"Hacksaw Ridge" is the extraordinary true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) who, in Okinawa during the bloodiest battle of WWII, saved 75 men without firing or carrying a gun. He was the only American soldier in WWII to fight on the front lines without a weapon, as he believed that while the war was justified, killing was nevertheless wrong. As an army medic, he single-handedly evacuated the wounded from behind enemy lines, braved fire while tending to soldiers, and was wounded by a grenade and hit by snipers. Doss was the first conscientious objector awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Desmond Doss should certainly be remembered as one of the most memorable soldiers of World War II, despite never once having fired a gun. He wanted to be a medic to help preserve life, not take it away, and it wasn’t an easy conviction to stick with in this war. His is a story that needs to be told and, in the hands of long-dormant director Mel Gibson, is told with the right amount of faith and shock. One could credit it towards his understanding Christianity or martyrdom he studied for The Passion of the Christ or his understanding of war through Braveheart. It’s clear where his skills lie.
The origins of Doss’ drive stems from both dark family conflict and genuine pluckiness. A near-death incident with his brother makes him take the Thou Shall Not Kill commandment more to heart. Frequent fights with his drunken veteran father wagging around a gun solidify his no-gun policy. But his ways seem fairly set by the time he reaches adulthood that he can be a chipper enough dork, as portrayed by a spirited Andrew Garfield. Despite war on the horizons, his fancies draw to nurse Dorothy, played with just as much warmth by Teresa Palmer. They make for a great couple and she serves as another drive for Doss’ entry into the military, despite her not being so warm to the idea at first.
The most objectionary to his enlisting is his father Tom, a former veteran played with grit and fury by Hugo Weaving in one of his best performances. Having seen combat before, he’s not as enthused to see his son go off to war, spending his days mourning the loss of his fellow soldiers. It’s a stinging pain that haunts him, breeding worry and frustration amid his alcoholism, turning him into a rather sympathetic figure.
Also providing an obstacle for Doss is his bitter military brethren. Vince Vaughn plays a tough drill Sergeant that cracks dry jokes through his humorless sneering, hoping Doss will quit if he can break his spirit. But even when faced with military prison, he still sticks to his convictions, Bible firmly in his pocket with a picture of Dorothy as a bookmark. The entire first half of the picture is devoted to his desire to do some good in the world, even when everyone else wants him to take lives.
By the second half, Doss is accepted and shipped off to Japan as a medic on the battlefield. To illustrate the ugliness of war, Gibson reserves a hefty portion of the picture for his Saving Private Ryan set piece. You know the one: scores of soldiers storm the battlefield as they are violently shot up and exploded with lots of blood and gore, in a scene portrayed as dark and gruesome as war should be. We don’t see much of the Japanese side, most of these soldiers hidden behind the fog of war, but the movie does spend time to make them a little human as when Doss saves a wounded Japanese soldier.
While Gibson certainly grasps the horrors of war and makes a grand point about its pointless grotesque nature, he loses sight of Doss during these scenes. There are a few moments where he grabs a few soldiers, distributes some morphine and runs them back to the evacuation point, but the camera is more interested in the gun-toting soldiers than Doss’ syringe-toting acts of saving lives. Objecting to using a gun, the movie will often forget about him so that we can watch his fellow soldiers storm the field plagued with active rifles, knives, grenades and machine guns. It’s still a meaningful exercise in showcasing what needs to be seen of a brutal war, but feels slightly too long for how much time we avoid Doss.
The third act is when Doss is allowed to show his true worth. The battle seemingly over after a retreat for the day, Doss sticks around all on his own to retrieve more soldiers, still alive on a battlefield crawling with Japanese soldiers. He prays to God to let him save one more, rushes another wounded soldier back and repeats the process. Many soldiers were able to live another day as this one medic put himself entirely on the line.
The real Desmond Doss held off for years on a film adaptation of his life, worried about the accuracy of his efforts. While Hacksaw Ridge still does take a few liberties here and there, its subject is portrayed with a great understanding of his character. It’s easy enough to relate to Doss’ moral convictions, religious faith and determined nature, with Andrew Garfield’s innocent and courageous performance. Gibson’s direction portrays his story with the right amount of shocking imagery and uplifting themes, violent without being sensational and inspiring without pandering. As a war film that makes a strong case for pacifism, it’s one of the most important war movies that asks the audience to think a little more about conflict than just who shoots who.
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Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Classification is to be confirmed by the British Board of Film Classification
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