Directed by Mel Gibson Starring: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Hugo Weaving, Vince Vaughn, Teresa Palmer
Film Review by Kieran Freemantle
From Braveheart to Apocalypto Mel Gibson has been known for making some of the most violent mainstream films ever. He has now tackled World War II with his latest Hacksaw Ridge, one of the goriest war films in recent memory.
Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is a devout Seventh-day Adventist living in the Blue Ridge Mountains region of Virginia. Despite his anti-violence beliefs Desmond signs up to join the US Army with the aim to train as a medic believing he can still serve his country without killing anyone. During training Doss' superiors try to drive him out of the army due to his unwillingness to touch a gun, yet he still serves in the Battle of Okinawa.
Desmond Doss is a unique figure, he was the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor, American's highest award for military bravery and was very humble regarding his achievements. He was offered a second Medal of Honor but refused it because he felt one was enough. His story was considered for adaptation back in the 1950s but Doss refused to turn it into a typical Hollywood film. Hacksaw Ridge took 14 years to be made from an idea to being a film with We Were Soldiers' director/Braveheart writer Randall Wallace being considered to direct before Mad Mel took the gig and it was a hell of a comeback for the controversial figure.
Gibson is famous for having staunch Catholic beliefs: Braveheart ended with the William Wallace martyrdom scene and The Passion of the Christ was one of the most successful Christian films ever made. It is easy to see why Gibson would be drawn to Doss' story, a man with unflinching Christian faith who refuses to bow down to people who question his beliefs. He is simply was following the Sixth Commandment: Thou shalt not kill. Yet Doss' ideals are not just influenced by his religion, there are personal and psychological reasons that justify why he won't even touch a gun let alone fire one due to his upbringing.
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Hacksaw Ridge was split into three distinct sections. The first had some similarities to first act of Braveheart, focusing on Doss' childhood and early adult years, his attempts to woo a young nurse, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) but is drawn to fight for a greater cause. The second was Gibson's attempt to replicate Full Metal Jacket, having Vince Vaughn playing a quick-witted drill sergeant and the ways recruits try to drive Doss out of the army was similar to how the Full Metal Jacket recruits did to Private Pile. The final third of the film was the Battle of Okinawa with Doss' company assigned to take the highly defended Hacksaw Ridge which gave the Gibson film a similar feel to the forgotten '80s Vietnam film Hamburger Hill where the Americans have to attack a heavily defeated enemy position, with horrific consequences. There was also shades of We Were Soldiers due to the brutality of battles particularly because of the foggy haze of the battlefield.
Gibson is known for his love for the red stuff and Hacksaw Ridge has some of the most brutal war scenes put to film. Bullets rip through soldiers, Americans and Japanese have to fight hand-to-hands, organs are left lying on the ground and the dead are eaten by rats and maggots: all made more intense because of Rupert Gregson-Williams booming musical score. The area on top of the ridge is bare, the trees have been stripped bare and the dead corpses makes it look like something from the Book of Revelation - whether this is a deliberate biblical reference or simply over reading into the iconography because of Gibson's religious beliefs is up for debate. Hacksaw Ridge was so gory that it made Saving Private Ryan look like a kids films.
Hacksaw Ridge is the second religiously themed film to star Andrew Garfield (the other being Silence) and Hacksaw Ridge is a better of those films. As Doss, Garfield was excellent as the humble, folksy man who spouts corny lines with his Virginian accent, yet has deep psychological scars and had unimaginable bravery. He has certainly been able to bounce back from being unceremoniously dumped from the Spider-Man role. Weaving as Doss' father was also fantastic as a man who is clearly suffering from PTSD and deals with his pain with alcohol, resulting with him becoming a volatile man. Vaughn did his best Lee R. Emery impression as a drill sergeant, adding a bit of humour along with Doss' fellow recruits and it was refreshing to see Vaughn back in a good film again.
Gibson is known for playing fast and loose with historical facts, Braveheart is the bane of many historians. However, with Hacksaw Ridge there is more of an effort to be loyal to the real history, like the film opening with a title card saying 'Based on a true story' and ends with real footage of Doss and his war colleagues, like more traditional biopics. There are of course some changes to the history for dramatic effect, the time of Doss' service was shortened for the film and there is a debate on how many people Doss actually saved during the battle but Hacksaw Ridge is still the most historically accurate film in Gibson's filmography.
Hacksaw Ridge is a treat for fans of war films and Gibson's previous films, being a violent, uncompromising look at war. It does stumble into war movie clichés at times but there is no denying that Hacksaw Ridge is a celebration of one man's bravery and faith in the most horrific of circumstances. Hacksaw Ridge can stand alongside other great recent war films like Saving Private Ryan and Letter From Iwo Jima and it is more than just a faith film.