Based on the true story of conscientious objector Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), director Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge is something of an anomaly – a war movie featuring a protagonist who refuses to touch a gun. While the premise sounds so far-fetched that it should be fictional, Doss existed and this film brings his life to the screen in vivid detail.
Gibson has never shied away from violence as an actor (Lethal Weapon, Mad Max) or as a director (Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ), and here he walks a fine line between the enduring message of the film – a pacifist can be a war hero – and the reality of the gruesome battle in which that pacifist saves 75 lives while putting himself at risk.
Many of us fondly remember the film and sitcom M*A*S*H taking place in a war zone and being resoundingly anti-war. The doctors of the 4077th do not carry weapons, but their job is to save people who do. The premise is basically the same in Hacksaw Ridge, except medic Doss is right in the middle of the battle and not back at a field hospital.
The film opens with scenes of when Doss (Darcy Bross) was a boy and rough housing with his brother Hal (Roman Guerriero). Their father Tom (a terrific Hugo Weaving) is depicted as an alcoholic veteran of World War I, unable to cope with the loss of all his friends in battle. As Tom returns from the paying his respects to his buddies at the local cemetery, Desmond and Hal get into such a brutal fight that Desmond takes a rock and slams Hal in the head.
Having almost killed his brother, Desmond is distraught and inconsolable. Touching scenes between Desmond and his mother (Rachel Griffiths) show her love and tenderness for the boy, while the father prepares to beat him with a belt. After Desmond learns that Hal will live, a change comes over him and he decides to live a non-violent life.
As a young man we see Desmond working in a church – he is now a devout Seventh Day Adventist – and his being in the right place at the right time during a car accident allows him to save a man’s life by tying a tourniquet. He accompanies the man to the hospital where he sees many other people needing help, getting his inspiration to become a medic.
The hospital is also the place where he meets nurse Dorothy Schutte (Theresa Palmer) and falls in love with her. Their courtship is an opportunity to witness Desmond’s inner goodness and faith, and these qualities win Dorothy over. They enjoy dating and going to the movies, but newsreels about the war remind Desmond that many other men are not so fortunate because they are in harm’s way.
When his brother Hal (Nathaniel Buzolic) comes home dressed in a uniform and tells his parents that he has enlisted, Tom is enraged because he does not want to see his son experience the horrors he had witnessed. Later on Desmond is inspired by his brother and he too enlists, but is determined to do so as a conscientious objector, unwilling to carry a gun but wishing to do his duty and become a medic to help others.
Gibson weaves these story threads together into a fabric that runs through the movie, helping to make sense of everything to come. Having this background is crucial when we eventually see Doss in boot camp up against the men in his barracks, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn, in the best performance of his career), and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington). When they learn of Doss’s refusal to touch a gun and need to carry his Bible everywhere he goes, the resistance to Doss is staggering and, despite everything done to undermine him, his resiliency is amazing.
Even after some of the soldiers led by Smitty (Luke Bracey) beat him up during the night, Doss refuses to yield or to give up his attackers. That foreshadowing of bravery and loyalty earns him some grudging respect, and after fighting the battle in military court to stay in uniform, we flash forward to Okinawa where the real battle begins – one to take the seemingly impregnable Hacksaw Ridge.
Even knowing that Doss saves 75 men is not a spoiler, because the way he does this and who lives and dies most definitely is. The horrific battle scenes are some of the most bloody and gruesome I have ever seen on film, but this should come as no surprise to fans of Gibson’s previous work. We witness the indiscriminate fortunes of war – how one man is torn to shreds while the one crouching next to him is not.
The graphic nature of the combat scenes is an overstatement to highlight the senseless bloodiness of battle, the wasteful loss of young lives to appease the blood-swollen god of war who only craves more. The decimation of bodies is graphic and may be difficult for some viewers to observe, but this authenticity enhances the stature of Doss, who does nothing to contribute to the carnage all around him and everything in his power to stop its effects.
Gibson’s guiding hand is subtle here, and yet he elicits powerful performances from his cast. Worthington, Vaughn, Bracey, Weaving, Griffiths, Palmer, and even minor characters are noteworthy, but this is Garfield’s moment to shine and indeed he does. When he is poised at the edge of a cliff trying to save men by lowering them over it, Garfield’s face is illuminated with the faith we know Doss believes and the conviction that he can overcome all the odds against him. As Doss prays, “Let me save one more” you almost feel compelled to join him.
Cinematographer Simon Duggan captures the rugged stark landscape of Okinawa as well as the lush beauty of the small West Virginia town where Doss and his family live. On the battlefield the play of vivid colors of explosions alternating with the almost black and white nature of residual smoke and fog create a memorable portrait of the ugly beauty of war, and Rupert Gregson-Williams’s vibrant musical score supports these scenes of horror as well as ones of personal triumph.
It is good to see Gibson behind the camera again. We have always known that he has a knack for getting the battlefield scenes right, but his gentle hand is also apparent during scenes of intimacy between Desmond and Dorothy and those of camaraderie with Doss and the men who come to admire him. Hacksaw Ridge is Gibson’s most honest and compelling work as a director, not because he is condoning violence but instead highlighting its repugnance.
Even though it may be tempting to get the Blu-ray now that it has been released, do try to see this film first in a theater the way it was meant to be seen. I finally got to go see it on the big screen and was happy that I did.
The film is contending for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director. If I were a member of the academy I would have no problem checking those three boxes for Hacksaw Ridge. It is the best anti-war war film I have ever seen.