend himself is thus not mere heroism; it is an indication of how strongly he obeys his moral strictures. He verges on the Kantian hero who tells the ax-murderer where his own friend is hiding, because lying is wrong.

The clincher of Gibson’s ethical philosophy is his treatment of the Japanese soldiers. To his credit, he doesn’t treat them as bloodless targets in a shooting gallery, the way many recent movies like Lone Survivor do. They suffer too, though not quite so explicitly as the Americans. But their behavior is almost thoroughly alien, and Gibson lingers over their brutality, eager to show how they are Not Like Us. Again, it works to throw Doss’ non-violence into sharp relief against their disregard for human life.

And this is the real departure of Gibson’s sense of ethics, not in what actions are good, but in the reasons why they are good. Doss’ non-violence is not presented as good because the Japanese soldiers are human beings with inner lives as rich and complicated as any American’s, and because they are as deserving of love and respect as anyone else. It’s good because it shows just how rigidly he will adhere to the rule. Even when it comes to his own abusive father, Doss’ restraint is about his own strength of character rather than the universal need for love and mercy.

It’s a solipsistic viewpoint, always pointing back to the self rather than directing it out to the other. To Gibson, the biblical affirmation to turn the other cheek is more a call to toughness and endurance, rather than an entreaty to step out of one’s own small perspective. He and I may both see much to admire in Desmond Doss, but his movie presents the case in a way I just can’t support.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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