Synopsis – WWII American Army Medic Desmond T. Doss, who served during the Battle of Okinawa, refuses to kill people and becomes the first Conscientious Objector in American history to be awarded the Medal of Honor.
My Take – It’s been a while since we had an excellent war film right? Sure films like Fury, The Hurt Locker & American Sniper played their parts well in adding to the genre, but in comparison to the classics such as Apocalypse Now, Platoon or Saving Private Ryan, they fall short. Some war films use a particular war from history to tell a fictional story, all three of the above for example, however, a war film for me becomes something else entirely when it tells a true story, especially one as remarkable as the story that this film is based on. War films can be a bit hard to sit through, with its graphic depictions of key battles in history, strong themes of power, brotherhood and the effect it has among the world but with Mel Gibson‘s latest war drama it manages to be something more that we can grasp it. No matter what you think about Mel Gibson as a person, after watching this film you will agree that he has made his contribution in the form of one of the greatest war films. This is a remarkable film about a remarkable true story you can’t believe actually happened. Based on the true story of US Army medic Desmond T. Doss, a man who refused to bear arms, yet was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman for single-handedly saving the lives of over 75 of his comrades while under constant enemy fire during the Battle of Okinawa in World War II. If you’ve seen Braveheart or the Passion of the Christ you know that Gibson is one of the few directors who have mastered the art of film making. If you want further proof than look no further, as this is another fine example of his work. The story follows Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a devout Christian and member of the Seventh-Day Adventist raised by his caring mother Bertha (Rachel Griffiths) and abusive alcohol father Tom (Hugo Weaving) strained by his experience in World War I. With World War II ravaging, Desmond enlists in the army as a Conscious Objector and to serve as a medic. During boot camp training, he faces causes displeasure in his drill sergeant Sgt Howell (Vince Vaughn) and commanding officer Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) when he refuses to touch a gun due to his religious beliefs.
But when his platoon is deployed on the battlefield in Okinawa, Japan, Desmond proves to be more worthy as a soldier than many believe when saves over 50 wounded soldiers without even firing a single shot. Gibson returns to the director’s chair to helm this true story, giving his touch of humanistic quality, anti-war themes and brutality to the horrors of war to much great detail. The direction is pretty much on point throughout and never goes dull or loses itself during its 131 minutes running time. One of the biggest ironies is how Mel Gibson cohesively makes a case of pacifism through an unflinchingly brutal portrayal of the horrors of war, and the story of how lead character Desmond Doss must face the violent nature of active combat that greatly conflicts with his religious beliefs. The first half of the film introduces Desmond as a young man who embraces his spirituality, while forced to deal with abusive upbringing by his father Tom who feels scarred by his son when he decides along his Howard (Desmond’s brother) to enlist in the war, recounting his harrowing experience in World War I that cost the lives of his friends. Along the way, we are then introduced to hot-shot nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) who Desmond quickly forms a relationship and provides some sweet moments of levity and connection for Desmond when he out overseas on the battlefields, though the depiction of their romance is a bit hokey and somewhat awkward during the first half-hour. Ultimately, the first hour is primarily about establishing Desmond’s pacifism and the cruel nature in which he endures when he makes himself the center of ridicule by his officers and fellow comrades who view of his refusal of abandoning his firmly held conviction against fighting as an act of cowardly, which is gracefully brought together in the boot camp training sequences in the fashion of ‘Full Metal Jacket’. It’s only in the second half we get into depicting the Battle of Okinawa at Hacksaw Ridge, the site of one of the bravest human feats in history. Both tell the story of the determined individual that Doss was and Mel Gibson does a wonderful job in directing the film. Much of the film is steeped in realism, something that Mel Gibson specializes in when it comes to violence. While the story and plot line may sound very traditional, the way it is portrayed is a fresh burst of life into a tired genre such as this. That, coupled with the amazing true-life story of Desmond Doss being portrayed on screen, makes this film a wild and brutal trip down the path to religion and the power that faith can give a man. Gibson, a devout Catholic himself, would be the director to bring this story to life. His religious views seep through his very being, especially through his films and this film is no exception. The film settles in the idea that God is literally protecting Doss, not only physically but spiritually as well. Doss is constantly tested throughout the film, almost needing to take a life (which is the ultimate sin to him) in many scenes. The fact that this man did not fire a single round and saved as many men as he did is astounding and the film really does an amazing job at showing the harsh realities of war but also showing the good that can be brought out in a man through his faith. The film itself is one of Gibson‘s less preachy works which makes it more accessible. Even if faith-based films are not your thing, you can appreciate the craft that went into making this film. This is not just simply a war film, but a man’s own personal war against the people and powers that be that tried to suppress him and his faith only to be proved wrong. This film is about as good as you can get these days and everything here is done to sheer perfection from the outstanding acting to the war scenes to the makeup, sets and everything done to capture not only the period elements of the time, but also to not only take us to those battle lines, but make us feel as if we were right there and experiencing them for ourselves. This film displays war as atrocious as it truly is. True to his reputation Mel does not hold back with the battle scenes. The devastation is already extensive and the ground strewn with bits of bodies by the time the 77th arrives.
