There are so many Christological echoes in this blistering World War II tale, by the end you expect messianic doctor Desmond Dos (Andrew Garfield) to say something like, “I am who I am” as he’s being stretchered off the battlefield.
A pacifist from the outset, he enlists in the army on an ‘I refuse to bear arms’ basis. This seems anomalous to his superior officers. He turns the other cheek whenever violence is used against him by his fellow soldiers in his unit and is roundly branded a coward by them. Eventually he faces court martial.
Dos doesn’t see himself as a ‘conscientious objector’ but rather a ‘conscientious collaborator’. He wants to be in the thick of the action but to save lives rather than end them – even those of the enemy. He treasures his Bible, refuses to fight on the Sabbath – Saturday in his native Virginia – and holds fast to the Sixth Commandment, even when war condones killing.
They say Errol Flynn won the war single-handedly for America on screen. Dos performs similar Superman-style deeds here, rescuing soldiers from situations others have given up on. He saves the supposedly unsaveable, dispensing morphine in jabs from his kitbag to those writhing in agony after being shot or bombed.
Is he too good to be true? It appears so at times. But Dos was a real man. If we have any doubts about that they’re banished when we see him speaking about his experiences in the film’s epilogue.
It’s directed by Mel Gibson. He’s taken the stereotypes of the standard war film – the tough drill sergeant (Vince Vaughn), the sweetheart from home (Teresa Palmer) - and adjusted them. Vaughn’s toughness is leavened by some slowly-developing empathy for Dos’ convictions. Palmer is made of sterner stuff than the average war wife in 1940s melodramas.
The film isn’t without its faults. The Japanese are portrayed in a cruel, even kamikaze-like fashion. (They’re also referred to as ‘nips’, something I haven’t heard in a film for about 40 years.) And we don’t see Dos studying to be a doctor – surely at least one scene could have been devoted to this.
The violence is excessive. Bodies are blown to smithereens as limb is torn from limb in a manner that’s self-indulgent on Gibson’s part. If you thought Saving Private Ryan was something, this makes it look like a tea party. Add up all the blood he spills here, in Braveheart and The Passion and you could probably set up your own blood bank.
We know war is ugly. By upping the ante to this extent it becomes difficult to imagine Dos did what he did. Watching him tying tourniquets as the Japanese breathe down on him is like watching someone doing needlepoint during a hurricane – or trying to nail custard to the wall.
One’s credibility is strained at such moments, but that isn’t to deter from the film’s undeniable potency.
Very Good ****