“I’ve never been more wrong about someone in my life.”
Well here’s a thing we never thought we’d see, huh? Mel Gibson back in the director’s chair for a big budget film. More impressive, by the time the film had been released in the UK, the film has been nominated for a slew of awards, including that of Best Film and Best Director. Honestly, I never thought I’d see the day.
Hacksaw Ridge is the unbelievably true story of Private Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), the son of a veteran and a man compelled to enlist in the army in 1942 once the Japanese became a part of World War II. Signing his life away to the military and wanting to serve as a medic, Doss actively defied orders in the name of his religious and moral beliefs by refusing to pick up a rifle. Refusing to be beaten out of his unit, the young Private passes basic training with his squad mates. His refusal to carry a rifle because of his pacifist beliefs lands him in a court martial that could end his career in the military before it has even begun. With a little help from a higher-up, and an impassioned plea from his father, Doss earns the right to head into battle armed with nothing but prayer.
Despatched to Japan, Doss and the 77th Infantry division are sent to Hacksaw Ridge; a key strategic point that the Americans need to take in order to further their campaign to Okinawa. Starting with a 400 foot climb heading directly into the battlefield, the American forces are at a severe disadvantage against an entrenched Japanese army. As the battle becomes unwinnable and the Americans retreat in a hail of artillery fire, Doss finds himself stuck at the top of the ridge, refusing to leave a single casualty behind.
In the hours that follow, Private First Class Desmond Doss shows a level of bravery most people could only imagine when he singlehandedly rescues 75 stranded soldiers from the field with very little care for his own safety.
War films as a genre have been done to death. There’s no denying their impact in today’s climate, but they always run the risk of being preachy more than entertaining; and that’s not why we go to the cinema.
We all know that being a pacifist idealist would make you a better person than most, but in this world it’s hardly ever possible. I was expecting to come out of Hacksaw Ridge thoroughly annoyed that I had been preached at for two and a half hours for not being a better person. Instead, I came out just a little bit sad that I am most certainly not as good a person as Doss.
Mel Gibson has taken this over-used genre and made it something worth talking about again. Clearly he was inspired by a few other greats of the past – namely half-inching Kubrick’s hilarious and genius opening forty minutes of Full Metal Jacket, letting Vince Vaughn be his own Gunnery Sergeant Hartman for a bit, with outstanding results – but he’s also taken as much inspiration from the history books as he has from films like Hamburger Hill and unashamedly made them into something worthy of its award nods.
Gibson proves his worth behind the camera by crafting a slow paced opening hour that tells you everything you think you need to know about Doss and his reasons for his conscientious objection to combat. He tells the story of his father’s time in the Great War, with Hugo Weaving on superb form as the forgotten veteran. We see Desmond hastily fall in love with a nurse (Theresa Palmer) at the same time as he’s inspired to become a medic; a not totally coincidental crossing over of these passions.
None of this build up seems slow or drawn out; it all feels necessary as we head into the young Private’s basic training where his objections are ignored and ridiculed. You don’t necessarily feel for his predicament either, which speaks to the lack of being preached at in this film. You do have moments where you feel “oh for Christ’s sake, kid. Don’t be there if you don’t want to fight in a war”, and the greatness of Gibson’s filmmaking (and Garfield’s acting) is that we are allowed to be convinced he’s doing the right thing at the same time his Commanding Officers are. We’re not preached at, we’re taught that the Private’s purpose may not be to kill, but to help those who are signing up to do just that.
Once we get to the war and the terrifying fight ahead of Doss’s platoon, we see the full effect of the now veteran director’s skill as every shot fired, every grenade thrown and every body that falls to the floor is a chilling and visceral reminder of the horror facing these men taking on an enemy with perhaps more fortitude and conviction than any American forces have ever faced. Shown in frightening detail in a scene destined for that “One Perfect Shot” twitter account we all follow, we see what seems to be an endless stream of Japanese soldiers running from bunkers and underground caves like a river running down a mountainside. In a film with near perfect direction throughout, this scene stood out to me as one of the scariest moments I’ve seen in a war film in quite some time.
What I found equally as impressive was Andrew Garfield’s performance. Outside of Silence I haven’t cared for him much and after Hacksaw Ridge I might just start calling myself a fan. His portrayal of this soldier that’s the very definition of a hero is nothing short of brilliant. I thought his hillbilly accent would annoy me for two and a half hours; instead it made him a little endearing. After the first twenty minutes or so, I didn’t even realise it was still there – concentrating more on what he was doing than how he sounded while he did it. The young actor amazingly had me believing his convictions on screen and rooting for him as the world was against him. As he fought and struggled to rescue his comrades, I was scared for him and praying along with him. A sublime performance from a guy a have only recently lambasted for being a shit Spider-Man.
Clearly the star of this film, I would consider Garfield the lead here the same way Charlie Sheen is the lead in Platoon. Of course he’s the guy in top billing and the guy whose story is being told; but he has such a fantastic group of actors behind him that to cheer and marvel over each of them would be another two thousand words. Much like you would when reviewing Oliver Stone’s Vietnam epic, you have to pick a few key performances from the line-up. In this case though, the people you’re almost forced to focus on are more deserving because of who they are and their generally poor standing in the eyes of a lot of people who would be going to see his film.
I’m speaking, of course, of Vince Vaughn’s Sergeant Howell and Sam Worthington’s Captain Glover. Both guys aren’t particularly well known for their acting chops nowadays (although I’d argue that they are usually decent) but they seemed to make special effort to put across a good performance. I certainly give credit to them both for being more than just watchable – they were great. Vaughn’s channelling of R. Lee Ermey might seem derivative and cheap when he first breaks into it, but by the end of his first stint of yelling at the young recruits, he’s brought his own flavour of abuse to the scene and made it his own. Worthington’s performance is a little more run-of-the-mill as the captain going up against Doss, but once he’s in the heat of battle with the medic at his side, he’s as good as any on-screen soldier you’ve seen before.
All of this rolls into a two-and-a-bit hour-long film that doesn’t feel half as long as that once you reach the end. Hacksaw Ridge has hit the top of my favourites list so far this year when it comes to Oscarbait movies. A war drama that isn’t just a gruesome story about how horrific that (or any) war is. It’s a film that might actually restore a little faith in humanity; and considering I went into this flick expecting to be preached at, I can honestly say we need a film like Hacksaw Ridge in our cinemas more than we probably realised before it came out.
Finally, if you don’t know the subject very well, I believe that a film that’s “based on a true story” like this one should make you want to go out and read about the thing you just spent over two hours watching. Hacksaw Ridge definitely made me want to learn more about the battle it was based on and the man whose story it was telling.
Let me tell you: You might not believe everything you see on screen and a certain amount of completely acceptable poetic license has been applied to the story, but it’s nothing compared to the amazing things Desmond Doss accomplished in real life.