Making Sense of Mel Gibson’s Pro-Religion, Anti-Gun Violence Hacksaw Ridge

By  · Published on November 9th, 2016

Gibson has given us a somewhat faith-based film that seems to struggle with its own audience.

While everyone else spent this past weekend cruising the astral planes with Doctor Strange, I found myself seated for an early evening screening of Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. It’s certainly not a film for all audience members; Gibson’s history of antisemitism and physical abuse makes him a tough person to support, and each audience member will make their own call as to whether they can separate the art from the artist. More than anything, I was curious to see how Gibson’s openly Catholic beliefs would match with the violence promised in the film’s first trailers. Could he possibly combine his religion and love of violence onscreen in a way that makes any kind of sense?

The answer, it would seem, is a resounding “sort of.” There are certainly a lot of negative elements to Gibson’s film, most of which were fully covered by Birth.Movie.Death’s Andrew Todd in his Monday article on the ‘brutal war propaganda’ of the film. And while I find the violence in the film a little harder to nail down – whether by design or just poor writing, both sides of the war emerge as the same faceless mass of killers – it wasn’t Gibson’s portrayal of the American or Japanese soldiers that has stuck with me days after the movie. It was the confusing morality at work and Hacksaw Ridge’s dubious place as something of an ultra-violent faith-based movie.

It’s probably not exactly accurate to call Hacksaw Ridge a faith-based film, but Summit Entertainment certainly doesn’t seem to mind if religious crowds find their way to theaters this week. If you were only to watch the first half of the film – from a pivotal scene where a young Doss gazes fervently at a tapestry of Cain and Abel to a boot camp speech where Doss pleads with others to respect his beliefs – you might step away thinking that Gibson had made a film more in keeping with God’s Not Dead than Saving Private Ryan. This misconception would last until the first major battle sequence. Once Dodd and his company charge into battle, Hacksaw Ridge becomes a symphony of realistic gore and not-so-realistic CGI squibs, putting even the early films of Peter Jackson to shame. The only thing that Gibson seems to enjoy more than prayer is the opportunity to splash buckets of blood across the camera lens.

Despite this heel turn in the film’s second half, there seems to be a subtle religious admonishment lurking beneath the simple religious ideology of Hacksaw Ridge. So often during this election cycle, we’ve seen the issues of religious freedom and the second amendment conflated into a single unassailable conservative talking point. Here Gibson seems to be flirting with an anti-gun stance. Not only do we see Doss haunted by the memories of his own brush with violence against his abusive father to protect his mother, but the violence that appears onscreen is rarely stylized. Gibson even sets one soldier up as the antithesis of Doss, a soldier of uncommon valor and skill with a rifle; it isn’t long before he is riddled with bullets and dies sobbing in Doss’s arms. During interviews for the film, Gibson confirmed his film’s anti-gun violence message, telling Fox News (of all outlets) that the current climate of gun ownership is “out of balance at the moment” and that something needs to be done.

Taken together, Hacksaw Ridge is more than a little confusing. A buddy of mine has referred to the film as an apology of sorts for Gibson’s previous behavior, and I have to admit, it’s not hard to see elements of Hacksaw Ridge as a clarification of Gibson’s beliefs. Both Gibson’s Catholicism and Doss’s Seventh Day Adventism share an emphasis on good works, the regular and repeated demonstration of your faith through your actions. It isn’t that Doss is engaged in a struggle with anti-religious forces; plenty of people in his life, including his own wife, are also believers, but ones who are willing to compromise their belief system in the name of self-preservation. Doss is given no such out. Driven by his personal demons and aiming for hope in the face of despair, Doss refuses to touch a weapon, even when it means his own survival is in question. No good can come from those who are willing to forfeit their own souls to gain the world; for someone who adheres to a very traditional branch of Catholicism, this is a pretty New Testament approach for Gibson to take.

It’s Time to Invite Mel Gibson Back Into Your Life

I can’t quite say why this mixture of religious idealism and shocking violence makes Hacksaw Ridge such an enjoyable film, but I found myself oddly affected by sequences I’d seen countless times before in countless other war films. I won’t argue with Todd’s assertion that Hacksaw Ridge has its moments of blatant war-mongering, nor are the enemies that Dodd and his company face off against anything more than faceless hordes of unknowable others, but there is a spark of sincerity in all of this that makes Hacksaw Ridge something of an endearingly muddled experience. It’s hard not to appreciate the timing of the film’s release; as we watch some voters move against their interest in the hope of winning an election, Gibson’s push to the underlying morality beneath religious structure seems like an important message for those who have confused righteousness with hate.

If you spend time watching horror and science-fiction films from the ’70s and ’80s, you become adept at appreciating the formula for future cult classics. We can all point to movies with laughable dialogue and inventive visuals, but the most important factor – what keeps bringing audiences back to a film long after its failure at the box office has been forgotten – is the dogged sincerity of its cast and crew. With Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson has made a film that struggles with its own approach to war and religion, but one that also wears the horror of violence as its badge of honor. Caught somewhere between a faith film and an unflinching examination of what it means to be wounded in action, Hacksaw Ridge may not make a lot of sense to audiences struggling to forgive Mel Gibson or religious extremists. That doesn’t mean it will remain so forever. The clock on Hacksaw Ridge’s inevitable rediscovery as an artifact of its time begins here.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)