The true story of Quaker pacifist war hero Desmond Doss.
Review by Eric Hillis
Directed by: Mel Gibson
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Teresa Palmer, Vince Vaughn
We'll be seeing a lot of World War II movies throughout 2017, from Christopher Nolan's epic scale recreation of Dunkirk to more intimate dramas like The Zookeeper's Wife. Why are filmmakers so drawn to this conflict? Perhaps it's the relative lack of necessity for an exploration of moral nuance afforded by the only war that practically everyone except Nazi sympathisers and Japanese Imperialists can agree was truly necessary. It's a conflict that created instant villains; slap an SS uniform on an actor and little more is required to characterise him as a villain.
Few would label Mel Gibson a subtle filmmaker, but with the based on true events Hacksaw Ridge he manages to inject some of that aforementioned moral nuance into history's most black and white war. Not in a misguided way that suggests the people who gassed Jews at Auschwitz and bayoneted infants at Nanking weren't so bad after all, but by confining the film's ethical dilemma to the conscience of one man - Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a Quaker who voluntarily enlists for service despite a vow never to kill or commit an act of violence.
Doss naively believes he can join the war as a medic, and thus avoid having to carry a gun, but once at boot camp he soon finds the army unwilling to indulge his religious beliefs. The men in command - Vince Vaughn's Sergeant Howell and Sam Worthington's Captain Glover - view him as a liability, and do their best to bully him into quitting the service. This trickles down to Doss's fellow grunts, who see his stance as mere cowardice, and issue him a severe beating when his stubbornness leads to the revoking of their weekend pass.
Much like his Jesuit priest in Martin Scorsese's Silence, Garfield's Doss digs his heels in and clutches his bible. He's willing to spend the war in prison and miss out on marrying his sweetheart, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer, the Donna Reed to Garfield's Jimmy Stewart here), rather than betray his religious convictions, but is 'rewarded' with the chance to serve, and is sent off to Japan in June of 1945, where he joins the legions of US troops attempting to take the titular strategic area near Okinawa.
Ever since Braveheart, Gibson has grown a reputation for his visceral portrayal of bloodshed, and it reaches a peak here with arguably the most intensely hellish depiction of battle ever seen in a mainstream war movie. Shrouded in fog, littered in body parts and literally raining blood, Hacksaw Ridge is a place that should test the faith of the most devout, but it only strengthens Doss's resolve, leading him to risk his life in the most heroic ways to save as many of his comrades as his God gives him strength to.
The movie's Japan set second half plays out like a horror movie, with Doss in the role of the 'Final Girl' who risks all to save their buddies while the loudmouth jocks are picked off by the zombie-like enemy that lurks in the mist. Think Carrie, if Sissy Spacek turned saviour rather than executor in the blood-soaked climax.
Truffaut once said that due to the exciting nature of cinema, any depiction of war was essentially pro-war, but he made that observation at a time when censorship laws forbade a realistic depiction of combat. Gibson's film may not be explicitly anti-war - not anti-this-war anyway - but it sure doesn't make it seem like much fun. War is hell, Gibson suggests, but occasionally an angel like Doss emerges from its fog.
Hacksaw Ridge is in UK/ROI cinemas January 27th.