In this secular age, the fact that Mel Gibson did not shy away from the reality that the hero of Hacksaw Ridge was a conservative, Bible-believing Christian makes the film all the more astounding…

hacksawridge_andrew_garfield_publicity_still_h_2016_0Mel Gibson’s new film, Hacksaw Ridge continues the controversial actor and director’s taste for gusto, guts, and glory. From Mad Max and the Lethal Weapon films, Braveheart, We Were Soldiers, Apocalypto and Passion of the Christ, Mr. Gibson has not been afraid to explore the viscera of violence.

Literally.

His new film is gory with guts and glory.

In Hacksaw Ridge Mr. Gibson tells the true story of army medic Desmond Doss during the Second World War battle of Okinawa. Doss was a devout Seventh Day Adventist who, as a conscientious objector, still considered the war to be just. Enlisting in an infantry unit, the scrawny, but stubborn Doss endures bullying from his comrades and a court-martial from his superiors before serving them courageously on the battlefield.

Mr. Gibson does not spare the viewer the horror and heartbreak of hand-to-hand combat. The camera charges into battle with the soldiers and views the butchered on the battlefield with shock and a kind of disgusted detachment. Here lies a head, there half a soldier. There lies a lopped-off limb, and there screams a terrified boy with no legs. There is no glory on the Okinanawa battlefield— just humans reduced to animals with bared teeth stabbing, shooting, screaming, bombing, and burning one another with the fire, fear, fury, and frustration of hell itself.

Critics of Mr. Gibson’s Passion of the Christ said it was too gory. Mr. Gibson, they accused, had some kind of sick obsession with blood and guts. I disagree. Mr. Gibson’s films are truly graphic, but the violence is justified. When analyzing the portrayal of violence in film one must assess not simply the images on the screen, but the context in which they are portrayed, the intention of the filmmaker and the total morality of the film.

A film is not immoral simply because it portrays violence in a graphic manner. What is immoral is how the violence is portrayed, the moral message of the filmmaker and the moral response elicited from the audience. The question is not whether a film shows violence, but whether it does so merely to titillate or fascinate. A film which glories in violence is a kind of pornography, and the voyeuristic fascination with violence can be just as repulsive and degrading as viewing sexual pornography.

In Hacksaw Ridge, as in Steven Spielberg’s 1998 masterpiece Saving Private Ryan, the violence of war is indeed explicit and extreme, but in both films we view the violence from the point of view of Desmond Doss and Captain John Miller— the soldiers who are involved in battle. Consequently we share their horror of the hell that is war. If we are shocked, degraded, and disgusted, it is a small participation in the shock, degradation, and disgust that the soldiers themselves felt in the midst of battle.

The violence, therefore, serves a crucial function in the chemistry of both films. With the heroes we engage in battle, and with both John Miller and Desmond Doss, we face not only the physical violence of war, but also the confounding moral choices of ordinary men plunged into extraordinary dilemmas.

Miller must risk his lives and the lives of his men to save a young man for the sake of the political capital of the generals and politicians back home. Desmond Doss must risk his life to save others while never bearing a weapon or killing even one of the enemy. The portrayal of violence increases the intensity of the moral choices both heroes must face.

Finally, the film violence is justified because of the filmmaker’s overall intent. Both Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Gibson use the explicit horror of war to condemn, not to glorify war. Both Hacksaw Ridge and Saving Private Ryan exalt the heroism of ordinary men who are risking their lives for others. As such, the films dig deeper into the human condition and penetrate perennial themes of moral courage, self-sacrifice and redemption.

The films do not exalt the warrior in blind patriotism as early war films tended to do, nor do they indulge in cynical anti-patriotism and despair, as the directors of Vietnam-era war films so often did. Instead they dig deeper into the moral choices of ordinary soldiers—showing that real heroes shine forth even in the darkness and despair of the battlefield.

In this secular age, that Mr. Gibson did not shy away from the fact that Desmond Doss was a conservative, Bible-believing Christian makes the film all the more astounding, and the fact that the story is true makes Hacksaw Ridge all the more powerful.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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