“While everybody else is going to be taking life, I’m going to be saving it. That’s going to be my way to serve.” That’s what Desmond Doss tells his father before enlisting in the U.S. army to fight in World War II. While millions kill one another across the world, Desmond wants to be a combat medic, helping the wounded instead of taking lives.
Mel Gibson’s way back into the good graces of Hollywood and moviegoers, is the biopic, Hacksaw Ridge, which tells the story of Doss (Andrew Garfield), a gentle, sweet young man, who grows up in a house filled with violence. Instead of succumbing to this himself, Doss embraces religion and becomes a pacifist Seventh Day Adventist. Doss is a true believer, the kind who will stand by his moral code, no matter the cost to himself or others.
In 1945, during the final stretch of the Pacific battle between the U.S. and Japan, Doss decides he needs to serve his country. The U.S. military, however, would try its hardest to get rid of him. The problem isn’t so much that he refuses to kill, though that refusal doesn’t endear him to his fellow soldiers who might need saving on the battlefield. What most astonishes his commanders and compatriots is that he refuses to even touch a firearm. He is laughed at for refusing to train on his on Sabbath – a Saturday – and for being a vegetarian. Doss’ fellow trainees beat him up and hurl abuse at him and yet, he remains steadfast and quietly defiant. A military judge finally decides he may go into battle without carrying a firearm, and so Doss is set on the path to become a war hero.
Doss is deployed to the notorious ‘Hacksaw Ridge’, the name given to the perpendicular Maeda Escarpment in Okinawa. It was a slaughterhouse. American soldiers were ordered to take the ridge from below, climbing up, and charging hundreds of Japanese gunmen who were heavily fortified and picked off their enemies like flies. When Doss’ platoon summits, limbs are blown off and soldiers maimed within seconds. When the Americans are ordered to fall back, dozens of wounded soldiers are left behind – it’s simply too difficult to get them down from the ridge. But not for Doss. Determined to fulfil his self-imposed mandate – to help put back together a world that is tearing itself apart – Doss does the unsurmountable. Over a period of 24 hours, Doss ties a rope around comrade after comrade, and individually lowers them down the 120 metre cliff to safety. As his hands become bloodied and raw, he remains undeterred. “Just one more. God, just help me save one more,” he prays.
Gibson the director loves exploring true-life characters whose faith in something bigger than themselves, in fighting for what is morally ‘right’, defines them. He did that with Braveheart (1995) and The Passion of the Christ (2004). In Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson proves that he is still an excellent filmmaker (IMHO he is better behind the camera than in front of it). Will Hollywood finally forgive Gibson his drunken and racist rants from a few years ago? Should an excellent film be shunned because those involved in its making have done deplorable things? The press will decide during the Golden Globes on Sunday 8 January, when Gibson competes for Best Director. Hacksaw Ridge is also nominated for Best Drama and Garfield is nominated in the Best Actor category.
Garfield’s performance is nothing short of superb. He is gently stubborn, humble, and edifying. The camera is dynamic in showing the relentless and visceral violence of the battle scenes (a sensitive viewer might need a paper bag though). Where the film, and Gibson, fails is in exploring some of the other themes like the romance between nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) and Desmond, and Desmond’s difficult paternal relationship. These sub-plots, though necessary to lay the framework for Desmond’s motivations, feel superficial and distract from the film’s main concerns. The supporting roles lack verisimilitude. Hugo Weaving is never given the chance to shine as Desmond’s alcoholic and abusive father, a broken man struggling to overcome the loss of his friends while fighting in World War I. Weaving’s performance feels restrained while it should be wild. Palmer is sweet and pretty, and nothing but a cotton-candy character.
The portrayal of the Japanese as mostly murderous barbarians is problematic. Gibson tries to solve this in a humanising scene in which Doss comes across a wounded Japanese soldier hiding in a cave. Doss gently dresses the enemy’s wound in a moment of pure kindness, before moving on.
It’s undeniable that Hacksaw Ridge tells an extraordinary story, the kind of moving and uplifting drama that Americans in particular so love and want. The message is the same as Gibson’s other films: anyone, especially those from humble backgrounds, can be a hero, as long as they stick to their moral codes. Gibson tries to preach without seeming preachy and succeeds in that for the most part, though the religious thread he carries through his films leave me a little uncomfortable. However, the viewer can’t help but be moved by Doss’ purity, though naïve, and his dogged belief in what he is doing.
Director: Mel Gibson
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths
Rating: 4 out of 5