November 3, 2016
Brett McCracken is a Los Angeles-based writer and journalist. He is the author of Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker, 2013), ... Read More
The Chosen One
Mel Gibson, by his own admission, does not live up to the standard of Desmond Doss. Neither does Andrew Garfield, who plays Doss in Gibson’s new film about his life, Hacksaw Ridge (in theaters November 4).
Yet both Garfield and Gibson, men born in U.S. but raised abroad, find inspiration in the classic American tale Hacksaw Ridge tells about Doss: a tale of convictions tested and courageous faith (literally) under fire.
Doss was a medic in World War II and America’s first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor. A devout Seventh Day Adventist, Doss’s pacifism kept him from wielding a rifle. Yet he felt compelled to join the Army; he wanted to save lives and not take them.
He endured scorn and persecution for this conviction, but went on to become a legendary hero. Doss survived some of the bloodiest fighting in the Pacific, and in the process he saved scores of his fellow soldiers from death—all without ever touching a weapon.
Justly portraying a complex hero like Doss was a challenge for Garfield, more so than a comic book hero like Spiderman, who he portrayed in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and its sequel.
“It was difficult to live up to that goodness, that purity, that guilelessness and childlikeness,” Garfield says of playing Doss. “It’s hard to hang around with him because I would disappoint myself when the day was over. I would fall back into my own flawed nature, my own jealousies and insecurities, my own irritations that just weren’t present as I was inhabiting Desmond.”
Gibson, too, finds the example of Doss a challenge to live up to.
“I look at a guy like this and think, ‘I don’t know that I have that much faith.’ I don’t think I’m going into a battlefield with no weapon, repeatedly crawling into enemy fire to save my fellow man,” Gibson says. “I look at the faith and convictions of Desmond Doss and I’m inspired by it. I doubt that I could do it.”
It's a very hard thing to stay true to oneself and one's convictions in the culture we're in right now. Yet it's those people who shape the change that a culture needs, by standing strong in the midst of terrible storms. - Andrew Garfield
The seemingly unattainable level of faith exemplified by Doss is not a reason to write off the story as unrelatable or inauthentic, however. On the contrary, both Garfield and Gibson see the “superhuman” faith of Doss as an important message of hope for a cynical and broken world.
“We need these examples, these stories, these inspirations,” Gibson says. “[The story] makes us better because we realize it’s possible. It’s possible to stand by your convictions. It’s possible to have that kind of courage and that kind of faith. It’s possible to keep your equilibrium and principles and adhere to the higher aspect of your calling in the midst of a situation that turns most men into animals.”
Broken Bodies and Broken Men
By war film standards, and even by Gibson’s own standards of cinematic violence (see Braveheart, The Patriot, Apocalypto, etc.), Hacksaw Ridge is a bloodbath. Its name, which sounds like it could be the title of an Eli Roth torture film, refers to a pivotal ridge at Okinawa, where U.S. infantrymen endured a relentless barrage of “steel rain” from a well-positioned Japanese army in April and May 1945.
Though at times they veer into Tarantino-levels of gore, Gibson’s battle scenes are among the best in cinema since the opening sequence of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan redefined the genre. The film’s brutal violence has provoked some critics to note a possible incongruity, however, in a film about pacifism that so revels in blowing off limbs and hacking off heads.
But Gibson defends the violence as a crucial means to understand the level of Doss’s sacrifice, courage and convictions.
“I think you have to understand the ferocity of war, even as an audience member to be a little bit in the foxhole, to have your breath taken away by the hell of war,” he says. “War has to be hell. Otherwise the sacrifice and the courage and the mammoth faith of this man doesn’t come through. You have to see what he was up against.”
Gibson said he’s shown Hacksaw Ridge to veterans, including disabled veterans and those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, who all found the depiction frightfully accurate. Gibson even cast a veteran who lost his legs in Afghanistan in a small role as a maimed soldier.
“I was very gratified that so many [veterans] we have shown it to, to the man I think, found it very cathartic but also therapeutic,” he says.
It’s likely that Gibson himself, war-torn in another sense, found making Hacksaw Ridge cathartic and therapeutic.
