Mel Gibson’s first directorial film since 2006’s Apocalypto, Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of Desmond Doss. He was a Virginia native who was a devout Christian (Seventh Day Adventist) that vowed he would never pick up a gun and kill anyone, despite being a man who has just enlisted in the Army. His only desire is to marry his sweetheart, Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) and to serve his country against the Japanese as a medic. But in order to even qualify, he has to pick up a rifle and pass his basic training shooting skills requirement. Desmond Doss’s refusal to pick up a gun brings him to a court martial. If he loses, he could spend the rest of his life in a military prison.
Hacksaw Ridge is a towering achievement. The first part of the film shows Desmond Doss as a child and his transformation into a man. It also explains why he refuses to kill anyone and I completely understand his thinking. Andrew Garfield is Desmond Doss and although I have been lukewarm on his acting up until recently, it is with great pleasure to say he has won me over as an actor. His performance as Doss is Oscar worthy as is the whole film. He plays Doss with an “aw shucks”, country boy quality that is endearing and convincing even down to the southern accent (Garfield is British, in reality). Australian actress Teresa Palmer is also wonderful as Dorothy, a nurse that Doss met one day at the hospital. Their relationship is very sweet and I believed they were in love.
There is not one element of Hacksaw Ridge that feels contrived or fake. Not their courtship and marriage, not the trial at his court martial, nor any of the dialogue in these scenes. Credit screenwriters Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight for creating a screenplay that digs into the psyche of Doss and his ideology and what makes him tick. I may have not gone down the same road as Doss, but I respected why he was the way he was. I appreciated it, actually. Doss was a real person with real convictions yet, Hacksaw Ridge never gets preachy or heavy handed in the first half of the film which covers his life in America. It is a beautiful love story and a solid drama executed with excellent pacing, direction, acting and writing.
The second half of Hacksaw Ridge is in Okinawa, Japan when Doss (now an Army medic) and his recruits led by Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) are charged with taking a ridge controlled by the Japanese. It is a costly battle with multiple casualties of dead and wounded. Doss sprints back and forth from wounded to wounded saving as many lives as he can. Even when the Americans pull back, Doss stays, tending to the wounded and in one scene even to a Japanese soldier. The battle sequences are some of the finest I have seen since Saving Private Ryan. Mel Gibson is no stranger to extravagant battle scenes (have you seen Braveheart, recently?) and his choice to have the camera up close and personal during these scenes is terrifying. I cannot even imagine what it would have been like and Doss is there without a gun. Talk about bravery.
The acting is superb in every role. Vaughn and Worthington are terrific as two officers, who at first, don’t understand Doss. They don’t even like him, but as they see Doss, they know he is no coward. Vaughn, playing against his usual wise cracking character, does have some good lines as their drill instructor in basic training and there are some big laughs, too. I was particularly impressed with Hugo Weaving playing Tom Doss, Desmond’s father. Doss, Sr. was a World War I vet who spends most of his days in a bottle. He is scarred from his war, which has not ended for him. He visits the local cemetery, talking to his fallen soldiers, wondering why he survived when so many of his fellow brothers in arms did not. Weaving should be up for a Best Supporting Actor nod. His Tom Doss is a tortured soul; crushed emotionally and spiritually and Weaving conveys that sometimes without saying a word of dialogue.
Hacksaw Ridge surprised even me with its raw power and scope. It covers a lot of ground but does it as only Mel Gibson can do. He makes compelling and conversational films that delve subject matter, requiring us to think and ask questions. This is a gloriously shot, beautifully realized film about a man, misunderstood, called a coward but someone who stayed true to his convictions, regardless of the consequences. Doss is a true hero and what he did on the battlefield is truly incredible, inspiring and uplifting. Hacksaw Ridge never puts one foot wrong. This is an incredible film and not one to be missed. Be warned, though. The battle sequences are up close and personal, extremely graphic and not for the faint of heart. This is one of 2016’s best films. Despite the critical praise for this film, I wonder if Hollywood will finally forgive Gibson for his past atrocious behavior and give him credit for a film like Hacksaw Ridge. This is an Oscar worthy film for several categories. We shall see.
Hacksaw Ridge – ***** out of 5
Hacksaw Ridge – Rated R for language, graphic war violence, adult situations
Hacksaw Ridge – Run Time is 139 minutes
Hacksaw Ridge is now playing in theaters. Check your local listings for times and locations.