WWII American Army Medic Desmond T. Doss, who served during the Battle of Okinawa, refuses to kill people, and becomes the first man in American history to receive the Medal of Honor without firing a shot.
It’s been ten years since Mel Gibson last directed a film (‘Apocalypto’), with the ensuing years marred by the fallout from various controversies, and a few acting roles aside, ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ is really his Hollywood comeback. It’s been nominated for several awards, and the good news is that ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ eventually ends up being a terrific film, but it does take its time in getting to that point. The film is about decorated American WWII hero Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a conscientious objector who nonetheless chose to join the army as a medic, on the basis that he did not have to handle a weapon. It’s another in a long line of inspirational wartime stories, but a strong performance from Garfield and superbly crafted battle sequences elevate ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ and I thought it became a powerful, visceral and moving experience by its end.
The early scenes introduce us to Desmond, his family and his upbringing, and to be blunt, it’s dreadful. It’s riddled with clichés (the alcoholic father, the amazing woman who just appears from nowhere) and the dialogue and performances are badly overwrought across the board (Teresa Palmer is particularly awful as Dorothy, Desmond’s partner and later wife). Thankfully, ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ improves immensely once we move into the crux of the story and the army elements and although the training scenes are not without their flaws, it leads into the thrilling battle sequences once Desmond’s unit head to Okinawa, Japan. The film does an excellent job of depicting the sheer scale of the task at hand to conquer ‘Hacksaw Ridge’, a steep, vertical clifftop with scores of Japanese soldiers waiting in anticipation to attack anyone who gets over the top. Gibson knows how to direct a battle and his work here is incredibly effective, both in not shirking from the sheer brutality of the fighting in the Pacific and in managing the geography of the battlefield so the audience can keep up with what’s going on (no mean feat in this context). The last hour is almost exclusively set on the ridge and it went by in a flash and I was completely gripped.
The film’s strongest moments come when we centre on Garfield’s Doss, and he’s so good here that it’s almost worth forgiving his shaky performance in the opening 30 minutes of the film. I won’t get into the specific details of what Doss does but suffice to say it’s remarkable, and I was completely caught up in the action, aided by a splendid score from Rupert Gregson-Williams. Alongside Garfield, Sam Worthington and Vince Vaughn have key supporting parts as two of his superiors, and I thought Worthington was quietly effective in his performance and Vaughn grew into his role. Vaughn’s character is clearly based on R. Lee Ermey’ Sergeant Hartman from ‘Full Metal Jacket’, but he’s not nearly as effective and the scenes in the army barracks are pretty poor, although this is thankfully toned down pretty quickly. The film does also fall into the trap of trying to introduce 20 army characters at once, when it would have been better focusing on 2 or 3 (Luke Bracey does nice work when given the opportunity).
‘Hacksaw Ridge’ overcomes a shaky start to become another powerful story of courage during the Second World War, and the story of Desmond Doss is a worthy addition to a healthy catalogue of films. Like the film itself, Garfield improves over time to deliver a terrific performance and when it comes to the battle on the ridge, the battle scenes are immense and I thought on balance, ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ was an excellent film.
Directed By: Mel Gibson
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Hugo Weaving, Ryan Corr, Teresa Palmer, Rachel Griffiths and Richard Roxburgh