The world hasn’t seen or heard much from Gibson in the last decade, since around the time of his last film as a director, Apocalypto (2006). The actor-director’s infamous fall from grace included a DUI arrest in Malibu, a divorce from his wife of 26 years, a troubled short-term relationship with Oksana Grigorieva, allegations of domestic violence, struggles with anger and alcoholism, rehab, anti-Semitic rants and more. Gibson became persona non grata in Hollywood. There were calls to boycott his films. He was dropped by his agency. It was uncertain whether Gibson, who won the best director and best picture Oscar for Braveheart in 1996, would ever work in Hollywood again.
[The Story] Makes us better because we realize it's possible. It's possible to stand by your convictions. It's possible to have that kind of courage and that kind of faith. - Mel Gibson
And yet nearly 12 years after he hit another career high—and became a darling of religious communities the world over—with The Passion of the Christ in 2004, Gibson is on a path of redemption.
This summer he received critical praise for his impressive turn in Blood Father, an underseen but provocative film in which Gibson plays a version of himself (father, recovering alcoholic, man of faith, Mad Max). He’ll soon star alongside Kurt Russell and Kate Hudson in The Barbary Coast, a TV series about the California Gold Rush, and then alongside Sean Penn in an adaptation of Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman, about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Gibson is even talking about a sequel to The Passion that would focus on the resurrection of Christ and events after and before.
But Hacksaw Ridge is the true announcement of Gibson’s return.
The film received a 10-minute standing ovation when it premiered in September at the Venice Film Festival, and there is ample critical and awards buzz surrounding the film.
Now 60, Gibson is as blunt and surly as ever (in recent interviews he ranted about Hollywood big budget superhero films, calling Batman v. Superman “a piece of sh--”), but like many artists he channels personal flaws into ambitious craft.
Variety’s Owen Gleiberman describes Hacksaw Ridge as “conceived and presented as an act of atonement,” which seems consistent with what Gibson himself has said recently.
“I think if you make a film, your personality is sort of in the film, if it’s coherent and sticks together,” Gibson said. “I’ve done a lot of work on myself these last 10 years. I’ve deliberately kept a low profile. I didn’t want to just do the celebrity rehab thing for two weeks, declare myself cured and then screw up again. I think the best way somebody can show they’re sorry is to fix themselves and that’s what I’ve been doing and I’m just happy to be here.”
Healing in a World of Hacksaws
The arrival of Hacksaw Ridge is timely on a number of levels. It hits theaters in early November, just days before the climax of an American presidential election that has been remarkably divisive and ugly.
It also hits the world at a time where war is pervasive and ideologies of hate are seemingly on the rise. It’s a world where everything is weaponized: a terrorist-driven truck on Nice’s Promenade des Anglais, “The Star-Spangled Banner” before NFL games, the coughs of Hillary Clinton, the bathrooms of Target, NCAA championships in North Carolina. It’s a world where a film with “hacksaw” in the title automatically feels in tune with the zeitgeist.
Gibson’s film attempts to bring healing in a world of hacksaws.
“I think Desmond actually says this in the film. He’s got a line, ‘With the world so fixated on tearing itself apart, it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing for me to want to put a little bit of it back together.’ My hope is that the spirit of what he did and who he is continues to inspire and impact the world around us. This is what stories are for.”
As stories go, Doss’ is a good one. From Lynchburg, Virginia, Doss is a country boy from humble origins who becomes an iconic American war hero for saving rather than taking lives on the battlefield. The Capra-esque story was one producer Bill Mechanic tried for 15 years to see made. He pitched it to Gibson two previous times before the director finally took on the project.
“I guess I just had different eyes to look at it,” Gibson says of why the third time was the charm. “I thought I could tell that story. I got tooled up and went for it. It’s such an inspiring story. How can this guy have done what he did? And what does that tell you about the human spirit? What does that tell us about who we might be at our best?”
Garfield agrees. He was drawn to the film because it is “medicine that this wounded world needs right now,” he says.
Garfield sees the film’s message as one of encouragement to not stand by idly while the world becomes worse, but to do something, anything, to help make it better.
“It’s about being a servant and healing and seeing the state of the world and longing to do something and actually finding a way to do something,” Garfield says.
“[Desmond] found his part of the garden to tend.”
For his part as a “garden-tender” in the field of acting, Garfield has stewarded his talents well in an impressive filmography that is full of humanity and conscience. In films like Boy A (2007), Never Let Me Go (2010), 99 Homes (2014) and now Hacksaw Ridge he has explored questions of what it means to be human, to grow, to resist temptation, to sacrifice for others.
