Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
An inspiring story about an unconventional hero? A graphic tale of the brutality of a war? A touching and believable love story? Mel Gibson can do it all, and, believe it or not – do it brilliantly – all in the same movie. His latest film “Hacksaw Ridge” tells the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a kind, deeply-religious young man who also happens to be a conscientious objector, enlisting to serve in an army, while having a deep conviction against the commission of violence/murder and would not even touch a gun. Nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director, “Hacksaw Ridge” is the kind of a film which one can easily define as “great”: a moving, heart-felt story is matched by a dedicated director and a committed actor who do their work exceptionally well.
“Hacksaw Ridge” starts off with Desmond’s difficult childhood spent with his often drunk and violent father (Hugo Weaving), a retired army official, his troubled mother (Rachel Griffiths) and brother Hal. Here, we see the first instances of Desmond’s childhood psychological trauma when he nearly kills his brother by accident with a brick while play-fighting. Later, when he is older, he sees his mother violently abused by his father, and there is also an incident involving a gun. All these situations play a major part of Desmond’s conscientious objection and his aversion to firearms. Moreover, from his childhood, Desmond is very religious, and the Bible commandment: “Thou shalt not kill” means a lot to him. All this is vividly and powerfully presented, and we really get the feeling that Desmond vows to be the complete opposite of his violent father.
Some years later, church-going Desmond has aspirations to become a doctor, and meets a pretty girl Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) while being in a hospital after just helping to save a young man injured on the street. Desmond and Dorothy fall in love, and Desmond also enlists to serve in the army as a “conscientious objector” without the possibility to bear arms, because he is morally against murder. In the army, Desmond battles with stigma, discrimination against him (he is called a “coward”), and has to confront brutal trainings and random beatings. After a fierce court battle, he is eventually allowed to proceed to a battleground without a weapon to defend himself. Then, at the Battle of Okinawa, Private Doss, single-handedly, saves the lives of more or less 70 people: tending to the wounded, providing assistance and taking the wounded away from danger, when most of the remaining men who survived the initial attack leave. For his exemplary bravery, Desmond Doss is later awarded the Medal of Honour for service above and beyond the call of duty.
The most amazing aspect of this film is that this is not just another film made about the WWII. This is a film about a conscientious objector or a “conscientious co-operator”, as Desmond liked to call himself. Thus, it is very interesting to see how Desmond’s religious and moral views play out in a real war situation, and, on that basis, this film will also be enjoyed by people who are not normally into war movies. The first part (hour) of the film is different from the second part (hour), but this is because it shows the pre-war and war-scenarios respectively.
One of the most impressive things about Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge” is how well and masterfully the story is told. Not one scene is needless or feels out-of-place. The film never “waffles”, and every scene tries to communicate something important. In this film, and taking into account “Braveheart” (1995), Gibson really demonstrates that he is one of the masters of presenting deeply-emotional and moving hero portrayals. The soundtrack, sometimes reminding too much of that found in “Braveheart”, helps things along, but the powerful dialogue is the most important contributing factor to this success. At times it is meaningful, for example, when Desmond is told that “a gun is every soldier’s lover”, “concubine”, perhaps, “the only thing in life a soldier would truly love”; at other times it is darkly funny, for example when someone remarks close to the battlefield that “you are not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy”.
Also, in a war-themed or even a just biographical film like this, the “romance” side of a film is either ignored, underdeveloped or badly-presented. Surprisingly, the “Hacksaw Ridge” screenwriters and the director manage to present quiet a love story here. The chemistry between Desmond (Garfield) and Dorothy (Palmer) is electrifying; their onscreen attraction feels very real; and the scenes where Desmond and Dorothy are together remind of those epic scenes of pure romantic atmosphere present in Gibson’s “Braveheart”. The scene where Desmond first sees Dorothy in hospital is magical; brilliantly presented; and such phrases between them as: “I fell in love with you because you were not like anyone else”, make their romance even more touching.
It is impossible not to fall in love (well, more so if you are a girl, maybe) with Andrew Garfield’s portrayal of Desmond Doss. His Desmond is very likeable, but in a quiet manner. Garfield really shows the kindness and goodness of Desmond, and we instinctively root for him and wish him well. His simplicity and inexperience in medicine and dating clearly show, but he comes off as so good-humoured and optimistic, he is a pleasure to behold. Be it under a safe harbour of his local church or in a battlefield, Desmond never loses his essence, his anti-firearm conviction or his devotion to a noble cause. He is so humane and so considerate to the plight of his fellow men. At one point Desmond says “I don’t know what I am going to do with myself if I don’t stay true to what I believe”, and also “I am not going to pretend to be something that I am not; I am what I am.” In that way, Garfield’s portrayal of Desmond is a really powerful one, and he gives the performance of his career. As for the cast in general, Gibson had to cast largely Australian actors to secure a government funding from Australia. This explains so many Australian actors in the film, for example, Hugo Weaving (“V for Vendetta” (2005)) who really impresses as Desmond’s deranged father.
“Hacksaw Ridge” has been accused of jingoism, and the Japanese are really not presented in the film in the best of lights. However, this criticism is a bit unfair. Gibson is the director well-versed in directing very patriotic (“Braveheart”) and religiously-zealous (“The Passion of the Christ” (2004)) films, and, compared to his previous films, “Hacksaw Ridge” is not particularly extreme or distorted in its “patriotism”. That maybe because we get to know Desmond Doss so personally, and we largely see the events from his point of view.
“Hacksaw Ridge” has also been attacked for its portrayal of extreme graphic violence, which some view as just realistic, while others think was quite unnecessary. It is true that there are many scenes in this film which some viewers would find hard to stomach, but they should be seen in the context, taking into account the main purpose of the film. The graphic violence in the film may be what is really necessary here for an effective juxtaposition and dramatisation. Given that there is this tender, kind hero with high morals who would never touch a gun, there must be shown some extreme, totally godless, brutality on the battlefield to draw an effective contrast. In that way, Desmond is like a saint in a true hell, and a true hell on a battlefield Gibson surely delivers.
The real notable weakness in this film is the ending. There is a nice, touching documentary footage shown of the real Desmond Doss, as he recalls one of his war episodes, but there is nothing shown about the future fate of our movie hero. The film started off with Desmond’s childhood and his difficult relationship with his father, allocating a fair amount of time to the development of his relationship with his sweetheart Dorothy, and, yet, at the end, we see no evident conclusion or a “happy ending” involving his family or his wife. The film feels incomplete without at least showing some references to it, since it focused so much on these private sides of Desmond’s life at the beginning.
To conclude, “Hacksaw Ridge” is exceptional in every way, and it is one of the most moving films I have seen in a long time. The fact that this film is a true story of self-sacrifice and selfless devotion to common and personal causes is a big asset of this film. However, “Hacksaw Ridge” is also more than this. It has powerful performances and dialogue sequences, and contains one of the most intense and visually (un)believable war sequences. 9/10