“Hacksaw Ridge” is the new war film by Mel Gibson. It is Gibson’s first movie in a decade. The last having been “Apocalypto”. Gibson’s earlier war movies were “Braveheart” and “We Were Soldiers”. This one differs since it concentrates on a pacifist instead of a warrior. But it has a similar religious vibe to “We Were Soldiers”. The movie was fourteen years in development before Gibson brought it to fruition. He spent a relatively sparse $45 million on it. The filming took place mainly in New South Wales. Robert Schenkkan and Randall Wallace wrote the original script, but thankfully Andrew Knight was brought in to polish it. The movie premiered at the 73rd Venice Film Festival and received a ten minute standing ovation. The movie is the true story of the first practicing conscientious objector in Congressional Medal of Honor history – Desmond Doss. (Alvin York was a conscientious objector, but he decided to participate in battle as a regular infantryman.) Doss earned his decoration on Okinawa in WWII.
The movie opens with a violent combat scene replete with slo-mo, flames, flying bodies, etc. A prayer is recited over the chaos. This brief taste leads to a flashing back to sixteen years earlier in the hills of Virginia where Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is dealing with a father who is a bitter WWI veteran who hits the bottle and occasionally his wife. His mother is a religious woman who instills a love of the Bible in her son. The family has a framed copy of the Ten Commandment and the Lord’s Prayer. Cain killing Abel is a prominent illustration. Desmond grows up strictly believing the Sixth Commandment and also caring about his fellow human beings. His saving a man who severs an artery in an accident foreshadows his future medical interests. He meets a nurse named Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) in a kill two birds with one stone scene. Their 1940s romance goes as you would expect. When Desmond volunteers for the Army, she sends him off with a Bible. He goes because he wants to serve his country, but not kill for it. He ends up at Fort Jackson for boot camp and when he meets the other guys, they seem nice - until they find out on the rifle range that he refuses to even touch a rifle. At this point, his mates and superiors try to convince him that the military life is not for him. Since we have seen the opening scene, we know his stubbornness will be rewarded with an all expenses paid trip to the tropical paradise of Okinawa.
When they arrive at Hacksaw Ridge, they are welcomed by truck-loads of dead bodies and the thousand yard stares of the unit they are replacing. Next thing you know, they are standing at the base of a cliff looking at some cargo nets that they must ascend to sweep the Japanese defenders off the ridge and thus win the war for the Allies. Stop eating your popcorn because this shit is about to get real. And really noisy. And Doss is about to get really busy.
“Hacksaw Ridge” is a surprisingly competent return for Mel Gibson. I was definitely skeptical when I first heard about the movie. I was intrigued with the subject matter, having mentioned Desmond Doss in my American History classes. When my wife and I went to the WWII Museum this past summer, we spent time at the tribute to Doss as a Medal of Honor recipient. A longer version of the interview shown before the movie’s credits is on display. That interview makes clear the man’s deep religious convictions which naturally led me to fear what the religious Gibson might do with that theme. (I found “We Were Soldiers” to have laid on Col. Moore’s faith a little thick.) Thankfully, “Hacksaw Ridge”, while it has numerous religious references, did not cause me to cringe. For instance, many soldiers carried Bibles in WWII and Doss does not do any preaching. There is a Christ on the crucifix image towards the end but it is subtle, especially for Gibson. In other words, the film is not trying to convert anyone and appears to be a sincere attempt to bring the remarkable story of Doss to the masses.
The movie is well-made, but not memorable. Not worthy of a ten minute standing ovation. The cast is fine with only a miscast Vince Vaughn causing head-scratching. Interestingly, Vaughn is the only American actor in a movie where all the principal characters are American. He plays the stereotypical gruff sergeant, but his boot camp schtick is that of Don Rickles more than R. Lee Ermey. It is hard not to view it as stunt casting. I am not big fan of Andrew Garfield, but he is satisfactory as Doss. The role does not require a lot of heavy lifting as Doss is really one-dimensional. Unlike his closest equivalent in cinema, Alvin York, he does not undergo a conversion experience and he doggedly maintains his original pacifist beliefs. Garfield appears to have watched “Forrest Gump” a few times to prepare for the role. There is some chemistry with Palmer as Dorothy, but the romance is straight out of a WWII movie made in WWII. At least we get to know her a bit. I can’t say the same for Doss’ comrades. If Vaughn’s Sgt. Howell did not give a few nicknames in the obligatory barracks scene, they would have no personalities whatsoever. The screenwriters only fleshed out Pvt. Smith (Luke Bracey) to be the embodiment of the units’ condescension toward the “cowardly” Doss and the respect Doss would earn on Okinawa. Sam Worthington as Capt. Howell is solid in what is essentially the same cliché that Vaughn is playing.
