Hacksaw Ridge tells the harrowing story of Desmond Doss, a World War 2 Field Medic who was a devout Christian, a Seventh Day Adventist, and, most importantly, a conscientious objector. He refused to carry any sort of firearm during combat, but this did not stop him serving his country when he needed to. Desmond’s actions during the horrific battle of Okinawa were nothing short of incredible, and he became the first conscientious objector to receive the United States’ highest military honour, the Medal of Honour, in recognition of his bravery during the battle.
Getting Hacksaw Ridge to screen was a torturous process, with the film in and out of development for 15 years and Desmond Doss first approached in 2001. After he finally agreed to a motion picture based on his heroic actions, countless directors and scriptwriters were either officially attached or rumoured to be involved. Eventual director Mel Gibson was first approached in 2004 after his critically acclaimed Passion of the Christ was released. Twelve years later, Gibson’s vision of Desmond Doss’ story has hit movie theatres worldwide, and what an incredible vision it is.
From the start, Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t pull its punches, with an iconic opening scene brutally portraying the savage, violent reality of war and coming a close second (after Saving Private Ryan) for Best Opening Scene in a War Film. Needless to say, those who found Spielberg’s take on WW2 a bit gory should probably skip Hacksaw Ridge, with Gibson taking his penchant for violence and gore to new levels of horrific realism. It’s a quality that’s sustained throughout the film’s battle scenes, all of which are uncompromising sequences of realistic violence.
Before the horrors of war, the film concentrates on Desmond’s early life as he explores the forests surrounding his hometown near Lynchburg, Virginia and endures a difficult relationship with his alcoholic, World War 1 veteran father (played by the ever-versatile Hugo Weaving). In a key scene, we’re shown the origin of Desmond’s anti-war stance, as, after getting into a fight with his brother and hitting him with a brick, he stands in the dining room, wracked with guilt and staring at a religious tapestry as his mother tells him that his brother will be fine and that the most important commandment of all is “Thou shall not kill”.
We then fast forward 15 years or so to the adult Desmond, played by Andrew Garfield, who, after accompanying an injured man to hospital, instantly falls for Nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer). Despite some questionable dialogue, it’s easy to get swept up in their love story as Garfield and Palmer have genuine chemistry. However, just as their budding romance starts to turn into something more serious, it’s stopped in its tracks when Desmond enlists in the Army.
Training for war is never going to be easy, but for Desmond, it was made harder by his non-violent beliefs. Once his Sergeant (Vince Vaughn) and Captain (Sam Worthington) find out, they try to make Desmond’s life a living hell. Not only is he forced to constantly perform the least desired jobs on base (such as toilet cleaning and extra-long guard duty), he’s also viciously attacked by his comrades after their weekend passes are revoked. It’s during these basic training scenes that Gibson’s vision becomes clear, with Doss portrayed as a modern-day Jesus whose beatings and punishments only strengthened his belief.
After eventually making it through basic training with the help of his father, he joins the 77th Infrantry Division and is shipped off to the Pacific to take part in the infamous Battle of Okinawa. It is this battle that gives the film its title, with the 77th instructed to scale and control the Maeda Escarpment, better known as Hacksaw Ridge. The stage is therefore set for an epic confrontation and what ensues are some of the most violent and chaotic war scenes ever filmed, Gibson refusing to tone down the visceral brutality of the real-life conflict. In the midst of this almost Middle Ages close-quarter combat against a ferocious and numerically superior enemy, with soldiers being stabbed by bayonets, sliced through with traditional Japanese swords and blown up, Desmond’s focus is on healing his outnumbered comrades, on saving lives among the almost unimaginable carnage. The cinematography captures this perfectly, with the close-up filming style placing the viewer right in the middle of the battle, conveying a horrific claustrophobia as lives are taken and bodies slaughtered all around. The general message is clear, war is hell, as epitomised by a particularly gruesome scene involving a flamethrower backpack.
For once though, the narrative of American heroism is restricted to one man, the only person not fighting. Unable to cope with the greater numbers of the Japanese, the US forces retreat, leaving Doss to singlehandedly save the lives of those left behind. As he runs around a Japanese-occupied battlefield and saves life after life by lowering fallen soldiers down the ridge on a rope, it’s easy to be cynical, to think that Gibson has fallen into the classic Hollywood trap of exaggerating reality for dramatic impact. For once though, this is cinematic fact rather than fiction, Doss really did save the lives of 75 men in enemy territory, an inspirational feat of bravery that cemented his status as perhaps the most honourable of all American heroes.
Such an iconic figure requires an amazing performance, and Garfield delivers in spades, his Best Actor Oscar nomination well deserved for powerful, believable work in what we will no doubt look back on as a career-defining role.