In Okinawa, during the bloodiest battle of WWII, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) 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.
The director, Mel Gibson, spends nearly an hour detailing Doss’ upbringing in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Desmond (played as an adult by Andrew Garfield) grows up deeply religious and protective of his mother (Rachel Griffiths), caught in an abusive relationship with Desmond’s alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving), an embittered World War I veteran.
While saving a life in a car accident, Desmond falls for Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), a beautiful, no-nonsense Lynchburg nurse. After their courtship, depicted with charming, dewy-eyed innocence, Desmond follows his brother into the Army to serve as a medic.
Desmond refuses to participate in weapons training at boot camp because it is against his beliefs. He is harassed and abused by Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn), Captain Glover (Sam Worthington), and members of his unit, especially the bully Smitty Ryker (Luke Bracey). Accused of cowardice, beaten by his bunk mates, Desmond is eventually court-martialed and thrown into prison. Only the intervention of a brigadier general prevents his dishonorable discharge.
Which brings Gibson to the heart of the movie, as Desmond and his unit reach Okinawa in 1945, they are ordered to take Hacksaw Ridge from the Japanese. To do so, they must scale a cliff with rope ladders, then overcome fortified bunkers.
It also showcases Gibson’s unerring ability to shoot action and violence. Make no mistake, Hacksaw Ridge is a very violent movie, and at times seems directly at odds with the philosophies of its main character, Desmond Doss. Doss is a man who refuses to even touch a rifle; he figures that he can do more good as a medic helping fallen soldiers in battle than he could as any kind of warrior. Frankly, wars aren’t won by who gets saved; as George Patton puts it, it’s about killing more of the enemy than the enemy kills of their’s, and Doss, as a Seventh Day Adventist and a child of a soldier scarred by the devastation of World War I, wants no part of the killing.
Doss’s morals and values are surely put to the test when the Army tries to court martial him for refusing to obey orders. Even more when Doss must put all his skills as a medic during the horrifying battle of Hacksaw Ridge, where Japanese troops slaughtered American soldiers during the Battle of Okinawa. Since Hacksaw Ridge is based on a true story, Gibson stays decidedly close to the source material, and Gibson, along with screenwriters Robert Schenkkhan and Randall Wallace, understands that it’s more about the journey than the destination. And while Doss dodges bullet fire to bring every wounded soldier he can back to base, he steadfastly holds to his ideals.
As faith-based movies go – and make no mistake, this is a faith-based movie, probably Gibson’s most direct since The Passion of The Christ – Hacksaw Ridge is remarkably effective. Even those who do not share Doss’s sensibilities can appreciate the strength of Doss’s convictions. But it wouldn’t work if not for the exemplary performance of Andrew Garfield, who puts a real, gritty, bleeding face to the beatific Doss. In a lesser performance, Doss would be insufferable, but Garfield plays Doss as something of an Everyman, one who loves his soldier-brothers, fiercely patriotic, but who will not allow his love of country compromise his values. Garfield is likable and compelling, and brings an “Aw shucks” quality to Doss that feels sincere and true.
Garfield’s performance is so good and natural that everyone around him suffers by comparison – the clichéd-drunken father (Hugo Weaving), the always-accepting mother (Rachel Griffiths), his ever-loving wife (Teresa Palmer) and his tough-as-nails commander (Vince Vaughn). Much of Hacksaw Ridge plays, frankly, cornball and old fashioned, and not always in the best of ways. Gibson wants to evoke the halcyon days of the 1940s, and mostly succeeds due to the impressive cinematography of Simon Duggan, who can transition from the beautiful days of pre-war life to the horrors of a blood-drenched Cliffside battle with ease. But a lot of the dialogue is not very subtle. That’s never been Mel Gibson’s strongest suit as a director, which may be why he’s shied away from dialogue-driven story in his previous films.
Gibson shows the ugly face of war, Hacksaw Ridge attains a kind of rugged, horrible splendor. Gibson is, bar none, a master of action directing. His shots are always coherent and brutal, and even during the chaos of war, Gibson and Duggan capture its devastating beauty, which oddly undercuts the message of the film. Doss may be a hero for not taking lives, but Gibson sure makes war look pretty. That’s not necessarily Gibson’s fault – it’s been said that there is no true anti-war film, because the very nature of filmmaking tends to glorify violence, even when the filmmaker isn’t intending it. Even Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan suffers from this – war action is inherently thrilling and cinematic, and it’s a problem that only a very few filmmakers have been successful in figuring out.
Mel Gibson without a doubt understands his audience, probably far more than his critics realize, critics who have underestimated his talents since the very beginning. Combining all these elements make for an extremely riveting and compelling watch which is beautifully made and historically accurate while keeping the morale of the characters and audience in mind. It is definitely a 5* watch and I highly recommend everyone goes to watch it on January 26th.