Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

When the order came to retreat, one man stayed.

Few films have hit me emotionally this year and Hacksaw Ridge is one of them. Stepping behind the camera almost a decade after his Mayan based historical epic Apocalypto (2006), Mel Gibson makes his long-awaited return to filmmaking with Hacksaw Ridge, the compelling real-life account of an ordinary American soldier who accomplished extraordinary things. A biographical wartime drama, Hacksaw Ridge tells the incredible true story of Seventh-Day Adventist Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor — the highest military badge handed out in the USA — for his selfless acts of valor in Okinawa, the most relentless (and bloodiest) battle of World War II, Doss, who served on the front lines as an unarmed medic, single-handedly saving the lives of 75 critically wounded soldiers (both comrades and enemies) without firing a shell or ever carrying a single weapon.

A gift of faith
A gift of faith

Written by Andrew Knight, The Water Diviner (2014), and Robert Schenkkan, The Quiet American Writer (2002), Hacksaw Ridge is very much a film of thirds, the movie divided into three starkly contrasting sections. The initial portion looks at Desmond’s family life, Doss growing up in small-town Lynchburg, Virginia. Here, we witness the event that shaped the mettle of a man, one that forever altered his life — a childhood roughhouse with his brother brings a scolded Doss face-to-face with the Ten Commandments (chiefly number VI: Though Shalt Not Kill), biblical laws that would govern his moral compass for the rest of days.

Sprouting into a chirpy youngster, the wide-eyed Doss (against his parents’ will) soon enlists into the US Armed Forces (just like his brother), despite the fact that warfare itself conflicted with his devout philosophies. You see, back in the early 1940s blind patriotism — and aiding the war effort over in the Pacific — was all the rage, with hundreds of young men scurrying to serve their country. And Doss — who took the attack on Pearl Harbor ‘personal’ — was certainly no different, voluntarily signing up as a ‘non-combatant’ hoping to save lives on the battlefield rather than take them away. Before heading over to the trenches, Doss experiences another life-changing encounter, this time a chance meeting with a comely young nurse, Dorothea Schutte (Teresa Palmer) — we see the proper and chaste Doss court Dorothea with his unassuming boyish charms (these moments a tad too sentimental) — the emerald-eyed beauty eventually becoming his wife — and a shining beacon in Doss’ darkest hour.

The next branch of the film focuses on Doss’ time in the WWII-era barracks, where he trained as a company aid man for the Infantry regiment, the 77th Army Division, and was chastised and persecuted by both his superiors and fellow trainees for his blatant refusal to hold (or touch) a weapon, the boney Doss an anomaly in his flag-waving surroundings. Alongside the brigade’s locker-room banter and brash bravado — in which each troop is given a singular trait or physical characteristic by which they can be identified — we see Doss’ unrelenting determination to do his bit, his principles remaining firm even when threatened with violence and a court marshal.

'I'm sorry Agent Smith, but we don't have the Internet here.'
‘I’m sorry Agent Smith, but we don’t have the Internet here.’

The final stem of the movie — and quite possibly the weightiest — zeroes in on the horrors experienced by Doss and the Infantry outfits (the 77th and 96th) ordered to partake in the assault and capture of the Maeda Escarpment in the spring of ’45 — a steep cliff-like terrain known as Hacksaw Ridge, the land given the name for its rough sawed-off appearance. Atop this monolithic 400-foot rock-face waited a sea of unswerving Japanese soldiers, most of whom were hiding out in complex networks of caves and tunnels, along with heavily fortified machine-gun nests and explosive mortars — victory, a near-impossible feat.

Under ceaseless enemy fire, the muddy-and-bloody-faced servicemen contend with a barrage of bullets, which dart through pungent smog, whilst competing against a seared landscape strewn with scorched trees, crater holes and twisted barbed wire, the ground littered with rotting limbs and pulverized corpses … and in the midst of it all is Doss, going above and beyond the call of duty, hauling his fallen brothers to safety. Gibson (really in his element here) stages the scenes of combat with operatic chaos, the sheer rawness, fury and visceral immediacy unparalleled, while prolific cinematographer Simon Duggan gorgeously melds the hyper-stylized comic-book vistas of his 300: Rise of an Empire (2014) with dirt-under-fingernails grit, capturing a sense of grim surrealism within these frames. The nightmarish visuals speak a thousand words, both unflinching and unforgiving, these sequences — reminiscent of the opening D-Day beach massacre in Saving Private Ryan (1998) — are certainly not for the squeamish; heck, even the strong stomached may find themselves startled by the unsparing detail of the graphic blood-splattered carnage.

