In his acceptance speech — or, I should more correctly say — acceptance letter, Iranian director Asghard Farhadi (who was denied entry into the United States due to the lack of empathy his films, and others at the Oscars, fight to demolish) said, “Dividing the world into the ‘us’ and ‘our enemies’ categories creates fear… [Filmmakers] create empathy between us and others.” I agree — the best effect of a film is to expose the stories and struggles of people and causes otherwise hidden, thereby inspiring positive change (This too, I think, is the ideal effect of journalism.) This year’s Oscars were a perfect example of this power. This year, the Academy recognized the devastatingly unrepresented black LGBT+ community by awarding Moonlight Best Picture. And by nominating Hidden Figures, it underlines the importance of what black woman did to make everything NASA has accomplished possible. Lion featured the first full-blooded Indian man to ever be nominated for an Oscar, and the third Asian man to ever be nominated as an actor. Elle addressed rape victims and Jackie added another movie to the rare list of female-driven biopics. Of course, all these successes are due to the hard work of filmmakers and diverse communities — not just a random, sometimes lost, pool of ballots. But by being nominated these films were set on a pedestal as the future of the film industry, and arguably the future of social justice.
None of that is news to you, of course. The statues are already gathering dust and the editorials on groundbreaking masterpieces like Moonlight have been written. So today, I want to discuss how this year’s Oscar-winning Hacksaw Ridge gave a voice to another cause that is generally uncharted in the blockbuster film world — nonviolent pacifism. I feel that this film also fostered empathy for an underrepresented perspective: active objection to all forms of violence
First, let’s acknowledge its flaws: Hacksaw Ridge was directed by Mel Gibson, who has been repeatedly accused of varying forms of discrimination. Its cast was nearly all white males. The only leading woman was there almost exclusively as an object of the male gaze. There were times in the film (and I recognize this will play against what I’m about to argue in the rest of this column) which dehumanized the enemy in the war as the “other” which can’t help but appear vaguely racist at parts. (For example, in the most violent sequences, the Japanese soldiers are shrouded in darkness so their faces are hidden and only cliched silhouettes are seen killing Americans, with little to no resulting Japanese individuals shown suffering.) There is always room for improvement, and this film is no exception.
Overall, however, I feel that Hacksaw Ridge is a huge leap forward for war movies. Thanks to impeccable acting by Garfield and other cast members, and thanks to the crew who participated in laboriously beautiful filmmaking, the movie glorified nonviolence in times of war. Very few films have ever explicitly approached this.
In the majority of other action films, guns are entertaining symbols of victory over the antagonist, or the “other.” Violence is exciting. It makes the viewer feel impressed that punching someone in the face is equivalent to making the world a better place. Explosions are highlights, and extras who die are just a part of the set. Hacksaw Ridge, on the other hand, shows that these common tropes have devastating and dehumanizing consequences on victims and perpetrators alike. This is thanks, of course, to the real-life hero Desmond Doss, main character of the film. He even repeatedly saved the lives of Japanese soldiers, refusing to diminish them as the “enemy”, rejecting many assumed philosophies of war as a solution.
I was hesitant to watch Hacksaw Ridge since everything I’d read and everyone I’d talked to said it was horrifically violent and gory. I stray away from these things, avoiding legitimizing them as entertainment. But I was surprised to discover that the violence in it seemed to promote pacifism rather than entertain it. Rather than portraying battlefields as a place where you shoot the “bad guy” and they fall over resulting in you “winning”, it showed that battlefields mean watching individuals who, without national context would not know each other, literally tearing each other apart. The gore was horrifying and disgusting and unpleasant to look at. Its violence emphasized that war mostly results in the slaughter of individual humans with unheroic ends. It showed beloved characters being shot in an instant, and it showed them bleeding to death and screaming in agony. Choruses of agonizing screams are a rare background noise. It made viewers rethink the results of violence. Were these individuals’ deaths meaningful?
By refusing to even touch a gun, Desmond Doss refused to legitimize this slaughter as a solution. He didn’t, for lack of a better phrase, shove this down anyone’s throats. Rather Desmond’s example taught that heroes don’t have to punch people to be strong. His bravery did not end in defeat of the enemy, it ended in compassion for people any other movie would violently plow over, ignoring their blood.
And even when he was brutally abused and repeatedly attacked for refusing to engage in seemingly mandatory and “dutiful” violence, he did not identify his attackers, showing that their violence did not inherently carry consequence other than inflicting pain on an individual they grew to love.
It also managed to tread a careful line by empathizing both sides of the debate for wartime pacifism — it showed that Desmond’s acquaintances and eventual friends who chose to carry guns were good people with good intentions who succeeded in saving him on multiple occasions. But it showed that that was not the only way to be considered a main stage hero.
Hopefully Hacksaw Ridge will open the door to more films that replace the notion of heroes holding guns with heroes saving lives. Hopefully it will make filmmakers think twice before carelessly ignoring the bloodbath background actors experience as a result of battles where all your favorite characters defeat the “bad guy.” Hopefully Hacksaw Ridge, despite all it’s messy flaws, will show that sometimes people who refuse to kick can still, metaphorically, kick ass.