The most important lesson any small business person, artist, or musician has to learn is to separate themselves from their work. I’ll elaborate: in the creative process and in the case of a small business, the proprietor of the business or the artist creates something which will in all likelihood be commented on and critiqued by others. The most common mistake made (I’m looking at you, art students) is to equate the criticism of the work with criticism of yourself. This is not the case. Though you put your heart and soul into creating the work, or producing the product, if it doesn’t turn out or the reception to it isn’t great, don’t consider that a critique of you! Learn from the criticism and put that knowledge into making it better or doing it better next time! This leads me to Hacksaw Ridge.
It is an unpopular position, to say the least, to criticize anything to do with the World Wars, likely because people see that as synonymous with criticizing veterans and their sacrifice. This is a distinction I’d like to make. I’m criticizing the filmmaking of Hacksaw Ridge, not the sacrifice that the war vets have made.
This film really was not spectacular. It’s a classic American flick in every way, but it’s not the good kind of classic like Citizen Kane, it’s the trope kind of classic like Michael Bay and his explosions. It’s a “boy falls in love with girl he just met, goes on three dates, kisses twice, and then marries her” kind of classic American flick. The whole first hour of the film could be compacted into something around 20 minutes and the second half could use some creative cutting as well. What I really mean is that the whole two hours of the film isn’t totally wasted, about 45 minutes of your time spent in the theatre will be worthwhile; if you make it through the first hour the second is easy.
The film has a great story to tell but it gets lost in filmmaking cliches and pre-assembled plot fixtures. A drunkard father beats his son because he doesn’t know how to deal with the trauma of fighting in WWI; a bible-thumping Christian boy that wins over his haters with love; a boy becomes a medic when he grows up because he nearly killed a friend when he was young; one son is macho while the other is a sweetheart. (Guess who daddy loves more.) You’ve seen all of these before.
Hacksaw Ridge purports all the values you’d expect deep America to: war is great, guns are good, but Jesus is better; P.S. respect the vets. It’s a period film set in the ‘50s so I guess that’s standard procedure. This is the kind of story I’d expect every Trump voter to adore; there’s casual racism and every American male stereotype has a role on the cast. I don’t have an issue with the dominant Christian narrative of the film, but I have an issue with how cluttered a character the protagonist is made out to be.
Andrew Garfield plays the role of Private Desmond Doss, the first religious-conscientious objector to win the Congressional Medal of Honor without taking up arms. Doss is portrayed as the most stereotypical and dumbed down version of a Christian, his intellect is no match for his devotion. Aside from the issues I have with this stereotyping, director Mel Gibson muddles the introduction of the film so much that the impatient viewer might tend towards hating Doss, which is not at all the intent of the story. Gibson is following in the steps of Passion of the Christ as he tells another predominantly Christian narrative, yet at the same time manages to alienate much of his Christian audience by losing the thread of the story in gore and spectacle by the time the second half of the film starts.
Telling a war story in two parts can work very well, just look at Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 anti-war thriller. Just like Kubrick, Gibson changes focus halfway through the film from the atmosphere and hype around war portrayed at home to the actuality of war as represented by troops in battle. Gibson’s homage to Full Metal Jacket is most obvious through his own rendition of the famous scene where Sergeant Hartman berates and degrades his new recruits as he tells them he is now their god. Gibson’s rendition of this scene however, has Vince Vaughn playing the drill sergeant, which makes the whole scene incredibly difficult to interpret. Vaughn’s serious demeanor in berating the men is an attempt at copying Kubrick, but weird comedic timing and blatant humour absolutely ruin the intensity of the scene, which detracts from the parallel between the two films, leaving the audience feeling weird. Gibson uses numerous instances of homage to Full Metal Jacket but makes light of things as compared to Kubrick. He references an anti-war existentialist film to try to further his war-is-a-man’s-duty agenda with a Christian protagonist. “It’s not killing if it happens in war,” says one character.
I hadn’t realized how war is such a huge part of North American culture before watching this film. I’ve watched my roommate play hours upon hours of Battlefield 1 and I’ve seen war every single day in the news. It took this film and my angst towards it for me to really clue into how war has been normalized and glorified in our culture. It’s tough to criticize when you see sacrifice exemplified; this film does an excellent job of relaying the sheer number of soldiers that participated and sacrificed their lives for something they believed in.
Without detracting from the sacrifice, consider how easily misguided these soldiers were. 16.1 million American soldiers participated in the Second World War — that’s nearly half the population of Canada. When you see the countless men blown apart in Hacksaw Ridge you realize that the forces in charge have little care for the individuals and waste them at the cost of achieving victory. The spectacle of Hacksaw Ridge is a sobering look at the mechanics and men involved in WWII and it inspires awe for the sacrifice that was made, but the film itself is a far cry from becoming a classic.