This could be a very polarizing movie. The audience when I saw it was mostly senior citizens. I can see where they enjoyed the biographical part of the feature, but then the movie shifts into combat porn midway through I doubt they expected to see a lot of entrails or rats eating corpses. (But there is little cursing in the film!) The commercials claim that “Hacksaw Ridge” is the best war movie since “Saving Private Ryan”. Sorry, no. SPR revolutionized war movies by coming the closest to recreating what the soldiers experienced. Since then some movies have been in the same league – Black Hawk Down, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima. We Were Soldiers, and Lone Survivor. Others have taken the what I call “exteme realism” route. The theory behind these movies is that because war is hell, the more hellish you depict it, the more realistic it will be. Movies of this ilk include Pearl Harbor, Flyboys, Behind Enemy Lines, 13 Hours, and Fury. And countless straight to DVD titles. Since SPR, these types of combat porn movies have tried to top SPR by throwing a kitchen’s sink worth of weapons, explosions, flames, entrails, and gallons of blood. More is not better. Let me give you one example. In SPR, a flamethrower is used to finish off a pillbox. In HR, flamethrowers are used to roast charging Japanese. The first example is an accurate depiction of use of that weapon, the second is not. Here is another example. In SPR, Capt. Miller drags an upper torso along the beach. In HR, Smitty uses an upper torso as a shield as he wastes several Japanese in a Ramboesque spree.
In conclusion, I recommend “Hacksaw Ridge” as a biopic, not as a war movie. The movie is commendably accurate in bringing the story of one of America’s great heroes to the screen. Desmond Doss deserved this movie and if jazzing it up with ridiculous combat was required to green light it after fourteen years, then so be it. The combat is gonzo and reminded me of the Korean style as in movies like “Taegukgi”. The difference is “Taegukgi” is clearly fictional and the combat is supposed to be entertainingly over the top. I fear that American audiences who are not familiar with that style will mistake it for reality. For instance, there are more bayonet stabbings in this movie than in the entire war in the Pacific. If you want to know what it was like on Okinawa, watch the Okinawa episode of “The Pacific” miniseries. If you want to learn about Desmond Doss, watch “Hacksaw Ridge”.
GRADE = B
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: Desmond Doss did not volunteer for the war. He was drafted. However, he could have claimed a deferment due to his shipyard job. He did claim conscientious objector status and was allowed to become a medic. The movie is partly accurate in showing the animosity his beliefs fueled within his unit. But the men were not as upset about his refusal to carry a weapon as they were with his refusal as a Seventh Day Adventist to work on Saturdays. The men considered this to be shirking. They let their feelings be known when they would pelt the praying Doss with shoes and epithets. They called him “Holy Jesus” and Holy Joe”. There were no beatings and the Smitty character is fictional. (One soldier did threaten to kill him the first time they entered combat.) His superiors (Hammel and Glover) did encourage him to quit and the movie does a fair job with the Section 8 and the court-martial. The Army backed down, not because of intervention by Doss’ father, but because it realized that prosecuting him was a political mistake.
Doss did marry a nurse named Dorothy, but they met in a church and he was not prevented from making their wedding. She did give him a Bible when he left for war. His parents are well depicted. His mother was the key to his religiousity. His father was an embittered veteran with alcohol problems. However, the incident involving the gun was between his father and an uncle, not his mother.
The movie gives the impression that Doss’ unit first saw combat in Okinawa. (And does not bother to explain what they were doing from 1942 to 1945.) In actuality, the 77th Division fought on Guam and then Leyte in the Philippine campaign. They were battle hardened. And by Okinawa Doss had earned their respect. He earned a Bronze Star on Leyte. The movie implies the men were still skeptical about him when they climbed the ridge. They did go up on cargo nets. The assault was successful at first with several pill boxes taken out with few casualties. (One of the few tactical accuracies in the film has the men providing covering fire for Smitty as he sneaks up and throws in a satchel charge.) A night attack by the Japanese swept Doss’ unit off the escarpment. (The Japanese rarely launched banzai attacks in the daytime.) He did stay and lowered wounded by way of a special sling he had learned in Virginia. He later admitted to saving 50 men while the movie used the Medal of Honor citation number of 75. He did pray to “help me get one more”.
P.S. Dear Mel, during warfare soldiers occasionally have to reload. I saw no examples of that in your movie.