Review: “Hacksaw Ridge”

Andrew Garfield in Mel Gibson's "Hacksaw Ridge."

War is hell, but it might be even worse if you’re unarmed. That’s exactly how Desmond Doss ran into battle, and on purpose. A Virginia country boy and devout Seventh Day Adventist, Doss rescued nearly a hundred men in one of a nasty war’s nastiest patches of scorched earth without firing a shot.

It’s through Doss’ moving and atypical World War II story that Mel Gibson triumphantly slips back into the director’s chair. “Hacksaw Ridge,” his marriage of ’40s-style heroism and contemporary blood-and-guts combat terror succeeds as both a character study and a grisly war film.

The first half of the film establishes Doss’ personal stakes. Doss, wonderfully played by Andrew Garfield, honors his faith by refusing to touch a weapon or even fight in self-defense.

Early on, after saving a man injured in a car accident seemingly by happenstance, Doss meets nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) while waiting at the hospital. She’s an achingly beautiful nurse whose heart he immediately sets out to win in a series of scenes that lay the syrup on thick without becoming too saccharine.

But despite falling in love and having a work deferment from the war, Doss can’t abide “sitting out” the conflict while others fight. So despite being a certified conscientious objector, He joins up to train as a medic. Doss finds himself immediately ostracized by his fellow recruits during training, as they think is refusal to fight is rooted in cowardice instead of conviction. His superiors are so eager to rid themselves of him that they court martial him, resulting in a trial where his constitutional rights come into play.

The second half of “Hacksaw Ridge” finds Doss’ unit on Okinawa, tasked with securing the eponymous location. The ferocity of the battle scenes rivals those in “Saving Private Ryan,” as Hacksaw Ridge proves to be a nasty little tapestry of strongpoints, spilled guts, and ash-strewed shell craters, all rendered with a claustrophobic intimacy. The collision between American and Japanese is a morass of gunfire and bombs, a meat grinder where skill is handy but luck is preferable. While Gibson’s war scenes aren’t as viscerally exciting as Spielberg’s, which have more of a kinetic action element to them, they’re a potent illustration of war’s most frenzied terrors. Throughout it all, Doss tends to hundreds of wounded men, still refusing to grab a weapon, tempting as it is. When his unit retreats, Doss stays behind, spending hours braving enemy fire and rescuing wounded men. Throughout it all, he incants, “Please, Lord, help me get one more.”

Gibson, with screenwriters Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan, threads a needle with the film’s pro-Christian tone, depicting Doss’ faith as essential to his character without sermonizing. Though Doss’ beliefs might boost his courage, he’s compassionate at his core. The result is a Christian film with equal appeal to religious and secular audiences.

Beyond Doss, Gibson’s empathy for the plight of the unique soldier is pitch perfect. One quietly electric scene features Doss’ father Tom (Hugo Weaving)—an alcoholic, decorated veteran of the Great War—who was psychologically ruined by his tour in France.  In a dinner table scene of bitterly poignant melancholy, Tom tells of the gruesome death of a childhood friend, the boy’s beloved uniform ruined by the force of a bullet. Later, Doss’ hardass officers (Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington) each have moments where their apparent cruelty is revealed to be deep concern for the lives of the enlisted men under their command. Gibson demonstrates a great understanding for war’s survivors, while also prepping the audience for the macabre spectacle of battle.

Gibson’s fondness for cinematic bloodletting does get the better of him in the form of some arbitrary, grotesque moments. In particular, a scene featuring a heretofore unseen Japanese commander committing ritual suicide seems thrown in just so the film can have a gory, explicit beheading.

But perhaps going a little overboard is expected from the director of “Braveheart” and “The Passion of the Christ.” What’s not expected is how he makes the case for a benevolent, patriotic pacifism.  It’s a testament to the violence-loving Gibson’s skills as a storyteller that it is he who illustrates how much courage it can take for a hero not to fire a single shot.