HACKSAW RIDGE BEGINS with a shot of dead soldiers lying on the battlefield and a short, slow-motion tableau of the fighting during the Battle of Okinawa, while Desmond Doss, speaking in a rural Virginia accent, talks about God. And you think to yourself that this couldn’t possibly be directed by Mel Gibson. But it’s the perfect story for the controversial director, who hasn’t directed anything since Apocalypto was released a decade ago, because it combines the sort of Christian humanism that permeates all his recent work with his taste for unfiltered violence and gore, and the result is a something that, though harrowing, is a moving tribute to simple humanity.
Sixteen years before the bloodiest battle of the Second World War, the young Desmond Doss (Darcy Bryce) hits his brother Hal (Roman Guerriero) with a brick while they fight on the front lawn of their Virginia home. His parents rush over to tend to their wounded son, and Desmond, horrified at what he’s done, runs inside the house and stands in front of a poster listing the Ten Commandments. His gaze falls on the words ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’. Killing is ‘the worst sin of all’, his mother says, which makes the war that’s about to kick off (not to mention the one that just passed) pretty sinful business. Desmond Doss, at any rate, takes his mother’s words to heart.
Hacksaw Ridge is based on the true story of the army medic and conscientious objector Desmond Doss, who saved at least fifty people during the spring 1945 battle for Okinawa.Doss was a Seventh-day Adventist who, among other things, refused to carry a gun.
Hacksaw Ridge is based on the true story of the army medic and conscientious objector Desmond Doss, who saved at least fifty people during the spring 1945 battle for Okinawa.Doss was a Seventh-day Adventist who, among other things, refused to carry a gun. He is to date the only member of the American armed forces to have received the Medal of Honor without firing a single shot.
But for a long stretch, Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t really feel like a war film. The preamble to the heroism that earned Doss his medal goes on for over an hour: Doss, now 26, has grown up to be a very different man to his drunk, abusive father (Hugo Weaving) who can’t overcome his guilt at having out-survived his friends during the First World War, and meets and falls in love with a nurse called Dorothy (Teresa Palmer).
Gibson isn’t so patronising as to let us forget that there is a war taking place; nevertheless Doss’s burgeoning relationship is developing happily and he, though fiercely patriotic, is under less pressure than others to enlist.When Doss finally shows up for basic training at Fort Jackson and announces that he won’t carry a weapon the tone shifts and the film really gets going, and in the second half, on Okinawa, it roars into life. The first battle sequence makes the iconic D-day landing scene from Saving Private Ryan look like a pleasant summer trip to the beach. Before Desmond’s unit begin fighting the camera lingers on the bloody bodies and the entrails on the floor, and the rats eating the flesh of the dead. Violence is central to Gibson’s work, and in Hacksaw Ridge he seems especially incapable of looking away from anything red and mushy. It’s grisly stuff, and if not for a very good performance from baby-faced Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge might be completely lacking in subtlety. But Gibson’s intense, unsparing camera work is nonetheless completely effective in capturing the brutality and the chaos and the intimacy of battlefield combat, which is what makes Doss’s actions so heroic. There’s one excellent tracking shot in which the camera moves rapidly backwards as the American and Japanese come violently together in front of it.
Gibson’s intense, unsparing camera work is nonetheless completely effective in capturing the brutality and the chaos and the intimacy of battlefield combat, which is what makes Doss’s actions so heroic.
There’s humour, too, most of it courtesy of a top-of-his-game deadpan Vince Vaughn, who plays the sergeant major of Doss’s unit. In a hilarious five-minute sequence, he walks up and down the new recruits, subjecting them all to ritual humiliation. (‘How long have you been dead?’ he asks the gaunt and hollow-eyed Private Andy ‘Ghoul’ Walker). The recruits, however, never really become anything more than caricatures, which removes some of the emotion we might have felt during the later battle scenes. But Gibson does through these characters give us a sense of the cockiness and masculine optimism of the barracks – soon to be replaced by the sort of battlefield terror that causes some people to freeze completely.
A doe-eyed Garfield turns in a strong performance as a man who seems simultaneously naive and unassuming, quietly tenacious in his beliefs and yet capable of scrambling over corpses and dodging explosives to carry men twice his size to safety. He’s awkward but in a charming sort of way, and there’s a consistency to his performance even when he’s covered in blood and plunging syringes into the wounded that is a hard thing to do. There is some clumsy and slightly gratuitous religious symbolism – it is a Gibson film after all – and Doss does come across as something like a guardian angel, in the early scenes appearing almost comically childlike, and in the later ones as a figure that inspires awe and wonder. But then, Doss was a remarkable man, and though it doesn’t excuse the lingering shot of him suspended in the air between heaven and earth, it’s probably not a stretch to say that he might have felt like a guardian angel to the wounded men he dragged from the battlefield.