Mel Gibson is back with a vengeance, directing a World War II drama based on the true story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who goes into battle without a rifle and ends up saving the lives of 75 soldiers. Gibson, who won an Academy Award for directing Braveheart, has not directed a film since 2006’s Apocalypto. After a stellar career as both an actor and director, in 2010, Gibson suffered a series of public meltdowns. He was dropped by his talent agency and essentially treated as a persona non grata. Hollywood, however, loves a good comeback story and this film could help Gibson restart his career. While not rising to the level of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Hacksaw Ridge is a riveting wartime drama that celebrates an unexpected and unconventional hero.
Tom Doss (Hugo Weaving) served in World War I and emerged with a medal and a damaged psyche. After watching several of his friends die horrible deaths, he returned home and began drinking and abusing his wife. “You didn’t know him before the war,” his wife, Bertha (Rachel Griffiths), says in his defense. When Tom threatens Bertha with a gun, their son, Des (Andrew Garfield), manages to take the weapon away and turn it on his father. That event becomes a tipping point in Des’s life, leading him to embrace his religion as a Seventh Day Adventist, eschew all forms of violence, and vow never again to touch a gun.
Teresa Palmer and Andrew Garfield
Des discovers his medical talent when he saves a man’s life by using his belt as a tourniquet. While at the hospital, he meets an attractive nurse, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), whom he vows to marry. Initially reluctant, Dorothy is won over by Des’s “aw-shucks” charm and his admirable adherence to his religious values.
After his brother, Harold (Nathaniel Buzolic) enlists – over the objections of his father – Des feels obligated to do his part, signing on to become an Army medic. Des winds up in a boot camp where each recruit is required to carry a rifle and learn how to use it. While Army medics are tasked to treat those injured, they also carry weapons for protection. Des’s refusal to even touch a rifle is viewed as placing not only himself, but also his fellow soldiers at risk. An inflexible military system threatens him with a court martial. The way he escapes conviction is unusual, but, from the film’s point of view, satisfying.
Des’s Courtmartial Hearing
Des’s unit is sent to Okinawa, where a battle is raging on a rocky, desolate plateau dubbed Hacksaw Ridge. Taking the territory would allow the Allies to score an important victory against the Japanese, but the battle will be bloody and costly. Remember the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan, showing Americans landing on the beaches in Normandy? That scene was mild compared with the relentless battlefield carnage we see in Hacksaw Ridge. Limbs are blown off, guts spilled, and Japanese soldiers incinerated with flame throwers. In the midst of this human destruction, Des continues his mission, treating and rescuing as many soldiers as he can. With each wounded soldier he finds, he does what he can, applying tourniquets to staunch bleeding, administering morphine to deal with pain. He drags each wounded soldier to the lip of the ridge and slowly lowers them to the ground below using a rope, that, while knotted improperly, still does the trick. Running on fumes, he returns again and again to find someone he might have missed, praying to God to give him strength to save “just one more.” Garfield’s performance is intense. While we know that he will survive (the real Des went on to become the only CO to receive the Medal of Honor), each time he risks going back to the battlefield, we fear for his safety.
The soldiers Des saves are transported to the camp’s medical facility. Des’s commanding officer, Captain Glover (Sam Worthington), is shocked to see so many from his platoon alive and being treated. When he asks one soldier, Milt Zane, nicknamed “Hollywood” (Luke Pegler), how he got out, he credits Des. Others repeat the medic’s name. When the final tally comes in, Des has saved 75 soldiers. Someone once viewed as a coward for his reluctance to carry a weapon winds up being the hero of the battle.
There are memorable performances among the supporting cast. Vince Vaughn, in a departure from his comic roles, is effective as Sergeant Howell, who bullies Des, hoping he will drop out, but winds up being saved by the medic. Weaving’s Tom Doss is a tragic figure who redeems himself and repairs the relationship with his wife and family. Seen through a present-day lens, Tom has PTSD, and Weaving’s poignant performance allows us to see his suffering. As a soldier called “Smitty,” Luke Bracey has a touching scene with Garfield. Sharing a foxhole, Smitty, who was once Des’s nemesis, finds he has a lot in common with the CO, a surprising friendship formed in the midst of war.
Hacksaw Ridge opens nationwide November 4, 2016.
Photos credit: Mark Rogers courtesy of Lionsgate