Cut from the same cloth as similarly themed war flicks — think Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan or Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken (2014) — Hacksaw Ridge is never pompous or proud, exploring not only the tenacity of the young man’s unwavering courage and resolve, but also the people who shaped his beliefs. And despite its (somewhat) derivative and rudimentary structure, there seems to be an honesty in Doss’ unsung account, the film as humble as the valiant pacifist himself — who (for decades) refused to have his remarkable tale told, Doss adamant that the ‘real heroes’ were the men buried in the ground.

War! What is it good for?
War! What is it good for?

Still, much like the film’s one-sided depiction of the antagonistic Japanese — who are shown here to be nothing more than bloodthirsty monsters — Hacksaw Ridge navigates its spiritual component with a certain degree of reverence, its piousness fairly single-minded and the narrative, in parts, too preachy, too, Gibson seemingly set on convincing audiences that it was Doss’ purity, and steadfast devotion alone, that saved the day, the film playing out like an ‘unofficial sequel’ to his Bible blockbuster The Passion of the Christ (2004), both movies about divine ‘saviors’ in which Christianity ultimately wins the day. A scene towards the movie’s end, which sees Doss memorialized as a messianic-type figure, being raised up on a stretcher into a sun-kissed ‘heavenly’ sky, is a little too in-your-face, this sort of overt symbolism enough to frustrate non-believers. Even so, Gibson’s steady hand, and sheer confidence behind the camera, ensures that the film transcends the specifics of Doss’ religion, and more so hones in on the humanity and humility of Doss, presented here to be a flawed man, even if, behind enemy lines, he braved steel rain (dodging landmines, booby traps and concentrated field artillery) armed with nothing but his faith … and faith alone.

Attracting a bevy of local and international talent, Hacksaw Ridge sees director Gibson back in Australia, making a movie in his home country for the first time in 30 odd years. Going from Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) to real-life ‘superhero’ Desmond T. Doss, Andrew Garfield leads the charge, the 33-year-old actor vividly bringing the nuanced Doss to the silver screen, a man whose plucky smile remained as unbroken as his hardened values, even in the face of ridicule, abuse and (above all) absolute hell — war itself.

The support cast is equally rock-solid; highlights include Aussies Sam Worthington, Avatar (2009), and Richard Roxburgh, Moulin Rouge! (2001), who play Captain Glover and Colonel Stelzer respectively, a couple of military bigwigs, and American comedian Vince Vaughn, Wedding Crashers (2005), portraying a sharp-tongued, hard-ass drill-instructor, Sergeant Howell, Vaughn’s wit leavening the often glum proceedings. Elsewhere, rising-star Luke Bracey, Point Break (2015), is memorable as Smitty Ryker, the instinctive leader of Doss’ battalion, a fictional character added by screenwriters as a personification of the ‘mountain of men’ who challenged Doss with their cynicism, whose mistrust ultimately evolved into a profound respect.

' ... brb'
‘ … brb’

Finally, Hugo Weaving, The Matrix (1999), and Rachel Griffiths, Blow (2001), appear as Tom and Bertha Doss, Desmond’s parents — Bertha, a committed mother and loving wife, desperately trying to hold her faltering family together, and Tom, a tragic and traumatized alcoholic, suffering from the loss of his childhood friends whom he fought alongside in World War I — Weaving and Griffiths both delivering tip-top performances.

Described as an ‘anti-war’ movie by director Gibson (though perhaps more of a pro-religion film), Hacksaw Ridge commemorates those who gave their lives while telling the unshakable story of Desmond T. Doss, a man who exemplified heroism. Bookended by archival interviews from actual survivors, including the late Doss himself (having passed away in 2006) — who give powerful recollections of events re-enacted — Hacksaw Ridge is a bold, deeply moving, occasionally funny and shockingly brutal mainstream war picture. Love him or hate him, no matter your opinion on actor-turned-filmmaker Mel Gibson, there’s no denying that Hacksaw Ridge is a harrowing and stirring spectacle and a must-see for all who admire the war film genre.

4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended

Reviewed by S-Littner

Hacksaw Ridge is released through Icon Film Distribution Australia