The Ryukyu Islands are a series of Japanese islands that stretch across the boundary between the East China Sea and the Philippine Sea. The largest of the islands is Okinawa. Today, Okinawa plays host to around 26,000 US military personnel. In World War ll it was hell on earth.
Hacksaw Ridge is the name given to an area of land that sits at the top of a 100-foot cliff. In April 1945 it was part of the Battle of Okinawa, a brutal and merciless series of combats fought against the equally brutal and merciless Japanese army. It lasted 82 days, ending in June with an Allied victory, but it came at an enormous cost. The new World War ll biographical film from director Mel Gibson may be called Hacksaw Ridge, but it’s not an action-packed epic war film that tells the full story of the military engagements known as Operation Iceberg. That will have to come at another time from another quarter. Instead, the film centers on the real-life story of one man, Desmond T. Doss, a conscientious objector who was there, right there in the middle of the battle up on that 100 foot cliff. He saved lives without ever firing a shot.
Hacksaw Ridge begins with slow motion shots of bodies on fire. It’s an alarming opening but it’s one that lasts only a few moments. Immediately we cut 16 years earlier to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. A young Desmond and his brother, living a hillbilly existence with an abusive father (Hugo Weaving) and devoted mother (Rachel Griffiths), are rough-housing it as they playfully chase each other in a game that soon develops into a fist fight.
When Desmond hits his brother with a brick to the head, it almost kills the boy. The way the film presents the event, that single moment of irresponsible violent action and what it could have done becomes so traumatic to Desmond, it appears to form the underlying reason for the boy’s total, unquestioning and sudden obedience to the commandment, Thou Shalt Not Kill.
Surprisingly, there’s an old-fashioned movie quality to the telling of Desmond’s story during the first half of the film. It’s now fifteen years after that moment of trauma. Desmond’s brother, now healed, has signed up to go to war, much to the displeasure of his father and fear of his mother. Desmond’s path is different. Now a Seventh-Day Adventist, the young man (Andrew Garfield) has met the love of his life, a pretty young nurse called Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) and Desmond is smitten. With typical, country boy charm and an endearing clumsiness, he proposes, stating that he loves her, “…With all my heart and then some.” But the wedding will have to wait.
Desmond, as patriotic as any American during wartime, has enlisted in the army. He’s not there to fight, he intends to be a medic and help the wounded. But once he reports for duty and calmly insists on neither carrying a weapon nor engaging in army practices on Saturday, his Sabbath, his comrades, his drill instructor (Vince Vaughn) and his commanding officer turn against him.
The interesting aspect to all of this is that the film isn’t necessarily positioning itself to make us side with Desmond and his beliefs. It’s not asking that. It’s merely presenting his case and showing the reactions. And neither is it altogether anti-war in the way that some have reported the film to be. It’s up to the viewer to decide where to stand, and everyone will respond with different emotions. If you’re a Seventh-Day Adventist then clearly you would stand with Desmond’s strict adherence to his beliefs. If you’re still a person of faith but with different values, then you may understand Desmond’s behavior but feel a sense of frustration in the same way his comrades do. And if you’re a non-believer with no affiliation to any church or faith, his actions will probably result in your wanting the man to snap out of it, get real, pick up a weapon and fight.
However you may react to Desmond’s notions and beliefs, negatively or positively, will matter little once the film passes that 75 minute mark. Like The Deer Hunter where the 1978 film plunged us without warning right in the middle of the horrors of Vietnam, so, too, does Hacksaw Ridge with World War ll, but there’s a difference. Nothing can prepare you for what you are about to see. Saving Private Ryan stunned audiences in 1998 with its sudden, realistic portrayal of what it’s like to be among sniper bullets and mortar fire, but even that pales in comparison to how battle is portrayed in Hacksaw Ridge. The unrelenting horror of war is so vividly re-enacted that for many it may well be a traumatic, difficult watch. When veterans look back and talk of seeing things they would never want to see again and move on to another subject before becoming upset, they’re talking of how director Gibson relates the battles fought in Hacksaw Ridge.
Make no mistake, this is no big screen glorification of violence. To qualify it would have to be an exciting, cinematic nail-biter with last second escapes as blood and guts fly, but there’s nothing exciting nor gratuitous about Hacksaw Ridge. It’s simply horrific, and in order to tell of Desmond’s bravery on the front line as a medic and to fully understand what he as a conscientious objector went through, carrying not a gun but only morphine in his backpack, it has to be shown this way. Without it the impact could never be the same. Your admiration for a man who refused to pick up a weapon yet threw himself into the middle of hell on earth under constant enemy fire while saving lives will soar. Truly, what you’ll see and how he did it is extraordinary. And from what we learn during the end credits with old film interviews from the real-life Doss and his comrades, much of what we saw really did occur that way.
Mel Gibson’s last film as an actor was The Expendables 3 in 2014. As a director, Hacksaw Ridge is his first in ten years since Apocalypto. It’s interesting to note that on the film’s poster, Hacksaw Ridge is marketed as being from the same director who gave us Braveheart, yet it never mentions Gibson by name. The shadow of his past explosive scandals and well-documented outbursts continue to be a Hollywood issue, but with Hacksaw Ridge and its talk of Oscar potential, it’s possible things may change. Possible, not certain. On the evidence of this film, perhaps it should.
With solid, steady framing of all its widescreen images from cinematographer Simon Duggan, and persuasive portrayals of real-life Americans performed by a largely Australian cast with convincing American accents, Hacksaw Ridge may not be Gibson’s masterpiece but his handling of Doss’ home-life story in the first half and the battle of Okinawa in the second is masterful.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 139 Minutes Overall Rating: 9 (out of 10)