In Hacksaw Ridge, Garfield leads a cast that is entirely Australian, apart from himself and Vince Vaughn, who plays Doss’ sergeant. Hugo Weaving gives an impressive performance as Doss’ father, a WWI vet whose postwar alcoholism and violent tendencies presumably inform Doss’ pacifism. Rachel Griffiths plays Doss’ mother, Teresa Palmer his wife and Sam Worthington also stars as an army captain. Gibson’s son Milo Gibson has a small part as well.
Filmed in Australia, Hacksaw is structured in two halves, with the first hour focusing on the convictions of Doss in the context of his family and faith, showing him as he volunteers for the army and is forced to justify his conscientious objector convictions. The second, far more violent and visceral half shows Doss putting his convictions to the test on the battlefield. While some audiences will note a jarring contrast between the film’s two halves, Gibson sees them as two sides to the same coin.
“Both are like war sequences. One is like testing the man, testing the mettle, testing his convictions and courage to stand in the face of persecution,” Gibson says, who notes that before Doss gets to Okinawa “He’s already been put in the crucible.”
The second half, Gibson says, is about taking Doss “out of the frying pan and into the fire to see if he can still maintain those principles when the going gets extremely tough.”
The brilliance of Hacksaw Ridge is that even viewers who can’t relate to the literal battle will be able to empathize with the interior battle Doss wages to live out his convictions. And it is this sort of battle, when opposing convictions and consciences conflict, that defines another layer of the film’s timeliness.
Honoring Differences Even When We Disagree
What happens when a Muslim woman wearing a “burkini” on a Côte d'Azur beach conflicts with the French values of secularism and gender liberation? Or when a Native American kindergartner in Texas is told to cut his hair because it violates an elementary school’s hygiene policies? Or when a Christian cake-baker’s conscience prevents her from participating as a vendor in a same-sex wedding?
These are real conflicts that have really arisen in recent years, as sincerely held faith convictions conflict with the rights and beliefs of others.
Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t engage in the current religious freedom debates overtly, but the story of Doss’ conscientious objection carries undeniable pertinence to them.
“It’s a very hard thing to stay true to oneself and one’s convictions in the culture we’re in right now,” Garfield says. “Yet it’s those people who shape the change that a culture needs, by standing strong in the midst of terrible storms.”
Doss’s pacifist convictions were certainly very unpopular in his World War II context, and the film does a good job depicting the ridicule and persecution he endured because of it (Gibson insists the real persecution was far worse than what he portrayed in the film). Yet Doss also loved his fellow soldiers and wanted to serve them, even when they disparaged his convictions. He is sober about the fact that his refusal to bear arms might put his fellow men in danger, but he’s determined to compensate by being as ferocious a medic as he can be.
“It’s one of the things that makes him even more fiercely healing on the battlefield,” Garfield says. “But for him he keeps bumping up against the same thing. It’s not a choice; it’s a physical incapacity. He has a physical incapability of picking up a machine of death. He has a physical incapability of taking another person’s life.”
Despite his unorthodox approach to warfare, Doss finds a way to coexist with his fellow soldiers and his actions earn their respect. By the film’s climax he has befriended his platoon’s most efficient killing machine, Smitty (played by Luke Bracey), and some of the film’s most moving scenes explore their unlikely connection. In one scene, Doss saves Smitty’s life by wrestling a Japanese attacker, showing that Doss’s pacifism doesn’t keep him from defending others.
“There is violence there. There is a kind of warrior defense that, when called upon, he will show up with,” Garfield says. “But Smitty is the one who ends up killing the guy. And then you can see that Desmond is sort of torn about that. Why did this guy have to die and not me? He’s indirectly a part of this man’s death. He’s partly responsible. This is haunting for Desmond.”
Garfield sees in the film a timely message of “live and let live,” a modeling of peaceful coexistence between people with convictions of every sort. And, doubtless, some will see Hacksaw Ridge as a relativistic defense of “to each their own” morality, while others will see it as a defense of religious conscience—for example, a defense of those whose faith prevents them from affirming LGBT sexual ideals.
It’s unclear whether Garfield, himself an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights who once said Spider-Man could be gay or pansexual, would apply this “live and let live” approach to the religious who believe in a traditional sexual ethic. In a 2013 interview with The Times about the gay-themed play Beautiful Thing, Garfield said, “There is no argument against [marriage] equality. How can anyone argue against compassion and understanding?”
