Hacksaw Ridge (2016) Review

Hacksaw Ridge is a 2016 biographical war film about a combat medic who refuses to kill and yet for his courage, earns the military’s highest honor.

mv5bmjq1njm3mtuxnv5bml5banbnxkftztgwmdc5mty5ote-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_More than any other genre perhaps, the war film is one that seems the most reliant on true stories to find inspiration. Tales of heroes in times of great strife and danger are a natural fit for the movies and audiences look to be moved by the courage and spirit of people trying to survive in the most desperate of times. With Hacksaw Ridge, a film set in World War II about a sincerely brave man, the story is one certainly worth telling, but it does so with one mis-step after another.

Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is a young man turned by an event in his childhood that has him finding religion. Under the roof of a tough, sometimes hostile but always honorable father (Hugo Weaving) and deeply faith-based mother (Rachel Griffiths), he comes to nurture his own beliefs, living as best he can by the Ten Commandments. He becomes a pacifist and yet feels he can still serve his country and so enlists to be a medic but is instead assigned to a rifle company. There, he naturally faces condemnation from his fellow soldiers when he refuses to even touch a weapon. The men are told they should not look to Doss for help on the battlefield.

On that battlefield however, Doss proves himself more than just a worthy man of his company, but in fact, for many of them, their savior. Amid the horrors of combat, as men all around are cut down or left rendered to pieces, he rescues dozens of infantrymen wounded by the Japanese at the Battle of Okinawa on the Maeda Escarpment. Braving impossible conditions in a maelstrom of gunfire and explosions, unarmed by choice, he pulls them to safety and then down a cliff face to medical attention.

Directed by Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge is a standard war film in structure, with its three-part narrative. These include the home days where we meet Doss as a young boy who likes to wrestle with his slightly older brother. We learn about the time when he pushed it too far and nearly killed him before growing up a bit and falling in love with a pretty nurse named Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), becoming engaged and then enlisting after his brother does, feeling it not fair that others are dying so that he might live. Next is the bootcamp weeks, as Doss faces a ferocious drill Sergeant (Vince Vaughn) and an infantry troop who don’t understand his motivations so belittle his efforts to stay, with an eventual court martial that decides his fate. Last is the fighting, the true test of his worth, where he earns his merit among these men.

Gibson does best in the last act, the extreme violence and gruesome depiction of the battle sequence most convincing and yet naturally hardest to watch. This is nothing new in a war film or from Gibson for that matter, though he spares no expense in delivering what he can in terms of horrors with almost unbearable to watch images of combat. This battle is lengthy and Gibson is as chaotic with his camera as the fight itself, blasting speedy cuts of dozens upon dozens of soldiers chewed up by gun fire and grenades. It has the same great intent of any war film in hoping to convey the savagery of battle, but there’s no escaping the sterility of it, feeling a bit too celebratory of its own carnage.

Hacksaw Ridge
Hacksaw Ridge, 2016 ©Summit Entertainment

He also doesn’t hold back on the religious iconography, treating his subject like a man touched by the very god he praises. The real Doss was a deeply religious man and so there is some merit to the director’s choice, but it begins to cleanly separate the film from a sense of reality in many places. This starts in the earlier scenes where we witness life in Lynchburg, Virginia as a sort of pastoral representation of itself, with Doss singing with birds in the trees and finding love across the room like characters trapped in a television sitcom. Not too mention a few forced moments that all-too-obviously forecast his coming heroism.

Things get even more awkward at Fort Jackson and basic training when Vaughn shows up as the Drill Sergeant. Vaughn grows into the part but starts out on the wrong foot, earning laughs where there shouldn’t be any, though it’s hard to tell given the always smarmy grin on Doss’s face in these early army scenes. Of course that all changes as it becomes clear he absolutely won’t even touch a gun but at least the rest of the soldiers don’t go as far as would be expected.

The film is populated with many characters but the movie can’t find time for them all. Doss’s brother simply disappears but that’s understandable, though others like Weaving and Palmer have a little more screen time yet aside from a few good moments can’t nearly feel effective with the heroics of Garfield’s Doss so glorified throughout. What Doss did is remarkable, that is undeniable, even if the film takes liberties with many aspects of it and paints the whole endeavor more like a fable than a reality.

This is a story that is by its nature very inspiring and there are moments when it does just that, especially with its third act. Garfield is well-cast and convincing as are many of the soldiers in his unit. However, the film lacks authenticity in the crucial acts prior to the fighting and then struggles to find balance with the very message Doss stands for. It’s an earnest film and tells a compelling story but doesn’t have the impact it could.

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Film Credits

Director: Mel Gibson
Writers: Robert Schenkkan, Andrew Knight
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Sam Worthington, Vince Vaughn, Luke Bracey, Hugo Weaving
Genre: War, Action
Language: English

2.5
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