The battlefield scenes are the most harrowing I have ever seen. There is nothing left to the imagination with shock after visceral shock coming at you for a good twenty minutes. The effect is an adrenaline surge as you feel like you are trying to survive with Doss and the rest of his troop. The payoff occurs after Doss does what he does and comes off Hacksaw Ridge. It is so emotional. The effect is amazing and it is all steered by Gibson‘s intense direction. The shattering reality of war is dizzying and full of impact, moving so quickly you can barely identify the characters in a whirlwind of panic, pain and death. But amidst the chaos, Desmond Doss’s character is revealed to everyone and even his harshest critics realize how wrong they were about him. Watching the story change from having the battalion hating him so much that they try to have him imprisoned, to refusing to go on the battlefield without him, is so moving and inspiring. Neither war itself nor violence is glorified in the film, yet they also not derided. The elements of conflict that draw the storyteller – the heroism of overcoming adversity, the bonding of soldiers, and the brave resolve on which soldiers must rely to perform their duty amidst such chaos and terror – these elements are all present, but they placed alongside the horror, the madness and the terror of war, and used to draw in the audience for Doss’ journey. The lasting psychological impact for those who survive conflict is well told by Hugo Weaving‘s portrayal of Doss’ father, whose lines could serve as a mouthpiece for many veterans. The heroism depicted in this story is of such an extraordinary magnitude that it can easily overwhelm any consideration of the film’s merits. With an uncomplicated and factual narrative arc, the story rests on two pillars: acting and filming. On both scores, this film deserves high praise. The most outstanding element of this film, however, is its powerhouse hyper-realistic cinematography and spectacular set constructions that relentlessly convey the brutality of war. While it is an outstanding technical production, giving spectacle precedence over narrative is the film’s Achilles Heel. One or maybe a few helmeted heads shredded or bodies bayoneted can convey much, but twenty deadens the senses. If ever there was a case where less could have been more, this is it. The score by Rupert Gregson-Williams is terrific, varying between nerve-wracking tones during the quiet pauses between battles, and then turning to a beautiful heroic melody for our main character. The whole film is carried by Andrew Garfield‘s performance and he doesn’t disappoint, as he gives the best performance of his career here. He brings us a soft spoken, earnest and strong willed Desmond and the actor gives his all throughout the film, both emotionally and physically. Teresa Palmer has delightful chemistry with Garfield as his love interest and gives the courtship scenes a charming old-fashioned feel. We also get excellent performances from surprising supporting actors, such as Vince Vaughn. The usually comedic actor gives an effective dramatic performance as a drill instructor and infuses his witty humor during the boot camp scenes. Sam Worthington also gives a surprisingly good performance as Doss’ cynical superior officer. Both these actors aren’t specifically known for their acting prowess, but both do their characters justice in this film. Luke Bracey as Smitty Ryker also plays his part well. The standout supporting actor was Hugo Weaving, as Desmond’s father who is a veteran-turned-angry drunk. Weaving gives the man an intense and vicious persona, and with little small tics, makes you believe the man has been through immense pain and loss. Mel Gibson has attracted a lot of bad press over the years but there is no denying that he is a good director, and here, he may just have made his best film yet. It’s the emotional power of the story that Gibson taps into so successfully that makes this film one of the best of the year. On the whole, ’Hacksaw Ridge’ is a brutally powerful emotional cinematic landmark that works due to its excellent storytelling, terrific acting performances, and marks a highly admirable directorial return for Mel Gibson. Must Watch!
Directed – Mel Gibson
Rated – R
Run Time – 131 minutes