November 23, 2016 Updated: November 23, 2016 at 2:43 pm
(RNS) “Hacksaw Ridge,” Mel Gibson’s wide-release, World War II movie, has cast a light — and a justifiably favorable one at that — on the Seventh-day Adventist faith of its central character, Medal of Honor winner Desmond Doss.
During the battle for Okinawa, the combat medic and conscientious objector saved 75 wounded GIs, although his faith prohibited him from carrying a rifle.
“Hacksaw Ridge” has been well-reviewed and has done moderately well at the box office, finishing third in its initial weekend, with nearly $15 million on just under 3,000 screens, and remaining in the top 10 for the next two weekends, bringing its total to $42.8 million.
Reviews and box office strength are two necessary criteria to justify the early Oscar buzz, either in the best picture or best actor categories, not to mention special effects for the harrowing combat scenes.
But embedded in the film may also be several small acts of reconciliation toward the Jewish people from Gibson, a filmmaker known for his well-documented anti-Semitic rants, and the dark undertone of anti-Judaism in “The Passion of the Christ.”
The first of these quiet gestures of repentance, called “teshuvah” in Hebrew, may be casting Andrew Garfield, a British Jew, in the lead role of Doss. For his part, Garfield told Jimmy Kimmel that he was not constrained from taking the role because of Gibson’s anti-Semitic background.
Unlike classic World War II films, in “Hacksaw Ridge” there is no stereotypical Jew nicknamed “Brooklyn” in Doss’ otherwise heterogeneous (but all white) basic training company, which evolves into his shattered combat unit.
However, about halfway through the film a minor character appears named Herbert (but called “Irv”) Schechter, a battle-hardened medic played by a very Jewish-looking Ori Pfeffer, who is Israeli.
Schechter shows the newly arrived Doss the ropes on how to survive, like the fact that the dug-in Japanese snipers target the Red Cross emblem on helmets. Later the two work together in the heat of a horrifically realistic battle.
Ultimately, Schechter is gravely wounded, but he gives the plasma that could save his own life to another wounded soldier. Garfield’s character is pained to learn later that Schechter has died of shock as a result of his sacrifice.
According to one of the “Hacksaw Ridge” producers, Terry Benedict (who made an earlier documentary film about Doss), Schechter was a real person and a real friend.
“To me, and the way Desmond and I talked about Irv, was that there were many examples of selfless acts of brotherly love that cut across religious and denominational lines,” Benedict told me in an email.
“Irv and Desmond certainly had a close relationship, and discussed many times their beliefs but never tried to convince the other that theirs was the better one,” Benedict wrote.
“It was very upsetting to Desmond when he lost Irv. Irv felt that if it was his time to go there was nothing that could be done about it. It was in God’s hands. That enabled him to do what he did as well. Desmond focused more on his personal relationship with Jesus. It’s a good example of two different men’s beliefs but able to be friends and work together for the greater good.”
But did the Schechter character represent an intentional gesture of reconciliation from Gibson to the Jewish community?
“I was not part of that conversation with him,” Benedict said. “So I don’t know.”
To date, the director hasn’t helped himself while promoting “Hacksaw Ridge.” In early November, he said he felt it was unfair to have to continue answering questions about his earlier anti-Semitic statements.
“I’m feeling good,” Gibson told Variety. “I’m sober, all of that kind of stuff, and for me it’s a dim thing in the past. But others bring it up, which kind of I find annoying, because I don’t understand why after 10 years it’s any kind of issue.”
The day after his arrest for drunken driving, when he made the remarks, Gibson apologized for the incident and called his statements “despicable.”
Of course, this being the entertainment business, there might be yet another, ulterior motive for casting Garfield in the lead role and for introducing the Schechter character: Oscar season approaches.
There is still skepticism, if not residual ill will, toward Gibson in the Hollywood community with its strong Jewish presence and history.
“Let’s put it this way: I don’t think it’s a closed book, because it was a recurring issue,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, told the Jewish newspaper The Algemeiner. “There was a lot there. … There were numerous opportunities to shut the door on that and I don’t think that’s been fully vetted yet.”
So, is it too soon to tell if they are willing to accept this as Gibson’s comeback movie?
I don’t really care whether the Schechter portrayal facilitates a reconciliation between Gibson and the Hollywood Jewish community, if only for the sake of its Oscar prospects. I’m happy to take it for what it is on the screen.
In the wake of Veterans Day, it should be noted that identifiable Jewish soldiers, portrayed sympathetically, first appeared in World War I films such as “The Grand Illusion” (the wealthy French officer Rosenthal) and “The Fighting 69th” (the Yiddish-speaking doughboy Mischa Moskowitz).
More than anything, the Schechter character in “Hacksaw Ridge” brings back my fond memories of the late Allan Arbus, who played the world-weary Army psychiatrist Dr. Sidney Freedman from 1973-1983 on TV’s long-running M*A*S*H, set during the Korean War.
Arbus, whose character once got into trouble when it turned out he never signed the officer’s loyalty oath, had some great lines: “Ladies and gentlemen, take my advice. Pull down your pants, and slide on the ice.”
Or his response when ordered to deal with a berserk soldier: “I’m not going out there without a bulletproof couch.”
Freedman could be subversively profound. Rather than combat, he says, “It’s the little battlefields, a pond, the bedrooms, the schoolyard that leave the biggest scars.”
Scars like anti-Semitism.
(Mark I. Pinsky is the author of “The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World’s Most Animated Family”)