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By Tim Estiloz
Hacksaw Ridge is perhaps one of the bloodiest, goriest and most unflinchingly realistic depictions of war in all its visceral horror ever to come of out Hollywood. Soldiers’ bodies on both sides of the pivotal World War II battle of Okinawa are literally ripped apart and tossed about like rag dolls by all manners of high caliber machine gun fire, artillery and explosions; while writhing bodies are engulfed and immolated on screen by flame throwers and bloodied, maimed victims cry out in pain and agony. The chaotic up close hand to hand combat and agonizing aftermath is perhaps the most hellish depiction of actual war in a major film release since “Saving Private Ryan”.
If that most definitively intentional visual shock to our sensibilities was the only thing that director Mel Gibson brought to the screen with this riveting film; then Hacksaw Ridge would simply be nothing more than a vapid, manipulative Grand Guignol of exploitative gore; easily dismissed with deserved derision. However, Hacksaw Ridge is quite the contrary and remarkably something far more worthy of note and contemplation.
Amid the blood and smoke of battle of Hacksaw Ridge is the deeper and compellingly told story of one man’s strongly held devotion to personal conviction and self sacrifice. Director Gibson and the film’s star, Andrew Garfield, bring to the screen the true life story of Desmond Doss; a devout Seventh Day Adventist and conscientious objector who wholeheartedly believes in the sixth commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Kill” from the Bible. However, Doss paradoxically enlists into the military to fight the Japanese during WWII; yet steadfastly refuses to carry a gun to take a life.
As effectively depicted in the film; most notably during the film’s brutal second half; Doss single handedly, as a medic, saves the lives of 75 of his comrades during the battle and ultimately receives the Medal of Honor for his amazing bravery. Doss was the first conscientious objector to receive the prestigious military honor for bravery amid combat.
Hacksaw Ridge is Mel Gibson’s first directorial effort since his 2006 film, Apocalypto and this film shows that the, albeit personally controversial, director has not lost his storytelling edge nor his arguably sensational visual approach to filmmaking. However, Hacksaw Ridge effectively plays almost like two tonally separate films.
The first hour is mainly devoted to an almost idyllic Norman Rockwell depiction of Doss’ early pre-war life as a young man from the countryside near Lynchburg, Virginia. While his family life with an emotionally troubled alcoholic father tormented by his own wartime past on the battlefield in WWI is far from perfect; Doss is depicted as mild-mannered, polite and faithful to his Christian beliefs. After a couple of traumatic and violent family incidents occur; Doss decides to never hold a gun and never take a life. He is a contented pacifist in a peaceful world on the verge of finding love with his future wife, Dorothy ( Teresa Palmer ) a nurse.
However, Doss’ idyllic life and his devotion to his religious beliefs are compromised when he enlists to defend America against the Japanese in the wartime Pacific theater. Doss joins the Army by optimistically believing he can serve his country by engaging on the battlefield without killing the enemy, instead serving strictly as a medic. Upon his arrival at boot camp; he soon becomes an object of derision, contempt and believed to be a coward for his refusal to carry or shoot a rifle. The Army and his fellow soldiers try unsuccessfully to get him to leave the unit; both by bullying and a near court martial. Yet, Doss remains unwavering as his convictions are relentlessly challenged by those around him; and ultimately challenged by the horrors of war itself.
Once on the battlefield, the film shifts into a literal hell on Earth for all, as the butchery of war is unleashed on Doss and his comrades. The opening battle sequence is horrific; but necessary to effectively tell the story of war, and the bravery of Doss and his comrades, without whitewash for the fragile sensitivities of the audience. Amid the carnage, Doss stays behind; even after his unit is forced to retreat, returning again and again to drag the wounded, one by one; including a couple of injured Japanese, to safety. It is a compelling testament to the bravery and conviction to the beliefs of the real life Desmond Doss; seen as an old man recounting his experience during the closing credits, along with some of those he saved.
Gibson brings Doss’ story to screen with his own firm conviction, telling the story without factual nor fictional embellishment according to research. Much of what is seen on screen, even what may seem to be the corniest of incidents, is said to be true by the real life participants. If Gibson falls short in his narrative; it’s in giving too much attention to the romance in the first half; and not enough focus on Doss’ religious belief that is so integral to the overall arc of the film and the audience’s complete understanding of Doss’ pacifist motivation.
Still, Hacksaw Ridge; benefitting from a stellar and convincing performance by its star Andrew Garfield, is a compellingly told and emotional piece of filmmaking. It’s a fine tribute to the memory of those who serve militarily; but also, to the bravery and unwavering conviction of one man unwilling to compromise his beliefs.