Mel Gibson has slowly been putting himself back into Hollywood’s good books after he ostracized himself with his drunken, racist rants. He’s primarily worked in lower budget actions movies which have been mostly decent but he hasn’t stepped behind the camera since Apocalypto in 2006. Now ten years later he takes up directing duties again for a war movie about a pacifist and the true story of Desmond Doss on Hacksaw Ridge, it’s an incredible story and unbelievable if it wasn’t true but Gibson has a story to tell about a man of god going into Hell and the result is pretty good, though falls just short of greatness.
Things open with a young Desmond (Andrew Garfield) and his brother Hal (Nathaniel Buzolic) fighting at home when Desmond whacks Hal with a brick, nearly killing him, the shock of the incident puts Desmond into a state of trauma and reinforced the notion of Thou Shalt Not Kill. Years later during the outbreak of World War 2, Desmond has grown up with a firmer belief in God, practising as a Seventh-Day Adventist, when his path crosses with Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), a nurse working at a local hospital. The two begin a world-wind romance and through her Desmond is able to learn about medical training, something that he wants to use overseas to act as a Medic for the United States Army, much to the dismay of Dorothy and Desmond’s own father Tom (Hugo Weaving) who served in W.W.1 and still carries the weight of the war with him.
It’s at this point where I think the film suffers the most, what follows is an extended sequence of Desmond’s training where he excels in every physical training exercise, but he flat out refuses to hold a gun, stating his status as a Conscientious Objector is protected by the constitution. However his commanding officers think otherwise and Desmond becomes a pariah, frequently bullied and belittled by the other men who consider him a coward. I understand the need for historical accuracy and Desmond’s personal conflict within this segment but I feel it goes on too long and the court martial scene doesn’t hold as much weight as the film wants because we know Desmond makes it to Okinawa.
The Okinawa sequence is probably the best part of the film with Desmond’s courage and faith being shown in detail within the hellfire of battle but it feels like there’s a lot more that we’re not being told about. And this is partially true, Gibson has gone on record as saying that he had to cut out some of the stories around Desmond because they just weren’t believable but I think it’s more than that. The whole battle sequences takes place over only a few days and with so much time focussed on the training segment, the battle isn’t really given a chance to kick off, leading into a limp final act with a montage rather than an actual battle. I don’t want to be accused of re-writing the film but it felt like it could’ve been longer in order to close out the story better.
Acting was good throughout but the focus was on Desmond, Weaving made Tom a sympathetic asshole, Palmer and those blue eyes of hers made life back home an enticing prospect. Noted sub-par actors Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington both pulled out some strong roles, Vaughn as Sergeant Howell who chewed Desmond out but slowly came to admire his tenacity while Worthington played Captain Glover, Desmond’s C.O. who tried to get Desmond to quit only realising how wrong he was about the man on the battlefield. Even the battalion themselves, while very few of them getting any significant screen-time, are all well characterised and recognisable so their deaths in battle actually mean a little more.
Garfield does some strong work as Desmond, there’s more than a few similarities to his turn in Silence but where Rodriguez was losing his faith from the violence around him, Desmond uses that violence to reaffirm his faith and work harder because of it. I’d still say Garfield did a better job in Silence but Desmond is an interesting character, he comes off a little stubborn but his reasoning makes sense in context, the incident with his brother at such a young age is a big factor in why he’s so against violence in the first place but there are other factors that the film reveals in time. Once on the battlefield Garfield injects himself with a grim determination, an entire segment where he goes back and forth to find wounded soldiers, all the while avoiding the Japanese and knowing that he won’t be able to silently take them out one-by-one does send a good message about the will of the spirit and it showcases the major themes of the film quite well.
After ten years of staying away from the camera Mel Gibson doesn’t seem to have lost a trick, there are a few gripes with clichéd moments like the unnamed, unseen Japanese Commander committing Seppuka for no other reason than it looked good, or when one of Desmond’s comrades grabs the torso of another soldier and uses it as a shield which apparently did actually happen though I question if he was still as accurate with his gun as depicted in the film. For the most part though, Gibson still brings it, the Okinawa scenes in particular are fucking brutal, the intensity of the attacks and the sheer unending wave of the Japanese forces make it play out more like a horror movie. It’s gruesome and it might put some people but at the same time it is very realistic – though some shoddy CGI work does take you out of it now and again – and adds to the horrors of war, compared to the beginning where Gibson paints rural Virginia like a dream it’s a stark contrast and shows just how far from Kansas Desmond had gotten himself. I can’t speak for how accurate the combat is but I’ve heard it praised and ridiculed so either or.
As much as I thought the training section went on too long it did bring up some interesting points that I was surprised to see someone like Gibson, a noted Christian, actually include. Desmond is not the only Christian in the army but he’s the only one who refuses to even handle a weapon which raises a lot of good questions, why does he want to serve in the army if he won’t kill, why doesn’t he just pass the training then never touch a gun afterwards? It’s this die-hard conviction and Desmond’s inability to give up who he is that sets up his character for when he’s crossing No Man’s Land in search of survivors, these scenes really ramp up the tension, in particular one moment where Desmond has to hide in a Japanese tunnel network to escape the Japanese, then later on a very Saving Private Ryan sequence plays out between Desmond, Howell and a sniper. The film doesn’t reach the levels that Ryan set almost 20 years ago but the similarities are hard to ignore.
I’ve been trying to wrack my brain about what specifically is missing from Hacksaw Ridge that keeps it from being a great war film, and honestly I think it’s because the war segment is underutilised. Maybe that was the point given Desmond’s non-violent means but we spend so long getting to see the why of his character leading up to the war that seeing so little of him in the field comes across as a missed opportunity, especially considering how weak the last ten minutes are compared to the rest of the film. Of course it could be my own personal taste, my obvious enjoyment of the war can be attributed to a personal bloodlust that I felt wasn’t sated enough but again, this is a film about faith and as violent as it gets it shouldn’t ignore its core message. There’s a lot to like about this film, it’s a true story and doing your research will show that truth is stranger than fiction, nobody makes a bad performance and Garfield is charming enough and determined enough to make Desmond work as a lead character and Gibson’s return to the directing chair shows he still has it in him to deliver some epic battles. I do recommend that people see the film, the big screen was made for war movies and the sheer scale of Okinawa is incredible, but I do feel I have to warn of lowered expectations because it is good, it’s just not the next great war film we were led to believe.
3 out of 5 hairpieces