Movie Review: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

“When the order came to retreat, one man stayed.”

2 Stars
Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)


Director: Mel Gibson

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey

Synopsis: The story of Desmond T. Doss, the first conscientious objector to be awarded the American Medal of Honour.

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Despite its graphic depiction of chaotic slayings on the battlefield, Mel Gibson’s widely acclaimed war picture Hacksaw Ridge is something of a throwback to Hollywood biopics from the golden era.   One can imagine Dana Andrews, say, playing a more rugged version of Desmond T. Doss, the young man from Virginia who became the first American to win his country’s Medal of Honour without firing a shot.   The horrific events on the field of battle are far more explicit than anything Hollywood could have shown its audiences back in the ‘40s, such is the influence of Saving Private Ryan.   These scenes might seem gratuitous to some, but they powerfully illustrate the scale of Doss’s bravery in remaining on the battlefield to rescue seriously wounded comrades when everyone else in his unit had been forced to retreat.

Doss is a mix of pacifist gentleness and iron resolve.    He’s played by Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man 2), an actor who lacks a typical leading man’s buff physique but can pass for the unremarkable Everyman you might work alongside every day without once catching a glimpse of the depth of will or courage he possesses.   Dorothy (Teresa Palmer – Warm Bodies, Lights Out), the girl Doss meets and becomes engaged to within half-a-dozen scenes, senses that strength within him, and early on in the film, when this cornball romance is centre-stage, Hacksaw Ridge has the worrying by-the-numbers feel of a TV movie.   His father (Hugo Weaving – The Matrix, Cloud Atlas) is a drunk, haunted by his own experiences in the Great War who talks to the graves of his dead buddies.   Despite his strenuous objections to his two sons enlisting – Doss has a brother whom he nearly killed during a fight as a boy, which explains his refusal to bear arms – it’s Dad who, dressed in his old WWI uniform, makes a dramatic last-minute entry at his son’s court martial, bearing the one piece of evidence that will prevent him from being drummed out of the force for refusing to undergo training with a rifle.   The entire episode is a complete fabrication and a low-point in terms of dramatic and emotional manipulation which illustrates just how writers Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight struggle when not guided by factual events.

However, like the courageous Everyman with hidden depths, Hacksaw Ridge is transformed once it steps onto the battlefield.   Doss serves as a medic, wanting, as he puts it, to save lives on the battlefield instead of take them, and charges into battle in Okinawa alongside his armed comrades with nothing but medical supplies and religious faith.   After scaling a sheer cliff face, Doss’s unit is faced with a landscape of scorched earth littered with the bodies of those who came before them only to be repelled by desperate Japanese soldiers who fight to the death with apparently superhuman ferocity.   The scene quickly descends into a confused nightmare in which the screams of combat mingle with those of the horrifically wounded.   The way Gibson films these battles demands our attention, and gives us an inkling into how it must feel to be trapped in the midst of such a nightmare.   The violence is so fierce and unrelenting that our mind struggles to keep up; we barely have time to process one instance of horror before it’s followed by another and another, and we can feel the almost imperceptible process of psychological disconnection kicking in.   And Gibson pulls off the difficult task of conveying this confusion without simultaneously confusing his audience; in the midst of horrific confusion there is a terrible clarity.

It’s surprising that the story of Doss’s selfless bravery hasn’t been told before – and fortunate that Hacksaw Ridge has a director as accomplished as Gibson at the helm.   It’s very much a film of two sharply contrasting halves, however; those who are impressed by the reality of the battle scenes might find themselves growing restless during the film’s first hour, while those favouring  the old-fashioned small-town warmth of the first half may well be turned off by the scenes of violence that follow.

(Reviewed 21st November 2016)





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