Mel Gibson’s graphic yet moving tribute to the sacrifices of war
How one man saved 75 lives in Okinawa without firing a single shot
Directed by Mel Gibson
Starring Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Vince Vaughn
Blood, death, dirt, flames, and shattered bodies arc across the screen in a depraved, slow-motion waltz of wartime gore that is sickeningly captivating. So begins Hacksaw Ridge, Director Mel Gibson’s newest biographical film about World War II’s bloodiest battle in Okinawa, and the true story of Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
However, once the smoke and fire fade from screen, it quickly becomes apparent that the movie’s first act is little more than a bland and painfully clichéd period piece about small-town America during World War II. The exposition comes rapid-fire in a sequence of neatly parsed-out scenes that are intended to provide a sympathetic backstory and tangible motivations for the film’s protagonist, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield).
Living in small-town Lynchburg, Virginia as a devout Christian, Doss struggles with the burdens of an alcoholic and abusive father (Hugo Weaving) and a particular childhood trauma that forever brands the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill” onto his conscience. Doss then proceeds to fall in love with and become engaged to Nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) in what is meant to be a cute and lighthearted courtship, but which instead feels more like scenes lifted from a poorly written romantic comedy that lacks both believable romance and good comedy.
When World War II kicks off and all of the other men in town begin enlisting, Doss feels deeply compelled to do the same. Because of his religious and personal convictions, he enlists as an army medic and is shipped off to train with the other soldiers. It is with the introduction of his fellow soldiers and commanders, including the aggressively disdainful Smitty (Luke Bracey) and the loud and insulting Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn), that the film begins to regain it’s footing.
Vaughn provides an admirable blitz of comedic relief as the quintessential in-your-face order-barking sergeant who finds deadpan joy in insulting his soldiers. Doss presents himself as a contradiction: both a conscientious objector against the violence of war, and a dogged soldier devoted to the defense of his rights and freedoms. When presented with his government-issued rifle, Doss refuses to lay even a hand on the weapon citing his anti-violence dogma, a refusal that confounds and alienates his peers and leaders. The prejudice and disdain towards Doss is thick and heavy, but it sets up a conflict that yields a predictable yet unmistakably satisfying payout by the film’s conclusion.
As the soldiers enter into the namesake battle for the possession of Hacksaw Ridge, the film finally hits its stride with deftly choreographed battle scenes and heavy-hitting losses. Despite the fact that a film so rooted in the sanctity of personal beliefs could only end in one way, anxiety is still palpable as Doss circumvents near-death experiences while single-handedly rescuing 75 wounded soldiers from a landscape of shadows, silent corpses, and enemy soldiers.
In addition to the grime, blood, and sweat caked on Doss’s battle-torn uniform and haggard face, four or five flies can also be seeng flitting about, which emphasizes not only the unsanitary conditions but also the attention to detail that the filmmakers must have applied to the creation of their violent tableau.
Recalling the explicitly graphic imagery of his previous works The Passion of the Christ and Braveheart, Gibson doesn’t shy away from the gruesome, the shocking, or the violent. A pair of legs lie in a ditch, and coils of looping intestine and other mutely colored organs figure as the only remnants of a human being. A fleshy skull stares vacantly out of a trench with maggots surging out of its mouth and rats scurrying across its decaying flesh. Bodies burn in great swathes of orange flames. Bullets tear through skin and bones, their trajectories marked by exclamation points of spurting blood.
But none of it feels gratuitous. It’s visceral and raw. Instead of glorifying the ravages of war, Hacksaw Ridge pays a powerful tribute to the men and women who find themselves in the thick of it. Though focused through the perspectives and efforts of a few men, the violence and suffering that unfurls in the second half of this film is a moving reminder of the sacrifices of war.
Before the credits roll, a few real-life images are shown with text beneath explaining the aftermath of it all. Spliced in are clips of interviews with the real Desmond Doss and it is with his personal description of the very same events that have just unfolded on screen that the reality and gravity of his bravery in the face of unspeakable danger truly hits home.