Andrew Garfield Sam Worthington Vince Vaughn Hugo Weaving Rachel Griffiths Teresa Palmer
You are not surprised in a Mel Gibson movie to begin with the fiery fields of war. That’s how Hacksaw Ridge starts, along with a voice-over of a sermon. After that, we’re introduced to the Doss family, first the two brothers Desmond and Hal in horseplay and climbing on cliffs. Then the father Tom (Weaving) with PTSD, alcoholism, and abusiveness and mother Bertha (Griffiths). Although Tom received medals of honor after his service in WWI, he is bitter about losing his comrades on the battlefield. To his horror, both his sons sign up for WWII, Desmond (Garfield) wanting to go as a medic because of his conscientious objection to taking up arms. (To the film’s credit, clear lines are drawn connecting this belief to his religion as Seventh Day Adventist, to his father’s abuse of his mother, and to the guilt he feels after almost killing his brother by hitting him in the head with a brick.)
Just before he signs up, Desmond falls in love with a nurse at the hospital after he has saved a man’s life with a tourniquet after an accident. He’s trying to retrieve the belt he used in the save, and Nurse Dorothy (Palmer), who is drawing blood from donors, agrees to get it for him, especially after he offers to donate. Love quickly turns into an engagement, and Dorothy gives him her personal Bible and a picture of herself in bidding him goodbye at the train station as he leaves for boot camp.
Boot camp is a major test of Desmond’s beliefs. He is taunted, beaten up, and called a coward, and the army tries to get him disqualified for psychiatric reasons. He tries to argue that he is a “conscientious cooperator” rather than an objector, but the brass do not get the distinction. Finally, he faces a court martial when his father comes through with a letter from a brigadier general saying he has a right to his beliefs and that he is to be trained as a medic.
By this time, some of his superiors, like Sargeant Howell (Vaughn) and fellow privates are starting to respect him somewhat. But little do any of them know how he will prove himself on the battlefield using ingenious methods and extraordinary persistence to save 75 soldiers in three battles on aptly named Hacksaw Ridge that took away most of his unit. (We “get” to see all three in detail, since Gibson doesn’t seem to know when to stop.) The film is based on a true story, and Desmond Doss was later awarded the Medal of Honor for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action” for his bravery in Okinawa in 1945.
Hacksaw Ridge should be commended for showing the effects of war both during the time of battle and afterwards, for showing that one doesn’t have to have a gun to be brave, and for highlighting the extraordinary military service of one individual, Medic Desmond Doss.
Director Mel Gibson is clearly a talented filmmaker, who grasps the essence of a major story and turns it into a film that captures your attention. In this, he is clearly helped by cinematographer Simon Duggan, accomplished in focusing in on sensitive human exchanges and using special effects for battle scenes. He is also helped by Garfield, Weaving, and Griffiths bringing just the right dramatic tone to their characters, especially Garfield, who plays the modest but intelligent rube masterfully.
A startling work about the heroics of a conscientious medic in war.