Directed by Mel Gibson, HACKSAW RIDGE is the extraordinary true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) who, in Okinawa during the bloodiest battle of WWII, saved 75 men without firing or carrying a gun. He was the only American soldier in WWII to fight on the front lines without a weapon, as he believed that while the war was justified, killing was nevertheless wrong.
It’s always welcoming when Hollywood produce true stories of real life heroes you most likely would never have heard of in your life (most certainly not in UK schools). The film becomes more than just a two-hour watch. It becomes a great history class you wished you attended when you were growing up. Hacksaw Ridge does that for most of it’s running time, with a second half having some of the most visceral battle sequences caught in film, with the veteran direction (and resurrection) of Mel Gibson, led by a poignant central performance by Oscar Nominated Andrew Garfield.
It’s very hard to make this a spoiler-free review given it’s based on a true story (the synopsis alone from the film distributors sums up the second half of the film). It truly is remarkable to think that there was ever a man like Desmond Doss. The film is a tale of two halves. We begin with a young Desmond who after doing a very terrible act as a child, vows to follow the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” till the end of his days. Years later, nearing the end of WWII, he sees other men around his town going off to war and sees that its his right to go fight as well. The only issue is that he’s a conscientious objector and has vowed that he will never carry a gun. This doesn’t fall well with his new sergeant in command and brothers-in-arms, seeing him as a threat to let them down at the heat of the battle.
Many more things happen within this half, with Desmond falling in love with nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), and the battle he has to go through to be allowed to travel with the soldiers to Japan. It’s a great set up for a polar opposite second half, but the issue I have with the first half of the film is how terribly clichéd it is at times. Some of the dialogue feels straight out of daytime soap operas. It’s really cheesy at some points with some scenes being downright cringe, making some moving moments for me to be not as powerful as Gibson intended them to be. Yes you can argue that the first half was intended to be played out like that to balance out the brutal second half, but for me it was one-too-many whiffs of cheese.
So…the second half. Wow. The moment the soldiers walk on to Hacksaw Ridge till the ending of the film grabs you by the throat and never lets you go. It’s the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan turned up to 11. Blood and guts everywhere. Bombs exploding off. Screams echoing around the battlefield. It’s visceral and relentless and definitely not for the faint hearted. It’s what Gibson does best. Memories of Braveheart with the brutality of Apocalypto and The Passion of the Christ is littered throughout. It perfectly captures Desmond’s beliefs and why Hacksaw Ridge is actually an anti-war film. Garfield provides his most human performance as Doss, giving you a hero that will live on in your memory after you leave the cinema. By the end of the film, Doss becomes a shell of himself and you can’t help but tear up knowing what he’s just gone through and done for his brothers. And the supporting cast is wonderful, especially Vince Vaughn as the no-nonsense drill sergeant and Hugo Weaving as Desmond’s estranged father.
Putting aside the near cheesy first half which does well to build up why we should support the beliefs of Desmond Doss, this is a decade-long welcome return for Mel Gibson behind the camera. He gives us a visceral and brutal war film for the ages led by Andrew Garfield’s best performance in front of the camera.