November 19th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY QUT discrimination case exposes Human Rights Commission failings

CANBERRA OBSERVED Triggs in the gun: loaded section 18C to get overhaul

EDITORIAL First Brexit, now Trump - it's the economy, stupid!

ANALYSIS What is possible to a Trump Whitehouse

MANUFACTURING Foreign ownership no sole reason for breakdown

ENVIRONMENT Billionaires bankroll U.S. anti-coal campaign

LIFE ISSUES Abortion trauma link to male suicides

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Commission's "Get Pell" campaign fails on facts

GENDER AND POLITICS Pronouns, ordinary folk, and the war over reality

NAVAL MILITARY HISTORY A WWII encounter that deserves remembrance

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS China builds Great Wall in the South China Sea

MUSIC Dylan's Nobel prize causes song and dance

CINEMA Humanity within inhumanity: Hacksaw Ridge

BOOK REVIEW Bill is $500 billion and counting

BOOK REVIEW Arguments and facts: the man who remade Russia

POETRY Sunset at the Perth War Cemetery

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Humanity within inhumanity: Hacksaw Ridge

by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, November 19, 2016

We were all Orcs in the Great War.
                                                   J.R.R. Tolkien


The legendarium of J.R.R. Tolkien has within it the depiction of a truly Just War. This war, being as it is the battle between good and evil, might be seen as a glorifying of war. However, it is not. War is seen as a necessary thing, needed to stop the Dark Lord’s conquest of Middle-Earth, but a thing that is lamented and brings with it much suffering, one that risks turning its warriors into monstrous.

Tolkien’s experiences in the trenches of World War I brought home to him the horror of combat, the horror of what men could do to one another, but also the fact that such combat may at times be unavoidable. This conflicted take on warfare – that it may be necessary, but that that makes it no less horrific – is at the heart of Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge.

Hacksaw Ridge is the story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a conscientious objector who volunteered to serve as combat medic in World War II. The film is largely factual, but Gibson cut some of the more amazing parts as he feared they were too unbelievable.

Doss is a deep-believing Seventh Day Adventist who, as a result of principle and a personal promise, refuses to touch a gun, let alone use one. Despite this he wants to serve in combat, saving lives rather than taking them. His actions save dozens of lives and he earns the Medal of Honour. Yet he gives all the credit to God.

The movie opens in the midst of war with an injured Private Doss being stretchered out of the conflict zone, before cutting back to 16 years beforehand where we meet the young Desmond Doss (Darcy Bryce) and his brother Hal (Roman Guerriero).

The Doss boys are competitive and aggressive, and fearless bordering on stupid. Their father Tom (a powerful performance from Hugo Weaving) lost all his friends in World War I, and he turned to drink and self-loathing, making him unstable and, at times, violent. Their mother Bertha (Rachel Griffiths) cares for them all dearly, but finds their violence troubling, and misses the husband who left her for war and only half came back.

After almost killing Hal with a brick, Desmond comes to a shocked awareness of the value of life and the ease with which it can be taken.

We then cut forward 15 years with World War II about to begin. Desmond meets the pretty nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), whom he becomes set on marrying, and determines to enlist, as his brother Hal (Nathaniel Buzolic) does, and serve as a medic.

But the army is less keen on Doss and his seemingly idiosyncratic beliefs. His commanding officer, Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) wants him drummed out, as does Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn). They think he’s a risk in combat as he won’t be able to protect himself or others. And his fellow soldiers see him as a coward and a liability. The army tries court-marshalling him, but a last-minute reprieve gives him the right to serve as an unarmed combat medic.

From there they are sent to fight the Japanese at Hacksaw Ridge, a forbidding mountainside that the men must climb before assaulting the heavily fortified and well-equipped Japanese forces. War is here seen in all its horror, and it is here that Doss makes a name for himself, as he heroically rescues the wounded – including the Japanese – single handed after his unit retreats. He prays constantly as he does so.

Hacksaw Ridge is a film about conflict at many levels. There is the conflict within Doss as he tries to do his duty without going against his conscience. There is the conflict between Doss and the army, with both sides believing in their inherent rightness. Finally, there is the conflict between the American and Japanese armies, which itself is a life and death conflict for them all.

These conflicts are depicted, but not really resolved. There can be no easy resolution to such situations, only their conclusion.

And this unresolved conflict plays out in the film itself, as it is horrifically violent, despite having as its hero a man who abhors violence. It is a little like Doss himself, who has no answer for “questions that big” in reference to the morality of defensive war. He can only say that he will do his bit, and that his bit won’t involve killing.

Hacksaw Ridge shows the Orc-making nature of war, while also countering it; offering an affirmation of humanity, without downplaying war’s inherent inhumanity. It is a masterful exploration of conflict, and a masterpiece of cinema.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).

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