“Prosecutor: There is only one question that any military court need ask of the accused: do you deny disobeying Col. Sangston’s direct orders?
Judge: Well, do you, Private?
Desmond Doss: No, sir, I don’t.
Judge: Why are you contesting it, then? Why is it so important to you, given your refusal to even touch a weapon to serve in a combat unit?
Desmond Doss: Because when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, I took it personal. Everyone I knew was on fire to join up, including me. There were two men in my hometown declared 4-F unfit, they killed themselves cause they couldn’t serve. Why, I had a job in a defense plant and I could’ve taken a deferment, but that ain’t right. It isn’t right that other men should fight and die, that I would just be sitting at home safe. I need to serve. I got the energy and the passion to serve as a medic, right in the middle with the other guys. No less danger, just… while everybody else is taking life, I’m going to be saving it. With the world so set on tearing itself apart, it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing to me to wanna put a little bit of it back together.”
“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, the Lord, The Creator of the ends of the earth, Neither faints nor is weary. His understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the weak, And to those who have no might He increases strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, And the young men shall utterly fall, But those who wait on the Lord Shall renew their strength; They shall mount up with wings like eagles, They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.” —Desmond Doss, Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
HACKSAW RIDGE is Mel Gibson’s first directorial effort in 10 years (Apocalypto) and first one in English in 20 (Braveheart) and is a powerful, monumental and towering achievement. It’s the type of film that demands your attention, respect and admiration that I hope even his staunchest of critics will be able to look past to view this film for everything that it accomplishes (the man is one of my favorite film stars…hell icons…of all-time and as a director/writer he’s somehow better…personally he leaves a lot to be desired is the nicest way to put it). There’s quite a bit to unbox here (I don’t claim to know all or even the right answers) so let’s try and get into it…
The film is many things rolled into one package that is a war film. Part inspirational tale of heroism, part pacifism during extreme times, anti-gun, pro-religion and at the same time being the most truly vicious/gruesome films ever made. It’s the type of film that only Mel Gibson could possibly make. Any other director would tone-down the spirituality (Gibson is all-in and while at points it may be a bit much it never seems out of place or tonally wrong) or even tone down the carnage which would eliminate the entire point being made. Both violence and religion is not the point of anything going on here. This film is about a man who, based on his convictions (which makes him who he is), can not commit murder (as much as everyone says death in war is “different” and God will understand…it’s still killing) but feels the obligation (necessity) to join the military to serve his country, which is to help bring people home (this is known as a Conscientious Objector but Doss refers to himself as a Conscientious Contributor). He feels it’s morally wrong for another man to take his place going to war (and maybe even death) when he can and wholly wants to. It’ll be impossible for you not to be moved by this story.
Andrew Garfield plays Doss and delivers a mighty fine performance. He’s a very humble, salt-of-the-earth type man whom nobody expects anything from (his nickname is Cornstalk due to his physique). He isn’t a “bible thumper” nor does he demand/expect special treatment for his views (other than Saturday being his Sabbath but that he concedes on). He’s a man who simply refuses to kill. He wants to be a medic so he can help the injured/wounded return home but he won’t fire a weapon to accomplish this (though going into battle without protection is viewed as suicide thus making him cowardly or inferior to everyone else in his battalion).
An aspect I found fascinating is how a film shot entirely in Australia with a cast that is made up mainly of Aussie actors can still feel so utterly American. From Teresa Palmer (Doss’s wife who’s lovable as always), to Hugo Weaving (Doss’s father, WWI Veteran turned violet drunk), to Sam Worthington (the Company Captain), to Luke Bracey (alpha-man in it’s more unrequited form), to probably several others I simply don’t know about…the film has 1940′s Americana in it’s blood and is full of all the Patriotism you expect (not that it wouldn’t just because everyone is from a different country I was just amazed by how many there are while still being the deeply rooted WWII film that it is).
The structure of the film is an interesting one (seen before in Full Metal Jacket) where the film is cleanly divided into two halves. The first being pre-war, setting up Doss’s childhood to early adulthood/signing up for the war. There’s a romantic quality to it that in and of itself would make a great movie on those own merits. The second half is in Okinawa on Hacksaw Ridge which is pure horror and visceral carnage on every level. The first half completely informs the second half (its extremely important we spend time with Doss so we know everything he’s made of as well as the company of men in bootcamp, getting to know them/size them all up - something most war films…hell all films really, have been negligent of in recent memory - so that everything that happens on that Ridge feels more authentic).
The violence is unflinching/relenting in a way that you sort of have to tip your hat to. Gunshots, flamethrowers, grenades, bayonets, mortars and canon blasts are all shown for exactly what they are and the film never backs down or shies away from any of it. There’s a point in the film, during the calm after the battle, where Garfield is talking to Bracey and Bracey says “go ahead, it won’t bite” (referring to the gun) and Garfield looks up at him and “doesn’t it though” and with everything you’ve witnessed that line rings incredibly true where it wouldn’t if any of this was toned down. At times the violence does get a little much (there’s a point where Bracey picks up a severed torso, uses it as a shield and runs full charge towards the enemy slaying about 15 of them Call of Duty style) but other than that moment I can’t really complain about any of it (it’s gratuitous but not for gratuitous sake, it all serves the greater message).
Another tribute to the director is the performances he gets out of usually awful actors. Luke Bracey is simply the worst in the Point Break remake but somehow I walked out of this like “oh wow, that dude really is something”. Sam Worthington is also just terrible but he puts on a great showcase for himself. Vince Vaughn (who isn’t the worst but at times sure can be) makes for quite a great Drill Sergeant. It’s a real testament to the director for having the ability to bring out/find great performances in actors you normally wouldn’t expect.
At a little under 2 ½ hours I didn’t want this film to end. It’s a film with no fat, and while the first half moves a bit slow (deliberately and necessarily) it is paced perfectly and succeeds in every aspect. I found it incredibly moving and by the end of it I was deeply affected by it (by the end credits when they show the real Doss in an interview I almost lost it and went into full man tears mode). I put this film right next to Braveheart and would call it the 1A of WWII films with Saving Private Ryan. This film need to be seen/appreciated in theaters and whatever your hangups are towards Mel Gibson (as justifiable as they are) please don’t let that deter you. This is one of the year’s very best that absolutely needs your support right now.