Movie Review: Hacksaw Ridge

Mel Gibson directs a grueling tale of a conscientious objector in World War II

Directed by Mel Gibson
With Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Vince Vaughn

Most films about World War II focus on Europe. The fighting in the Pacific tends to be overlooked a bit. Director Mel Gibson takes us back to Okinawa for an unusual tale, a war hero who refused to carry rifle. The Hacksaw Ridge ridge refers to a battle on Okinawa, but the film itself is actually the life story of just one participant, conscientious objector Desmond Doss (played by Andrew Garfield).

He is a deeply religious person, but director Gibson puts that in perspective a bit. Doss comes off mostly as a sincere person, which keeps the film from seeming overly preachy.

Structurally, Hacksaw Ridge is a bit reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, with the film split between grueling basic training filled with bullying of a particular soldier, followed by war sequences. There are also lots of flashbacks to Doss' childhood, which was filled with its share of cruelty as his father, Tom Doss (Hugo Weaving) has a tendency to beat Desmond and his brother, Hal, with a belt. Tom is a World War I veteran, one of the few from his town to come back from that war.

The boys get a strict religious upbringing, with emphasis on the commandment not to kill. Tom does not want them to enlist.

Desmond volunteers for the Army anyway, hoping to become a medic and save lives. Still, training requires him to become qualified on weapons.

Vince Vaughn plays the drill sergeant named Howell. He brings a touch of humor to it, keeping the film from being overly grim. He isn't as insane as R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. At times, Sergeant Howell tries to be sympathetic in finding a solution for the soldier who won't fight. The drama in this part is a bit predictable, and staged in a sort of retro manner. There is a love story with Doss and a nurse back home. The group of soldiers in Doss' unit all come from across the US, with the panorama of guys from tough neighborhoods, small towns, and so on. This part of the film could have been made back in the 1940s, except for the one solider who likes to go around naked.

It is with the battle scenes that Gibson delivers something different. No amount of talk or drilling could prepare people for the ongoing battle on Hacksaw ridge, a raging conflict on top of a sheer cliff. The battle has been eating up troops as fast as the arrive, with truckloads of dazed survivors plus the dead and wounded leaving as new units arrive.

Gibson shows foxholes filled with soldier's body parts, gruesome corpses and rats. The battle fighting itself is also brutal, with bayonets, flame throwers and close-range gunfire. Artillery is launched onto the battlefield from ships at sea.

Gibson's previous films as a director include Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, all of which dealt with very violent themes. As an actor, he has also been in war films including Gallipoli, The Patriot and We Were Soldiers. He was able to build on this experience to create an anti-war film where the person who does not fight is the hero. The depiction of the battle is so grueling that viewers can't really cheer for Allied advances or bemoan the setbacks. Like in the recent film Fury, about a tank unit in Europe, the actual brutality of war is something different than what jingoistic slogans depict.

Andrew Garfield, famous for the 2012 version of The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel, does make an unlikely hero and an unlikely film star. He brings a somewhat childish edge to Desmond Doss, giggling at times to cover his nervousness and making awkward conversation during his dates with his love interest. He has a hard job in making his religious conviction seem like something sincere, and not a contrived plot point. His charm wins out, though there are time the audience would forgive him for picking up a gun.

Hacksaw Ridge is not for the squeamish. But the carnage depicted is crucial to showing off the bravery of Doss going in to face it without a gun. Fall is the season for award films to get released, and the producers who made it will certainly be pushing Hacksaw Ridge as the best war film since Saving Private Ryan. That is likely an exaggeration, but it does deliver its message of heroism achieved by sticking to ones ideals and convictions.

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