During the WWII battle of ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ on Okinawa, US infantry repeatedly scaled a 100-meter cliff using a cargo net in an attempt to take the island, only to be ambushed by Japanese forces and forced back down, leaving their dead and injured behind.
But one man stayed behind to help: army medic Desmond Doss, who remained on the ridge despite the constant threat of fire, and tended to the injured and dying. He used a pulley system to lower immobilized men to safety, and single-handedly saved an estimated 75 lives.
Doss was no ordinary soldier. He was a Seventh-day Adventist and conscientious objector that took the Sixth Commandment – Thou Shalt Not Kill – to heart, and he never carried a gun during battle. He refused to even touch a weapon during basic training, despite the threat of a court-martial.
While Doss was initially ostracized by the men in his regimen, including a commanding officer who attempted to have him discharged, he won their hearts in battle, and became the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor.
The story of Desmond Doss is recounted in Mel Gibson’s new movie Hacksaw Ridge, which contrasts his uneventful upbringing in rural West Virginia with the gruelling horror of the titular battle in the Pacific.
That battle – which takes up much of the second half of the film – is a spectacular achievement in filmmaking, and one of the finest depictions of warfare ever captured on film.
Gibson practically invented this kind of thing with his battle scenes in Braveheart, sequences of mass carnage that influenced everything from Saving Private Ryan to The Lord of the Rings. Since then, the effort to recreate war on film has gotten grittier, bloodier, and more chaotic, with a kinetic you-are-there realism replacing general coherence.
But Hacksaw Ridge dials things back: the presentation is crisp and clean, and the audience is always aware of what is going on during the course of the battle. Gibson never shies away from the blood and gore – limbs go flying, arteries spurt – but the approach here is colder, more clinical in manner; it’s an unapologetic document of the battle, rather than an in-your-face recreation.
And yet the rest of Hacksaw Ridge is a hokey, old-fashioned kind of thing, with 1950s stereotypes, war movie clichés, and a treatment of the Japanese that doesn’t exactly err on the side of caution.
Andrew Garfield stars as Doss, and his goofy, amiable Southern yokel performance is infectious; early scenes between him and future wife Dorothy (Theresa Palmer) are hopelessly cornball, but we’re rooting for the pair just the same.
In basic training, Vince Vaughn plays Doss’ drill instructor, Sam Worthington is his commanding officer, and Luke Bracey is a fellow recruit and, at first, antagonist. All three actors are solid here, but their characters follow the same arc, initially at odds with Doss before eventually warming up to him. Rachel Griffiths and (especially) Hugo Weaving offer fine support as Doss’ parents.
During the second half of the movie, the titular battle takes over, and it’s really something else: the strategic implementation of warfare as seen in something like Patton is combined with gruesome bloodshed that only state-of-the-art special effects could create during a simply extraordinary setpiece.
Hacksaw Ridge may not be a war movie classic, but it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do as an old-fashioned portrait of Desmond Doss and his heroic acts during the battle of Battle of Okinawa. Director Gibson never reaches the highs of Braveheart or Apocalypto here, but he proves that he still has something to say, and he still knows how to say it.