Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
Dir: Mel Gibson
Mel Gibson is confidently poking his head out of the doghouse with this war film that sees him team with Andrew Garfield to tell a heroic story that stands out from most in the genre.
Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield, ‘Silence‘) enlists in the U.S. army with the provision that he will not handle a gun in any way, wanting to serve as a medic, drawing hostility from his commanding officers (including Sam Worthington and Vince Vaughn) before he even gets to the battlefield.
Noted by many are the gruelling battles, showing very bloody and detailed injuries, undoubtedly some of the most accurate depictions of war wounded that we’ve seen on film. However, I think there are things in this film that are more praiseworthy than that.
Firstly you can’t avoid the fact that this is a fascinating story and character to be making a film about. There are any number of war movies about heroism in battle, whether the protagonists lived or died. Here we get a distinctly different viewpoint and figure, a man who wanted to focus on having a different share in WWII. With Doss, we don’t have to root for someone who is taking lives, willing them on to success in battle by killing others, the opposite proves true, we are helped to will him on in the way he sees as successful, abstaining from violence and trying to save as many lives as possible. When he prays to just ‘get one more’, we wonder if it’ll be his last, hoping that he succeeds. I deliberately avoided reading up on Desmond Doss before I saw the film so that I wouldn’t know how things turned out, so there were moments I wondered if they would be his last.
Andrew Garfield (who is absolutely on form in his leading roles this year) is excellent in the lead. Personally I preferred the first third of the film, before we get anywhere near Hacksaw Ridge. As the film is about Desmond Doss, the best bit is getting to know and understand this person, and the film does take some time doing that, from his childhood on. There’s explanation of his difficult family situation, religious beliefs, romantic life, and how it all comes together to give him determination on his unarmed stance.
There’s also a very good romantic element to the story, with Doss courting a nurse (Teresa Palmer) that actually felt very well developed and is completely done justice instead of being just an underdeveloped thread. I actually really liked that part of the film, it does a good job of laying a foundation for the character, making it clear what he’s like and why he feels the way he does. It felt for a while like a very enjoyable romantic film, their courtship, while truncated, is touching and allows for Garfield to be enigmatic and sweet before the harsher things that will follow.
There’s a brief period of surprising humour, with a comedic turn from Vince Vaughn as the Sergeant in charge of training the squad. Vaughn is an interesting casting choice, though as his part is initially very comedic it worked surprisingly well. Later on I felt he veered a little into over-exaggerating his performance, still he was far better than he has been in many recent roles. The film then shifts rapidly from the laugh-out-loud introduction of the squad, into the difficulties Doss faced trying to maintain his unarmed position against military pressure.
Things take an even more serious turn when we finally get to the frontlines, as the arriving squad are passed by the shell-shocked soldiers going in the other direction, it’s an unspoken warning of the horrors they are about to face. The battlefield at Hacksaw Ridge is then one of the most gruesome sights I have seen in a while, with unrelenting carnage and frequent death and injury all around.
While amazingly detailed and effective in showing the terrible realities of battle, I think I would have preferred if the battle scenes had kept closer to Doss, following him and what he was up to more exclusively. When the film does stick with him on his own later, they are by far the best of the battlefield scenes. There are shots of him treating wounds, avoiding capture and single-handedly carrying people off the field and these have the biggest impact. At times the heroism is highlighted by slow-motion shots, some of which didn’t work so well for me, though the majority were fine there were one or two just looked a little overdone and slightly amateurish, possibly slowed down as an afterthought in post-production rather than shot properly for the purpose (from an editing and technical point it really makes a difference and is something I can tell).
Throughout, the score is what you might expect of the genre, the arrangements have that feeling of heroism. Though none of it stuck in my mind as a specific memorable theme, while watching the film it certainly worked powerfully with the visuals to magnify the emotional impact of what was being shown.
I really don’t like war films, probably linked to the fact that I hate war. So it’s hard for me to ever say I ‘liked’ a film such as this, especially as it depicts battle and injury so powerfully, I have to admire it for the inescapable quality of the filmmaking while struggling with exactly the same elements that it’s being praised for. What I enjoyed the most however was this tale of a man who stands out not because of the typical measurements of heroism but for sticking to his guns (sorry I couldn’t resist) and helping to save lives and not take them. Gibson and Garfield have done an excellent job of telling Desmond Doss’ story, one that was largely overlooked, and ultimately I felt it was worth watching through the carnage and gory injury scenes to get such a powerful depiction of this character and his fascinating life.
‘Hacksaw Ridge’ is nominated for 5 BAFTAs including ‘Best Lead Actor’ Hair and Makeup’, as well as 6 Academy Awards including ‘Best Actor’, ‘Best Director’ and ‘Best Film’. The last third is a particularly tough watch but the story and brilliant portrayal of the central character is compelling enough to make it worth it.