‘Hacksaw Ridge,’ a Gory War Movie for Both Hawks and Doves


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Andrew Garfield as Desmond T. Doss in Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge.”

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Mark Rogers/Lionsgate

LOS ANGELES — Is Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge” another “American Sniper”?

Mr. Gibson, who has been largely sidelined in Hollywood for a decade because of appalling behavior off camera, may not be that lucky. Directed by Clint Eastwood and telling the true story of a celebrated member of the Navy SEALs, “American Sniper” sold a tremendous $547 million in tickets worldwide in 2014 and was nominated for six Academy Awards. Cultural and commercial lightning of that magnitude rarely strikes twice.

But “Hacksaw Ridge,” based on the true story of a World War II hero and set for wide release by Lionsgate on Nov. 4, has been playing in extensive advance screenings in a remarkably similar way to Mr. Eastwood’s war film. Like “American Sniper,” Mr. Gibson’s movie is a character study that limits overt political messaging, which allows viewers to see what they want to see — a rare cinematic Rorschach test.

Some interpret “Hacksaw Ridge” as an antiwar movie. Others see an appreciation of American military might. (As Michael Phillips, a film critic for The Chicago Tribune, said in an early review, “It’s the most bloodthirsty movie about a pacifist ever made.”) It was a similar split that allowed “American Sniper” to become a surprise force, attracting big crowds in red and blue states.

Still, “Hacksaw Ridge” faces obstacles at the box office, including the extreme violence in the film, its religious themes and whether audiences have forgiven Mr. Gibson’s personal failings. The movie stars Andrew Garfield as the real-life Desmond T. Doss, an intensely religious member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which has a history of strongly discouraging members from bearing arms. Yet Mr. Doss enlisted in the Army after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and insisted on going into combat — while, astoundingly, refusing to carry a rifle.

After enduring ridicule for his beliefs, which included observing the Sabbath, Mr. Doss was given conscientious objector status and served as an unarmed medic in multiple battles, including the gruesome Okinawa siege in 1945. Mr. Doss, who died in 2006, became the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor; he saved dozens of wounded men in Okinawa alone, carrying them one by one in the face of enemy fire and lowering them down an escarpment by rope.

“Private Doss, a true hero among heroes, was a contradiction,” said Bill Mechanic, one of the film’s producers. “We’re not trying to solve that contradiction in this film.”

For his part, Mr. Gibson said he did not intentionally seek to create a film with a message that shifts based on who is viewing it.

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Trailer: ‘Hacksaw Ridge’

A preview of the film.


By LIONSGATE on Publish Date October 26, 2016.


Image courtesy of Internet Video Archive.

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“I thought it was important to maintain a balance,” he said, referring to the way “Hacksaw Ridge” incorporates romance, visceral battle scenes and religion. “But I wasn’t overly focused on appealing to different audiences. I just wanted to tell a really great story.”

He added, “Some people have said that this film does what films used to do — tell a story, and let people see it the way they see it.”

To build buzz for “Hacksaw Ridge,” which cost about $40 million to make, Lionsgate has hosted advance screenings and dispatched Mr. Gibson to events across the country. In August, for instance, he showed the film at the Disabled American Veterans national convention in Atlanta.

“These were people who avoid war movies because they fear they will either be unrealistic or that they will trigger post-traumatic stress,” said Dan Clare, who served in the Air Force in Iraq and is now director of communications for the veterans’ group. “To their surprise, most people felt that it was a realistic depiction of combat — one of the most accurate ever — and, by and large, they appreciated the way it portrayed PTSD.”

“Bottom line?” Mr. Clare continued. “Unlike most Hollywood movies, this one felt like it represented us.”

Dan Weber, communications director for the North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which counts 1.2 million members, said in a separate interview, “I’ve now seen it three times, and it really does a great job of representing us.”

Noting that the church takes “a position of nonviolence and nonaggression,” Mr. Weber said of his church’s members, “Those who have seen the movie say that while the violence bothered them, it had to be there to show how severely Desmond Doss was tested in his faith.”

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Kyle Gallner, left, and Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle in “American Sniper,” a major hit in 2014, directed by Clint Eastwood.

Credit
Warner Bros. Pictures

He added: “It reaches people who are military fanatics, people who are antiwar, people who are religious, people who are not. This is an everybody movie.”

If the R-rated “Hacksaw Ridge” does attract a wide audience, it would represent a stunning comeback from Mr. Gibson. Once one of Hollywood’s biggest stars — he won two Oscars for “Braveheart” — he became a movie industry pariah in 2006, when he was charged with drunken driving and went on an obscenity-laced, anti-Semitic tirade. In 2011, Mr. Gibson pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of battering a former girlfriend.

Mr. Gibson’s last film as a director was the bloody Mayan thriller “Apocalypto,” which was released a decade ago. Along with “Braveheart,” Mr. Gibson directed “The Passion of the Christ,” which sold $612 million in tickets worldwide in 2004.

“Hacksaw Ridge” received a 10-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival in September. In its most recent awards forecast, The Hollywood Reporter listed the film as a “major threat” in the Oscar race.

Still, unlike “American Sniper” — which was adapted from a best-selling autobiography of the same name by Chris Kyle, a hero of battles in Iraq and Afghanistan who died in Texas in 2012 — “Hacksaw Ridge” is a period movie, and Mr. Doss is not well known. Mr. Garfield is an unproven box-office draw. Mr. Gibson seems to have been forgiven by swaths of Hollywood, but his past behavior could keep some ticket buyers at bay.

And “Hacksaw Ridge,” despite its tabula rasa qualities, is quite religious. Mr. Gibson includes imagery of baptism and ascension. Bibles and biblical phrases often pop up. At one point, Mr. Garfield’s medic cries out to God with a trembling lip: “What is it you want from me? I can’t hear you!”

David Permut, another “Hacksaw Ridge” producer, said that “it was important to all of us that we maintain the integrity of this story, and Desmond Doss was very religious.” He added that he did not see religion as a box-office liability.

“This is a movie about a man who stood by his convictions at all costs,” Mr. Permut said. “That appeals to everyone, no matter what side of what issue you are on.”

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