Hacksaw Ridge Review

Hacksaw Ridge (2016) Movie Review by John Walsh

Director: Mel Gibson
Writers: Robert Schenkkan (screenplay), Andrew Knight (screenplay)
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey

Hacksaw Ridge is a triumphant return to directing for Mel Gibson following a decade long absence. Based on the true events of Desmond T. Doss during one of the bloodiest battles of WWII at Okinawa. A pacifist who refused to carry a rifle or fire a single shot, whose heroics saw him become the only conscientious objector to ever be awarded with the U.S. Medal of Honor.

Raised within a Seventh-Day Adventist, Christian family, with a decorated WWI veteran father that has turned to drink to escape the horrors of that war and the loss of his two best friends. We see the interesting dynamics of his family play out in the early stages of the film, both him and his brother somewhat prophetically climbing a sheer cliff face in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Afterwards they are seen fighting with each other on the front lawn, as Tom (Hugo Weaving) watches on. Desmond acting on pure instinct, nearly kills his brother with a brick. The trauma of this event and almost succumbing to his pent up frustration after snatching and point a gun at his abusive father in a later flashback, acting as a catalyst to his pacifist ways later in life. We’re also given an early example of the key differences between father and son. The former removing his belt to beat his son following the aforementioned fight, whilst a clearly older Doss also removes his later, although this time to create a tourniquet from which to stem the bleeding of an injured man, saving his life in the process.

Despite having a job that would protect him from any need to join the conflict and a blooming romance with the beautiful nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), Desmond is compelled to do his bit and serve his country, taking the bombing of Pearl Harbour as “personal”. His eventual path to Okinawa is fraught with hardship. Seeking to become a medic and refusing to even touch a rifle, let alone fire a shot from one, it’s not long before he draws the ire of his fellow recruits at boot camp. Both Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) do everything in their power to dissuade Desmond of undertaking what, in their minds, is nothing more than a foolish, suicide mission. They try to break his spirit and even have him court marshalled, but ultimately, he is given permission to join the fray without a weapon. Thanks in part to an intervention from his father and his sheer determination to continue without betraying his beliefs.

What follows is perhaps the most gruesome, bloodiest portrayal of war since Saving Private Ryan. Limbs are sent flying, entrails are exposed and rats feast openly on the corpses of fallen soldiers. Desmond and his battalion relieve the 96th infantry, taking the assault to ‘Hacksaw Ridge’, a sheer cliff face on which rests a plateau of pure hell. “Hacksaw. We climbed up six times and six times they threw us off” We hear one of the other medics tell Desmond and his group. The first assault is an apparent success, with the Japanese forced back by a hail of artillery fire from the U.S. navy ships and a brutal advance spearheaded by a cavalier Smitty (Luke Bracey). Almost immediately we see the bravery of ‘Doss’ shine through as he rushes to wounded soldiers sides. He ignores the other medics attempts to move him on from seemingly lost causes, an early indication of the sheer determination he possesses, even as some of his companions freeze during the carnage.

A brief interlude from the mayhem then plays out and a poignant moment is shared between Smitty and Doss, the former admitting his earlier accusation of cowardice was wide of the mark. Much like the calm experienced in the eye of a hurricane however, the respite is short lived. Doss’ dream of brutally being attacked by Jap soldiers is strangely less horrifying than the actual resumption of violence that breaks out almost immediately afterward. The Japanese, burrowed inside a network of tunnels release a torrent of hell upon the American soldiers, forcing them to retreat back off the ridge. Glover calls in artillery support which gives only a fraction of the company the chance to do so. The rest are trapped and a disconsolate Doss, left questioning his faith on the precipice after failing to save Smitty during the chaotic retreat, makes the incredibly brave decision to return and rescue as many as possible.

Repeating the mantra “One more god, just one more” and deep within the enemy territory. He becomes involved in an unrelenting cat and mouse chase, having to employ guerrilla like tactics, but remarkably manages to help scores of wounded soldiers by feats of bravery and ingenuity. After going back for what seemed like one return trip too many, he manages to rescue Sergeant Howell, escaping the Japanese pursuers who were hot on his trail. Desmond, by this point is a nervous wreck and is taken back to base camp for treatment and a short respite. The news of his selfless heroics soon spreads and he becomes something of a pharaoh to the other soldiers.

This transformation in attitude is further confirmed when Captain Glover, previously one of his strongest critics, delays the next assault on the ridge until he finishes his prayers for the battalion. The final and ultimately successful assault then kicks off, with the newly invigorated American forces easily defeating the Japanese in the end. There’s one more act of selflessness from Doss however as he deflects and kicks two grenades away from a group of crazed, surrendering Japs, saving many lives and  injuring himself in the process.

There’s a fair few good performances in this film. Hugo Weaving plays the relatively short part of the troubled Tom Doss very well and despite having a drunken and abusive past, the emotion he puts into his portrayal makes the viewer pity him. Vince Vaughn is excellent as Sgt. Howell, injecting humour into the film very effectively, even in some of the tensest moments. His nicknames for the various men in the battalion, not to mention playful banter are genuinely funny. Sam Worthington also performs well in the role of Cpt. Glover.

Ultimately though, the film is carried by Andrew Garfield as Doss. Despite carrying a certain goofiness and a slightly high pitch voice, not too dissimilar to Forrest Gump, he manages to inject real emotion into the character and delivers a truly powerful performance. Teresa Palmer does a reasonable job as the love interest and Luke Bracey is the standout of the side characters within Doss’ battalion.

The film is a visual masterpiece and the progressively more monochromatic palette employed as it progresses, helps give a visual representation of the increasing despair the characters feel. Simon Duggan and the effects guys bring us harrowing, in some ways beautiful, action sequences that recreate the horrors of war in absolutely brutal fashion. Great detail has clearly been taken to make sure everything looks absolutely accurate. From the look of uniforms and guns to the way grenades and bullets impact on the body. Unfortunately, the strange obsession of putting accident pictures on social media sites such as Facebook means that I’m able to confirm the high degree of accuracy in the gore seen throughout.

Thematically, it’s clear that Doss’ story is one of faith and redemption in the face of intolerance. Beginning the film as an outsider, treated with sneering contempt by his peers, he eventually gains respect for his actions and unwavering belief. Effectively taking on the persona of a Christ like figure in the films later stages. Acting selflessly, always sacrificing his interest for others and even descending the ridge on a stretcher at the end, looking for all the world like a newly ordained saint.

I loved this film purely on face value. I’m a massive WWII nerd and love watching any trip back into the period. It was a fascinating insight into an incredibly brave mans story and ignoring some of the weaker thematic elements, it delivers in spades. Yes, it’s extremely pro-American and the Japanese are painted as evil monsters with no attempt made to see the situation from their perspective. But Gibson once again produces a highly absorbing, powerful, drama with some wonderful action to boot.

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