Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge: Anti-Warrior as Western Hero


Glenda Pritchett, PhD
Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge: Anti-Warrior as Western Hero

            Mel Gibson’s 2016 film Hacksaw Ridge depicts the true story of Desmond Doss, in Hollywood terms, an outcast good guy whose personal religious convictions oddly both support and conflict with America’s entrance into WWII after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. New York Times reviewer Brooks Barnes compared this film to Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, in that both films “allow viewers to see what they want to see—a rare cinematic Rorschach test” (par. 3). The same can be argued for the classic Sergeant York, another film questioning America’s role in war. In fact, the “anti-warrior” hero Desmond Doss, though he refuses to use a weapon in battle, shares key characteristics of the classic Western hero. And what has been termed by reviewer A.O. Scott as the “knot of moral tension” (par. 1) at the center of the film is in fact a central concern of the classic American Western.
            The Western has been called an American foundation myth and the appeal of the Western hero has created an aesthetic hero-system—a term coined by cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker—that has flourished in literature and especially film since the first half of the twentieth century (4-5). Focusing on the works of Clint Eastwood, David Sterritt identifies the “myth movie” as a meta-genre “centered on individual lives yet rooted in the collective American unconscious” (12), which applies both to Eastwood’s Westerns as well as American Sniper. Three key attributes are often associated with the Western mythic hero: first, he is seen as an outsider, a loner by the larger society; second, though not well educated, his sense of integrity and clear moral compass guide his decision as to when violence as a response is warranted; and third, he has a unique skill that he brings to bear against some force threatening society, which then gains him the respect of that society (Wright 48-49). To varying degrees, the protagonists in the earlier films display traits of the Western hero, but Desmond Doss takes it to a whole new level.
            Of course, Hacksaw Ridge and the other war films are not Westerns, yet guns and violence, revised credos of right and wrong, and modifications of usual civilized behavior are defining elements. One glaring difference in particular is the setting, or “frontier environment,” which according to Robert Mikkelson allows Western heroes “to act independently, guided by their senses of justice and decency” (306). So how does this idea of a “frontier environment” translate to a war film? It is precisely the authoritarian military structure as much as combat in a foreign land that is in a sense a kind of “frontier,” or unfamiliar environs, in which the protagonists are thrust into situations leading them to consult that moral compass in order to get the job done and, if possible, stay alive.
            The classic film Sergeant York shares the element of protagonist as conscientious objector during wartime. Both Alvin York and Desmond Doss, from rural Tennessee and Virginia, were reared in evangelical Protestant homes. York’s elderly mother prayerfully clings to the hope that his eventual turn to religion will end his immature hell-raising antics. Doss lives with his mother, older brother, and abusive alcoholic father whom he both hates and adores. Both protagonists struggle to determine for themselves the nature of good and evil in their lives and their world, ultimately finding in the Bible the authoritative answer.
            Early in the film, York, the sharpshooter, wins a shooting contest that provides the remaining funds to buy a piece of land so that he can marry and settle down, but he is cheated by the landowner, who has sold it to York’s rival, in love as in all else. In a fit of rage and hatred while riding in a thunderstorm, York’s rifle is struck by lightning, the barrel split in two and curled, still smoking, but he and his horse unharmed. This is the crucial moment when York realizes that he was angry and vengeful enough to kill, and surely would have. He then rides to the church, publically professes his belief, and later when he is subject to the draft, applies for conscientious objector status. In the end York makes the decision to fight, believing that he is following the Biblical precept, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and to God the things which are God’s.”
Doss’ father is deeply damaged by his experiences in WWI, resulting in alcoholism and abusive behavior toward his wife and sons, even as he preaches Christian non-violence and is against his sons joining the military. Given this home life, it is perhaps not surprising that in the midst of a brotherly scuffle, young Doss hits his brother in the head with a brick, rendering him unconscious. Sometime later, he comes close to shooting his father with the father’s gun to prevent further violence toward his mother. The gravity of the realization that he truly is capable of such violence causes Doss to ponder the Ten Commandments, intently focusing on “Thou shalt not kill.” Like York, he has a deep love of country and is moved to enlist after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but comes to no compromise with the sixth commandment. Thus, with their conscientious objector requests known, both York and Doss enter the army as distinctive outsiders, more so than Chris Kyle in American Sniper.
            As for the special skill that sets them apart, York’s expertise as a sharpshooter, like that of Kyle, is highly valued and he is promoted to Corporal. At the battle of the Argonne, York finds himself and seven men pinned down by a German machine gun nest. The Western hero’s natural sense of virtue when confronted with savagery is reflected in York’s rationale—his objective is to silence the guns that are killing Americans. So one by one, as if they were turkeys at a turkey shoot or a flock of geese, as he explains in his journal, he picks off the German machine gunners until their commander surrenders, and the guns stop. His diary account of this incident: “I was sharpshooting. . . . I didn’t want to kill any more’n I had to” (York, sec. 4, par. 8, 11).
            Kyle is also brought up in an evangelical Protestant tradition but not as a pacifist. Once when he fights a school bully who has targeted his brother, his father declares that the world is made up of sheep, wolves and sheep dogs. He turns to Chris: “You know what you are. We protect our own.” So with his boyhood Bible tucked in his uniform, Kyle becomes the American Sniper whose principal objective, according to his autobiography, is to save the lives of Marines who are being targeted. A key event depicted both in the book and the film is near the end of Kyle’s deployment. A young boy starts to pick up an RPG after the combatant has been shot. Kyle, with the boy in his sights, repeats to himself, teeth clenched, “Don’t pick it up.” Finger on the trigger, his relief is visible as he chokes up when the boy drops it and runs away. Like Warshow’s Westerner, he exhibits self-restraint and independent judgment in this new frontier (340-41).  
            Desmond Doss, as portrayed by Andrew Garfield, has garnered the moniker “happy anti-warrior” owing to his naïve hometown-boy demeanor in the film’s first half. And like York and Kyle, he clearly believes his sacred duty is to protect the homeland. But Doss’ mission as a C.O. medic who refuses to carry a rifle makes him the target of hostile abuse from the other recruits who fear that he will become a liability, weakening the military objective. From the first scenes of the Battle of Okinawa, every soldier is tested to his core, and many beyond. Director Sam Fuller famously defined the war film genre thus: “[A] war film’s objective, no matter how personal or emotional, is to make a viewer feel war” (qtd. in Macnab, par. 1).  If nothing else, Mel Gibson has succeeded in this with Hacksaw Ridge, which has been called “the most bloodthirsty movie about a pacifist ever made” (Barnes, par. 3).
            The obvious next question is about Doss’ special skill. Is it his medical training by which he can offer even the slimmest hope, if only morphine, to the suffering and dying? Like the Western hero, Doss has made the decision to take part in the conflict, which in the classic Western is a death struggle. So too the war film. But Doss’ death struggle is only initially about a gunfight. Since that chilling confrontation with his father, he has no doubt that he is capable of killing, and there are clear moments of weakness as he virtually wades in bodies and body parts of his fellow soldiers. The conflict at the core of his being is whether, like York, he should choose to fight—and of course, to kill—in order to save American lives, but in so doing, abandon his solemn pledge to God. Mark Hughes’ commentary on American Sniper holds true here: “[The film] is about the war every soldier fights, first to stay alive, then to reconcile their beliefs and illusions about their duty with the realities of war” (Hughes, par. 6). For Desmond Doss, there is to be no reconciliation.
            The irony of his story as presented by Mel Gibson is that in Doss’ sincere and righteous zeal to keep God’s commandment and not endanger his immortal soul, he is forced to endure the closest thing on this earth to the literal torments of hell. When his battalion, still under fire, retreats, he sees only wounded and dying comrades on the ridge. The Western hero almost invariably asserts that in choosing violence, he is simply doing what has to be done, which for Doss is to remain on the ridge and save Americans. As each wounded man is carefully lowered down the 400-foot face of the ridge in a makeshift stretcher, Doss prays, “Let me get just one more . . . Just one more.” In the end, he saves the lives of seventy-five soldiers.
            Perhaps the most poignant depiction of the society’s newfound respect for the hero of Hacksaw Ridge is the relationship between Doss and fellow soldier Smitty, who evolves from a barbaric bully of Doss into an earnest, even dazzled admirer on the ridge. As with young Joey Starrett’s fascination with the mysterious gunfighter Shane in George Stevens’ 1953 classic Western Shane, Smitty comes to see Doss, in the words of critic Matt Seitz, “as a promise and a mystery; a person so strikingly different from other people, so fully formed, so serenely and undeniably good, that he seems more angel than man” (par. 8).
            Desmond Doss, like Alvin York, received the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery in battle and is the only conscientious objector in history to do so. Scott identifies the “knot of moral tension” at the core of Hacksaw Ridge as the contradiction between the genuine “moral dilemma of its hero . . . and the rousing celebration of the thrills of battle,” the latter owing in part to Gibson’s penchant for depicting violence (par. 10). But perhaps there is something more. Doss, like the Western hero, is alone and reluctantly joins the conflict, but on his own terms. While he believes the war is just, he is equally adamant that killing for any reason is not.  On Hacksaw Ridge that day, he chooses to fight with his weapon of choice—his unwavering commitment to his faith and to his God. So he meets the threatening force of the Japanese with the force of his will to save others and to save his soul. And it is this heroic action—like that of all classic Western heroes—that is celebrated in this film. Yet of Doss—if he can be called a Western hero at all—one shall never have to utter those words that forever haunt the Westerner: “Whatever his justifications, he is a killer of men” (Warshow 142).
           
