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In 'Hacksaw Ridge,' A War Hero Changes Attitudes About Conscientious Objectors


Mel Gibson's last directing project was the human sacrifice film "Apocalypto" in 2006. His new movie "Hacksaw Ridge" is also about human sacrifice. This time, it's in an apocalypse called World War II. Andrew Garfield stars. Gibson is behind the camera. And critic Bob Mondello says they're a pretty effective team.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: There are formulas to war movies. And for a while, "Hacksaw Ridge" follows one of those formulas to the letter, the one that goes guy meets gal - in this case, a pretty nurse he charms while donating blood.


ANDREW GARFIELD: (As Desmond Doss) I always dreamed about being a doctor but I didn't get much school.

MONDELLO: But before they have time to marry, guy, who has a name, Desmond Doss, enlists.


GARFIELD: (As Desmond Doss) It isn't right that other men should fight and die but I would just be sitting at home safe. I need to serve.

MONDELLO: Played by Andrew Garfield, Doss slogs through basic training, runs obstacle courses, gets all kinds of muddy and then his drill sergeant hands him a rifle.


VINCE VAUGHN: (As Sergeant Howell) This is a personal gift from the United States government designed to bring death to the enemy.

MONDELLO: And at this point, "Hacksaw Ridge" parts company with the formula.


GARFIELD: (As Desmond Doss) Well, I'm sorry, Sergeant, I can't touch a gun.

MONDELLO: Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist, is willing, eager even, to serve in World War II as a medic but not to take a life, a position his military superiors are not inclined to make easy for him.


VAUGHN: (As Sergeant Howell) Private Doss does not believe in violence. He will not even deign to touch a weapon. So I plead with you, do not look to him to save you on the battlefield because he will undoubtedly be too busy wrestling with his conscience to assist.

GARFIELD: (As Desmond Doss) Serg (ph) - that's not true Sergeant...

MONDELLO: The men he serves with don't understand either.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) See, I don't think this as a question of religion, fellas. I think this is cowardice.

MONDELLO: Nor does the woman he wants to marry.


TERESA PALMER: (As Dorothy Schutte) Why can't you just pick up the stupid gun and wave it around? You don't have to use it, just meet them halfway.

GARFIELD: (As Desmond Doss) I can't do that.

PALMER: (As Dorothy Schutte) Yes, you can, it's just pride - pride and stubbornness. Don't confuse your will with the Lord's.

GARFIELD: (As Desmond Doss) Maybe I am prideful, but I don't know how I'm going to live with myself if I don't stay true to what I believe.

MONDELLO: It's not hard to imagine why director Mel Gibson, whose sometimes vile off-screen behavior has recently overshadowed his film work, might be attracted to the story of a man whose beliefs are held against him by society at large. Gibson's characters often suffer terribly on screen. And as a director, he's never been shy about invoking religious imagery to heighten their torment.

Here in the battle at Okinawa's Hacksaw Ridge, he leaves Private Doss just one outstretched arm short of a crucifixion at one point. But the true story he's telling of a conscientious objector who was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor is an inspiring one. And in a grueling climactic battle sequence, Gibson makes it at once suspenseful and thick with irony.

Doss, tending to the wounded, finds the sergeant who'd mocked him, legs now blown to bits, Japanese soldiers just yards away.


VAUGHN: (As Sergeant Howell) You're like gum on a shoe, ain't you?

GARFIELD: (As Desmond Doss) Give me this.

MONDELLO: Doss grabs the sergeant's gun.


VAUGHN: (As Sergeant Howell) It's a bit late for target practice now, don't you think?

MONDELLO: He's not going to shoot. Doss wraps the rifle in the edge of a blanket, creating a makeshift stretcher.


GARFIELD: (As Desmond Doss) Jump on it.

VAUGHN: (As Sergeant Howell) You're kidding.

GARFIELD: (As Desmond Doss) No, I'm going to drag you. Let's do it.

MONDELLO: Wartime brutality, religious heroism, an outcast not just redeemed at Hacksaw Ridge but sanctified, with apologies to Voltaire, if Desmond Doss did not exist, it might be necessary for Mel Gibson to invent him. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.

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