The Charnel House of Okinawa

For the first hour or so of Hacksaw Ridge, we're on familiar cinematic turf: young Desmond Doss, a backwoods, religious country boy cut from the same cloth as Sgt. York., endures the alcoholic abuse of his shell-shocked World War I-veteran father and the rivalry of his brother as he shyly courts a pretty nurse. A Seventh-Day-Adventist, Desmond takes literally the Bible's commandment, Thou Shalt Not Kill, especially when he nearly kills his brother during a father-sanctioned bout of fisticuffs -- but when the time comes for him to enlist, he doesn't hesitate.

Bullied by a drill sergeant straight out of Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, despised and harassed by his fellow recruits, Doss endures the hazing and even a court martial in pursuit of his objective: to save lives without taking one. All he asks is that he never has to pick up a rifle. And he never does, even while winning the Medal of Honor for rescuing 75 wounded American soldiers as a medic during perhaps the bloodiest battle of the Pacific campaign -- the life and (mostly) death struggle for Okinawa, the stepping-stone to the Japanese home islands.

And that's the second hour, which is where this movie really lives.

Violence in cinema has been on an ever-increasing arc since Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, whose bullet-riddled finale shocked audiences back in 1967. Sam Peckinpah took the ballet of blood to the next level in his masterpiece, The Wild Bunch (1969), a movie whose entire third act consists of a violent shoot-out in a small Mexican village. Horror schlockmeisters and lesser talents have been exploiting the special-effects department ever since. But it was not until Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998) that realistic gore was turned to the service of war; the first 20 minutes of that film are among the most intense in movie history.

And now, in Hacksaw Ridge, the director of Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ  -- two films that unsparingly presented the brutal ethos of their eras -- has put his considerable talents in the harnessing of industrial-strength belligerence to this tale of unsuspected heroism: a triumph of one man over the machinery of death, alone, defenseless and armed only with determination, faith, courage and the will not only to live, but save.

This is familiar territory for Gibson, whose work as both an actor and director is suffused with the redemptive, transformative power of pain. Jesus is nearly scourged to death, then nailed to a cross to die; in extremis, he cries out to God, "Why have you forsaken me?" accepts his fate, and dies. (Gibson is now working on a companion film about the Resurrection.) The Scottish hero, William Wallace, is drawn and quartered by the English, completing his transformation from outlaw and rebel into national hero. Even Martin Riggs, the suicidal, borderline crazy hero of the Lethal Weapon series, undergoes various agonies, as in his climatic battle with the bad guy (played chillingly by Gary Busey) in the first and best movie of the cycle: