It may seem like one of life’s strange jokes that a biopic about Desmond Doss — the heroic WWII conscientious objector who refused to touch a gun but saved dozens of lives as a medic — is the most violent film aimed at a mainstream audience this year. But that tension between honor and horror is what makes Hacksaw Ridge, named after a particularly hotly contested spit of land on the Japanese island of Okinawa, such a cinematic gut punch.
Written by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan and directed by Mel Gibson with all the subtlety of a hand grenade, it fits in with other films he’s helmed, like Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ. It’s grisly and messianic with no shades of gray — the Japanese attack in waves of anonymous death — but it’s also brutally effective in putting the viewer in Doss’ blood-soaked shoes.
Andrew Garfield is Doss, a lanky kid from Lynchburg, Va., who just wants to do his part in the war effort. Everyone in town, including his brother, Harold (Nathaniel Buzolic), has signed up, and even his drunken dad (Hugo Weaving) was a decorated soldier in WWI.
The problem is that, as a devout Seventh-day Adventist, pacifist and vegetarian, Doss feels he can’t kill another person under any circumstances. The film doesn’t bother explaining how his father and brother justify their service, if they have any faith at all, or if his faith is something he picked up from his constantly fretting mom (Rachel Griffiths). (Two incidents, one in which he unintentionally nearly kills his brother and another where he intentionally almost kills his abusive father, seem to have bolstered his beliefs to never use a weapon.)
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Registering as a conscientious objector and volunteering as a medic is the obvious solution to his quandary. He can save lives without taking any.
But that doesn’t fly with his commanders like Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Capt. Glover (Sam Worthington) or other soldiers in his squad who try to bully him into resigning. They feel his refusal to pick up a gun, even in training, is going to get them killed on the battlefield.
Still, he doesn’t back down, earning grudging respect from the men for his ability to take what they dish out without complaint. Then their attitudes completely change once they see him at work in the heat of war, refusing to leave any soldier’s side and even saving some wounded Japanese soldiers’ lives.
He would go on to be awarded the Medal of Honor for his valor.
It takes awhile for Hacksaw Ridge to arrive on the battlefield. Much of the first hour is devoted to Desmond’s wooing of Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a Lynchburg nurse, while the humor in the basic-training scenes could have come from a different, lighter movie. But once it gets to Okinawa around the 70-minute mark, Hacksaw Ridge becomes a tumble into hell.
As is often the case with biopics, Gibson strips the life story down to its bare bones. The film doesn’t deal with Doss’ injuries or the complications he suffered upon returning home. But, thanks to a credible performance from Garfield, audiences get to see the chaotic world of war through a soldier’s eyes.
Speaking of Gibson, there are echoes here of Gallipoli, the 1981 film in which he starred about Australian troops’ valiant ground assault against Turkish soldiers and overwhelming odds in WWI. But that film ultimately was a less triumphant and more sobering experience.
As a side note, fans of Australian film and TV won’t help but notice that, for a story about American courage under fire, much of the cast and landscape is Australian. The film was shot in Sydney and, in addition to Griffiths, Worthington, Weaving and Palmer, many of those playing American soldiers and secondary characters — Matt Nable, Richard Roxburgh, Ryan Corr, Firass Dirani, Luke Pegler, Luke Bracey — are popular Australian actors flattening out their accents and doing their best to sound American. Adding to the international flavor is American-born Garfield, who was raised in England.
Gibson, of course, is an American who moved to Australia as a child and then returned to the U.S. as an adult. His Hollywood career has been marred by controversies of his own making, but whatever you think of his behavior or his politics, there’s no denying that, to direct a rousing, crowd-pleasing war movie like Hacksaw Ridge, he is the perfect choice.
☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: Mel Gibson
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Rachel Griffiths, Hugo Weaving, Luke Bracey
Rated: R (intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence, including grisly bloody images)
Running time: 131 min.