Hacksaw Ridge review – an intense and inspirational true story

by | 27 Jan 2017 | Film Reviews

‘Desmond T. Doss is a World War II combat medic that refuses to kill people.’

Despite the odd role here and there, and pretty much being in professional exile for the past decade, Mel Gibson returns behind the camera for the first time in ages to bring us Hacksaw Ridge. It follows the true story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, who joined the army during World War Two and took his pacifist ideals with him by refusing to hold or fire a gun.

The film follows Desmond, played by Andrew Garfield, through the weeks leading up to his enlistment, to his training where he is labelled a coward due to his ideals, right through the infamous battle where his battalion had to climb a tall cliff face in Okinawa and take the ridge from enemy forces.

It’s an incredible story, made all the more inspiring by the fact that it’s about a real life figure who did these things. In reality, I can’t imagine anyone making a war film like this unless it was true. It’s certainly unconventional to have a protagonist in this kind of film refusing to pick up and fire a gun, and also, unlike most military films that generally explore the futility of war or look at the cost of it, Hacksaw Ridge goes broader and deeper; looking at what makes a soldier, and asking the questions of what is true bravery, and does faith have a place on the battlefield?

All these themes are skilfully examined in the first act, as Gibson introduces Desmond and shows us his home life where his religious yet abusive upbringing, and dealing with his own rage in that difficult situation, helped develop the ideals he would so passionately hold. It can feel a little melodramatic at times, particularly that romantic side plot involving Teresa Palmer’s nurse, but it all helps to flesh out this character and getting us to understand where he’s coming from. It makes the war scenes that more impactful.

Gibson also takes his time in presenting the challenges and persecutions that Desmond faces during his training when he refuses to touch a weapon, and how his superiors and fellow privates view him as a coward. Indeed, it’s a brave choice to have the main protagonist in your war film to be someone who won’t engage in any violence. We’re so used to seeing our action heroes as individuals who will happily pick up a firearm and dispense violent justice, or at least have them compelled from peaceful inaction to violent retribution through the course of the story, but to have him or her as a pacifist and stay true to that ideal throughout the film is something different and rarely done.

It’s an ambitious endeavour for Gibson, who’s clearly not interested in just making another bloody and gritty war movie, of which it is, but is also wanting to present an in-depth character study of someone who believed World War Two was just, but also held onto his convictions and stayed true to them even in the midst of intense warfare.

Garfield shines as Desmond, and for what is his second film in a row, after Silence (2016), where he plays someone who’s religious faith is attacked, seems to be going on something of a spiritual odyssey. It’s another inspirational and heartfelt performance from the former Spiderman, making Desmond such a compelling character that you’ll be engrossed from start to finish, even in that slower opening act. It’s also a great transformative performance, as he slowly turns from this goofy but charming young man, to a brave and determined army medic who saved countless lives on the battlefield without touching a rifle, and maintained his humanity and good nature.

Although this is Garfield’s film through and through, he is helped by an excellent supporting cast. Hugo Weaving is brilliant as Desmond’s alcoholic father, and instead of playing that typical abusive drunk, actually brings a lot of depth and nuance to this important character who helped mould his son’s beliefs. Even Vince Vaughn gives a solid, against-type, dramatic performance as Sergeant Howell (although he does give some good one-liners when verbally dressing down the privates).

Palmer also does well with what is relatively a small but important role as the woman that would become Desmond’s wife. In fact, there are a lot of other characters squeezed in and although we don’t get enough time to know them all too well, Gibson makes sure we care enough so we feel that impact when they start exchanging fire with the enemy.

When we do eventually get to the battle scenes at the ridge, they are brutal and intense with Gibson showing, despite his long absence behind the camera, that he still knows how to direct action. He doesn’t miss a beat and portrays a truly horrific and visceral battlefield that probably hasn’t been seen since Saving Private Ryan (1998). In fact, at times it almost feels like a horror film, as the American troops slowly cross a war zone full of bodies, facing an enemy they can’t see nor understand. It’s a harrowing experience that will have you gripped throughout.

True to his style, Gibson neither skimps on the gore, of which there is a fair amount, and shows war in all its bloody detail. It’s almost ironic considering its main character is against violence and taking life, but it certainly adds something seeing this skinny, unassuming man, running around this area of death, unarmed and tending to the wounded.

It’s also beautifully filmed in the way it’s presented. Apart from a few shaky-cam shots, the majority of the battle scenes are filmed in a very cinematic style, and by using wide shots, longer takes, smoother camera movements, and even slow motion, it allows us to take a lot more in and see the true impact of this battle. It actually makes a refreshing change compared to the way action scenes are mostly shot these days.

‘Hacksaw Ridge is an enthralling film, and a great comeback for Gibson.’

A war movie with an original, different kind of message it will have you engrossed throughout while never feeling too preachy. Masterfully made and with another standout performance from Garfield, it is well worth your time learning about a real-life hero.

David Axcell

Film Critic

David has quite a broad taste in film which includes big budget blockbusters and small indie films; including International and Arthouse cinema. As long as it’s good in that particular genre, he’ll watch anything.

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