Works Cited

Barnes, Brooks. “Hacksaw Ridge, A Gory War Movie for Both Hawks and Doves.”
The New York Times, 27 October 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/27/movies/hacksaw-ridge-mel-gibson-andrew-garfield.html.
Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. The Free Press-Macmillan, 1973.
Hughes, Mark. “American Sniper Says Much More Than You Think.” Forbes: Arts and  Entertainment, 16 January 2015, https://www.forbes.com/sites/markhughes/2015/01/16/review-american-sniper-says-much-more-than-you-think/#46486182779a.
Macnab, Geoffrey. “Shooting Stars.” The Guardian. 9 July 2004, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/jul/10/featuresreviews.guardianreview14.
Mikkelson, Robert. “The Western Writer: Jack Schaefer’s Use of the Western Frontier.” Shane: The Critical Edition, edited by James C. Work, University of Nebraska Press, 1984, pp. 300-306.
Scott, A.O. “Review: Hacksaw Ridge Has the Guts and the Glory, But Where’s the Gun?” The New York Times, 1 November 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/02/movies/hacksaw-ridge-review-andrew-garfield-mel-gibson.html.
Seitz, Matt Zoller. Hacksaw Ridge. Reviews. https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/hacksaw-ridge-2016.
Sterritt, David. Cinema of Clint Eastwood: Chronicles of America. Wallflower Press, 2014.
Warshow, Robert. “The Westerner.” The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture. 1962. Atheneum, 1979, pp. 135-154.
Wright, Will. Sixguns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western. University of California Press, 1975.
York, Alvin C. “October 18, 1918.” The Diary of Alvin York. Acacia Vignettes. https://acacia.pairsite.com/Acacia.Vignettes/The.Diary.of.Alvin.York.html.

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