FILM REVIEW: Hacksaw Ridge

“One more, Lord, help me get one more…”

The battle cry – if indeed that is the correct term – of one, Desmond Doss; WWII front-line U.S military medic.

Mel Gibson certainly doesn’t do things by halves. His directorial style is, shall we say, honest and forthright; proper heart-on-sleeve stuff, and it’s suitably applied in this instance to the recounting of Desmond Doss’s incredible story.

Doss (Andrew Garfield), a deeply religious man and a conscientious objector to the act of killing (or “conscientious cooperator” as he preferred to be known), performed remarkable heroics in Japan during the Battle of Okinawa, saving the lives of countless men.

His actions were all the more remarkable considering the majority of the men he attended to single-handedly, long after the rest of his unit had retreated from the field of combat, and with Doss completely unarmed and still very much under enemy fire.

Doss had felt compelled to join the war effort, and having met his sweetheart, Nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), at his local hospital, he was inspired and therefore intent upon signing up to become a front-line military medic. Doss had a fierce aversion to violence born out of both a strong commitment to the ‘word of God,’ and having witnessed and been subjected to the beatings of an often armed, and frequently enraged father –  a self-confessed, embittered alcoholic war veteran. These beatings had been dished out indiscriminately to both he, his brother and their mother during Doss’s formative years.

Consequently, on volunteering his services to the army, Doss refused to even so much as hold a fire-arm, let alone use one in combat; something that hardly enamoured him to his assigned military unit. A stubborn resolve and considerable religious devotion somehow got him through the multitude of obstacles (both literal and metaphorical), that therefore plagued his unnecessarily complicated time at the Fort Jackson military training camp; a time in which his comrades and the U.S army did everything in their power to sabotage and infringe upon his efforts to graduate.

With their efforts in vain, however, they were shipped to Japan where Doss’s unit would face the daunting prospect of the Japanese army at Hacksaw Ridge, and Doss, voluntarily, would face it all entirely unarmed.

Hacksaw Ridge is a very linear, straight forward telling of Doss’s inspirational story. Director Gibson, with trademark lack of subtlety, forces a back-story upon us, thus setting the scene and tone of the tale. Everything is rather spelt-out, clunky and predictable, and at no point is there really ever any doubt about the direction in which his film is heading.

Such a formulaic and almost clichéd tick-box directorial exercise seems like something of a missed opportunity given the intriguing nature of Doss’s story, but in his favour, the strong momentum and no-nonsense nature of Gibson’s direction rolls this particular wagon of predictability along at such a lick, that any lingering doubts over lack of character development or absence of nuance, never successfully take root; utterly brutal scenes of combat and the fierce fight for survival see to that, and demonstrate the true point and beating heart of Gibson’s hard-hitting war piece.

I’m fairly sure that the director’s intentions with Hacksaw Ridge were manyfold. We’re all aware of Gibson’s fierce Catholic convictions, so we can only assume that this work was very much a labour of love. However, Gibson somehow pulls off the trickiest of juggling acts in not allowing his considerable religious prejudices to completely overpower a story that still manages to successfully represent – equally persuasively – the resolve of the human spirit and the drive that exists within each of us towards goodness – irrespective of  organised religion’s bad habit with regard to its inference that such moral goodness is more divine-inspired than something innate within us.

Visually the film is big, bold and dramatic, centring upon the huge imposing escarpment, on top of which the ferocious motions of battle were played-out, but it’s Andrew Garfield’s portrayal of the fresh-faced, pontifical private, which, despite a solid supporting cast, is every bit the show-stealer, and this, in conjunction with Gibson’s battering-ram of direction, sees Hacksaw Ridge somehow transcend itself from stock Hollywood schtick, to something far more thoughtful and indelible.

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