During the past two years, this tension between civil rights and freedom of conscience protections has been a central tension in American public life—from the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision to bathrooms in North Carolina to faith-based colleges in California. All sides of the issue are asking, “What is the way forward when individual rights or national interests conflict with the consciences of religious individuals or groups?”
This is a question explored in Hacksaw Ridge, and its implications for contemporary American politics are more significant than the ostensibly feel-good film lets on.
Gibson admits that these tensions create a “puzzle.” There are immense complexities inherent in protecting individual citizens’ faith convictions when they impinge upon the flourishing of others, as in a soldier whose refusal to kill might be a wartime liability to the soldiers fighting beside him. In the case of Doss, the puzzle was solved by the humility and sacrifice of a man who showed how heroism can look different and still be heroic.
“He earned the admiration of all those around him, even guys who were agnostic,” Gibson says. “It didn’t matter. They understood that what he was doing was an immense act of love, and greater love has no one than to give his life for his brothers. This guy did that again and again. I think that’s an inspiring story even if you’re looking at it from a very secular perspective.”
Finding the Faith of Desmond Doss
How do you live up to the faith of someone like Desmond Doss?
For Gibson, it’s clear that Doss (in his own words, an exemplar of John 15:13) is a high bar, a Christological aspiration for everyone. Gibson’s Roman Catholicism surely informs this approach. For broken men there must always be models, saints to whom we must look for inspiration in our struggles with sin and pathways to redemption.
For Garfield, who describes his personal faith as “free to roam,” Doss’ Christianity is inspired not in its doctrinal specificity but in its humility.
“He gave all of the credit for his actions not to himself but to God,” Garfield says. “He never claimed to be a hero; he never set out to be a hero, but he called those men who didn’t make it home alive the real heroes. He’s such a truly, sincerely humble man who just wanted to be himself and do his duty as he saw it.”
Though Garfield was not raised in a religious home, he says he is “very interested in what it is to live a very spiritual life.” He says he’s fascinated by the role faith plays in the lives of history’s most significant change-makers.
“It does seem like the great figures, the great activists, the great men and women in history had a spiritual component to their lives that enabled them to do these superhuman things,” says Garfield, who was moved by Doss’ “intrinsic” reliance upon and worship of something other than and greater than himself.
“This idea of not being able to do these things without help, without some help from something greater than yourself and without the longing to serve something greater than yourself ... that’s really a beautiful thing to explore,” he says.
Growing up without faith, Garfield felt that “there was always something lacking” in his life and believes that faith helps channel our worship toward something beyond ourselves or our pleasures.
“As we know if we don’t worship something healthy we’ll end up worshipping, more often than not, something rather unhealthy,” he says. “Look at our consumer culture. Look at our celebrity culture. You name it. We worship the wrong thing; or if not the wrong thing, something that doesn’t actually feed us in a deep way.”
Garfield spent significant time exploring the “deep feeding” of the Christian tradition in recent years as he prepared for not one but two starring roles as men of Christian faith. In Hacksaw Ridge he plays a devout Seventh-Day Adventist and in Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming Silence he plays Jesuit missionary Father Rodrigues, facing persecution in 17th century Japan.
To prepare for both roles, Garfield spent a year studying with a Jesuit priest in New York City, Father James Martin. He immersed himself in the writings of Trappist monk Thomas Merton, listening to a lot of Merton books on tape.
“I connected with [Merton] so much because he seems to be always on the knife edge between faith and doubt,” Garfield says. “He seems to understand that the opposite of doubt isn’t certainty, that living with doubt is just as much a part of living with faith as faith itself.”
Both Doss in Hacksaw Ridge and Rodrigues in Silence deal with doubt as their faith is put to the test, both struggling to not abandon convictions in the midst of enormous pressure.
For Garfield, the commonality in these characters is the complexity of faith. It’s a journey, a dance of doubt and certainty, weakness and strength, struggle and hope.
Even with his apparently unflappable convictions, Hacksaw’s Doss is still just a man living on faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
Ultimately Doss, like any man who sticks to a minority conviction because there’s something more important than his own popularity, is betting on a truth that he won’t know and can’t know is true “until the end,” Garfield says.
“I think there’s something exquisitely, painfully beautiful about this—the attempt to live in accordance with something greater than ourselves, some greater ideal."
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