If all you knew about Hacksaw Ridge was the title, you might think it was a horror movie. That’s what I initially thought before I saw a trailer or even a poster. Hacksaw Ridge sounds like the newest Eli Roth torture-porn entry, or maybe the title of a Rob Zombie film. While it’s not a horror movie per se, director Mel Gibson’s World War II drama does share some of the genre’s iconography. It’s a function of Gibson’s preoccupations with physical suffering. There are plenty more of Gibson’s fixations present here: his hero is a Christ figure, the moral of the story involves being true to your convictions at any and all costs. Hacksaw Ridge is also a deeply flawed film, but one that manages to overcome those flaws through compelling action and a moving conclusion.
The true-life story of World War II veteran Desmond Doss is one of contradictions. Doss grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia. He was raised in a Seventh-day Adventist family, but despite that Christian denomination’s emphasis on clean living and non-violence, his father was an abusive alcoholic. Desmond has a life-altering realization as a young child when he hits his brother on the side of the head with a brick during a fight. From that day forward, Desmond resolutely vows to never harm another person. His decision, over a decade later, to enlist in the Army to serve in World War II confuses his family.
The first half of Hacksaw Ridge is the most disappointing. This part of the movie hits standard biopic beats like Desmond falling hard for Dorothy, a pretty young nurse. The most interesting thing about these early scenes are Gibson’s obsession with depicting blood and bodily injury. Desmond meets Dorothy because he helps a man to the hospital who is pinned under a truck. As he applies a make-shift tourniquet to the man’s leg, arterial blood squirts graphically from the wound. At the hospital, Desmond agrees to donate blood in order to keep talking to Dorothy. Gibson goes out of his way to insert a close-up shot of the needle plunging into Desmond’s arm, and the sound effects department went to great lengths to create the sound of the needle piercing flesh. This can all be interpreted as foreshadowing of the horrors that will come later on the battlefield, and they work as that, but Gibson’s fascination with body horror can’t be denied.
Visually, Hacksaw Ridge is one of the ugliest films of the year. This isn’t due to the graphic violence on screen, but to cinematographer Simon Duggan’s flat and uninspired photography. It’s reminiscent of a TV movie, and on several occasions, it makes the actors look like they are standing on computer generated sets.
The early part of the movie also covers Desmond’s time in basic training. Every boot camp sequence in the movies is destined to be measured against the one in Full Metal Jacket, and this passage in Hacksaw Ridge pales significantly by comparison. Vince Vaughn plays perhaps the most unconvincing drill instructor in film history. His performance as Sergeant Howell comes off as rote, as does most of the sequence. This is just something to endure in order to get to the real heart of the story.
As dramatically inert as this section of the film is, one major theme does begin to take shape here, and this was the point at which Hacksaw Ridge started to win me over. Desmond refuses to so much as touch a gun during training, citing his religious beliefs as a conscientious objector. He wants to serve as a medic, helping to save lives instead of taking them. Both his commanding officers and fellow trainees turn on him, treating him as a coward who will get them all killed in a combat situation. I’ve always had a deeply ingrained sense of outrage when people are treated unfairly, and what Desmond goes through here awoke that. Most of the credit for this reaction goes to Andrew Garfield’s performance as Desmond Doss. His resolute, soft-spoken demeanor makes empathizing with him easy.
After basic training, and a court martial hearing to determine if he has the right to refuse carrying a weapon, Desmond and his fellow soldiers are shipped off to the Pacific Theater. They are joining the battle of Okinawa. Specifically, they’ve been tasked with taking the Maeda Escarpment, nicknamed Hacksaw Ridge. The servicemen must climb the cliff and engage the Japanese forces stationed at the top in combat. This is where director Gibson gets to fully explore the horrors of war. We’re given a hint of that when a medic familiar with the situation informs the newly arrived Desmond that the Japanese target medics because they know their primary focus is helping wounded soldiers. He tells Desmond to lose the white arm band with the red cross on it. It’s like a bullseye to the enemy.
War films often show graphic violence. The indelible image of a soldier picking up his own severed arm in Saving Private Ryan is one that has stuck with me over the years. Gibson’s treatment is something altogether different. There is an obsession with the viscera in Hacksaw Ridge that mirrors the director’s work on The Passion of the Christ. Stylistically, it’s shot more like a horror movie than a war movie.
In the middle of all the carnage, Desmond, the only man totally unarmed, does something truly extraordinary. He pulls as many wounded from the battle field as he can, lowering them with a rope down the ridge. Each time he goes back, he offers a prayer, “Please Lord, just one more. Let me get just one more.” It’s a moving climax, even more so for a viewer who doesn’t believe this man of principle and courage was being helped by any supernatural power at all.
Why it got 3 stars:
- Getting through the uninteresting first half of Hacksaw Ridge is a chore, but the latter part of the basic training sequence, and the battlefield scenes, are quite stirring.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- It will be interesting to see how Gibson handles his return to the spotlight. I'm all for giving people second chances, but he never really showed any contrition for his anti-Semitic and sexist remarks from five or six years ago. Here's hoping he's turned it around.