Hacksaw Ridge won't win Best Picture at the Oscars next month, but its deserved presence on the shortlist represents something of a redemption story for director Mel Gibson. Ten years ago, his reputation was in tatters after an infamous drink-driving incident in which he reportedly made antisemitic remarks. After a long, deserved spell in the wilderness, during which he was effectively black-listed in Hollywood, Hacksaw Ridge represents his return to mainstream cinema, and perhaps also his forgiveness by the film community.
Fittingly, the movie tells its own remarkable story of redemption. Set around one of the most important battles in World War Two, Hacksaw Ridge is a biopic of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a Christian pacifist whose religious beliefs wouldn't allow him to fire or even hold a gun in battle. Yet unlike most conscientious objectors, Doss also felt compelled to enlist and join the fight as a medic – an idea which simply didn't align with military thinking at the time.
The film is very much a story in two very differently-themed halves. In the first, we see something of the life he leaves behind, including his courtship of wife Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), and then his attempt to make it through basic training without being thrown out of the army. At first he's accepted by his fellow enlistees, but when Drill Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughan, in a brilliant piece of stunt-casting) informs them of Doss' pacifism, they quickly turn him into an outcast. Yet despite the soldiers trying to bully him out, and the officers trying to court-martial him out, Doss receives blessing to "run head-first into the hellfire of battle without a single weapon to protect him".
True to the word of the general who speaks that line, the second half of the story takes place in a pretty-much literal hell on earth. The Ridge of the title represents an almost-unconquerable Japanese stronghold, and as the Americans try to take it through repeated advances, Doss and his fellow medics are kept horrifically busy. Unfazed by the waking nightmare around him, Doss continually prays to God to help him rescue "one more... just one more" from the battlefield. As the casualties pile up, the apparent religious nut, rejected by his peers, slowly writes himself into US military history.
Gibson, who has also been nominated for an Oscar, does a tremendous job behind the camera, proficiently delivering tender romance, tense drama, and epic spectacle in the film's various component parts. The slightly uneven pacing is not surprising given the episodic structure, but the story never fails to engage throughout. We really care about what happens to Doss, mainly due to Garfield's mesmerising portrayal of an apparently simple man who is more complex than anyone gives him credit for. It's a stunning performance, and rivals any of the others on the Best Actor shortlist.
The film takes an extremely sympathetic view of faith, and certainly makes space for divine intervention, but unlike Martin Scorsese's recent Silence (which notably only received a single Oscar nomination), it doesn't bash you over the head with theological content. For me, Hacksaw Ridge presents the most positive and attractive portrayal of Christianity that I've seen on film. Faith is seen not only as a route to good personal morality, but also as a dynamic driving-force for good. Doss is propelled by his faith to perform extraordinary feats of courage, all while holding to counter-cultural principles about violence and behaviour. That's not to say that Christianity is seen simply as a great worldview; God himself is also seen as present and powerful in assisting Doss in literal miracles.
At one pivotal moment in the story, an officer tells Private Doss: "No-one ever won a war by dying for it." That line might be a little on-the-nose for some, but as Doss sets about to disprove it, the exposure of that flawed thinking creates a beautiful case for the Way of Jesus. Ridiculed by all those around him at first, Doss' worldview begins to make more and more sense in the context of a world gone mad and at war.
Having created The Passion of the Christ, and now said to be working on a Resurrection-based sequel, no-one in the world today is making a better case for the truth of Christianity – and on such a large scale – than Mel Gibson. But what's really remarkable about Hacksaw Ridge is that not only does it act as an awesome piece of pre-evangelism, but it's also a great film. It might not have the joyous escapism of La La Land or the dramatic oomph of Manchester by the Sea, but it is alternately moving and spectacular, and absolutely deserves to be recognised among the films of the year; faith-based film-making finally leading the way in art, instead of simply trying to replicate it.
It's important to be aware of our own biases when we're engaging with apparently faith-affirming media like this. Yet I believe Desmond Doss' story stands above them. Here was a man who truly understood what it was to live out his faith, and therefore to provide a witness to the work of God within him. Gibson has successfully magnified that witness to a global audience, and in a way that invites people to sympathise with Doss' faith, rather than alienating them because of it. Given where he was a decade ago, that's quite a redemption story.
Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. Follow him on Twitter @martinsaunders.