Four stars. Rated R, for graphic war action, gore and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.4.16
Factual war dramas often are remembered for seminal sequences: the badly outnumbered British soldiers at Rorke’s Drift, who withstood the final onslaught by native warriors, in 1964’s Zulu; George C. Scott’s electrifying opening speech, in 1970’s Patton; and the Omaha Beach assault that kicked off 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, to name a few.
Indeed, the latter set a new bar for gripping, ghastly, battlefield intensity.
Director Mel Gibson’s impressive Hacksaw Ridge is another reminder that, even with a long string of inspiring World War II dramas stretching back to the 1940s, fresh stories remain to be told. The best are those able to personalize the ordeal, by focusing on a few unforgettable individuals, or perhaps just one.
Hacksaw Ridge is the first dramatic depiction of American Army medic Desmond T. Doss’ experiences in the war: specifically his actions with the 77th Division — dubbed the “Statue of Liberty Division” — when it was ordered to take the Maeda Escarpment on Okinawa, as part of the Allied push to mainland Japan.
Frankly, I can’t understand what took Hollywood so long; Doss’ story screams for big-screen treatment.
Scripters Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan didn’t even have a mainstream biography on which to base their film treatment (although an obscure small-press book — Booton Herndon’s Unlikeliest Hero — was published in 1982). They were able to draw from Terry Benedict’s award-winning 2004 documentary, The Conscientious Objector. That title cuts to the core of Doss’ unique status: He was the only American soldier in World War II to fight on the front lines without a weapon.
As a Seventh-Day Adventist, Doss believed strongly that killing was against God’s Sixth Commandment. But he also insisted on serving his country in a meaningful way —obtaining a deferment, due to his employment at a naval shipyard, seemed cowardly — and therefore viewed a role in the army medical corps as a logical compromise.
It wasn’t to be that simple.
Gibson opens with a brief flash-forward to the chaos on Okinawa — a pointless foreshadowing of the carnage to come — and then takes us back to Desmond’s youth and young adulthood. He came of age in a household terrorized by his alcoholic father, Tom (Hugo Weaving): a man unable to forgive himself for surviving his WWI service, when so many of his friends and fellow soldiers died. Weaving makes Tom a forlorn and unstable — even dangerous — wreck, but not an entirely unsympathetic monster. In fact, Tom gets his shot at redemption, later in the story.
A couple of seminal events harden Desmond’s decision never to wield a gun, or take a life by any other means. We don’t doubt his resolve.
Once grown into a young man (played now by Andrew Garfield), the shy Desmond meets Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a volunteer nurse drawing blood for war effort donations. Their meet-cute courtship is movie-magic sweet: Desmond and Dorothy are both deeply religious, which adds a layer of innocence and vulnerability to a relationship that develops via worshipful gazes and playfully suggestive dialogue.
Garfield and the Australian-born Palmer work well together, and their screen chemistry is palpable.
Following the plan to serve his country as a medic, Desmond travels to South Carolina, joining the 77th Division for basic training at Fort Jackson. Although initially one of the guys — and the film does a fine job of introducing us to roughly a dozen important supporting characters — the bloom goes off the rose when Desmond’s refusal to touch a rifle understandably upsets drill Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn).
Disbelief blossoms into disdain, as word rises up the chain of command, to Capt. Jack Glover (Sam Worthington) and beyond. The immediate response is peer intimidation, with Howell hoping that Desmond’s platoon mates will “encourage” him to change his mind. When that doesn’t work, the situation threatens to result in a court-martial and/or Section 8 discharge (for “mental instability”).
I’ll not reveal how all of this plays out, as such details are fascinating to discover as they occur: both in terms of how they speak to Desmond’s character and firm commitment to his beliefs, and how the U.S. Army chooses to respond to same.
Suffice to say, Desmond is part of the 77th when it’s sent to Okinawa, to undertake an assignment that seems — and quickly becomes — as suicidal as the events depicted in 1981’s Gallipoli (which you’ll recall starred Gibson, and almost certainly plays into the manner in which he stages this film’s battlefield sequences).
The initial, breathtaking assault is shocking enough, after which we’re lulled into a sense of false security. But Gibson and his scripters follow that with an even more terrifying fourth act: an amazing, edge-of-the-seat experience that’ll not soon be forgotten.
Garfield is ideal as Desmond, with a slight build that fits the derisive nickname — Cornstalk — by which he quickly comes to be known. Garfield has a trusting, ready smile that frequently gets Desmond into trouble, since various superior officers assume that he’s finding inappropriate humor in a given situation. More crucially, Garfield puts utter sincerity into Desmond’s religious convictions: Heartfelt lines that might have sounded corny — or prompt derisive snickers, coming from a less talented actor — are absolutely credible.
Garfield also manifests an aura of angelic purity, which Gibson emphasizes a bit too much (the actor/director still hung up on Christ imagery). Fortunately, such moments are rare, and they don’t detract from the inherent humanity that Garfield gives Desmond. The man is inwardly focused, not given to long speeches; Garfield makes every quiet word count.
Of Desmond’s fellow soldiers, Luke Bracey stands out as Smitty, the division’s alpha male, and the one with — initially — the strongest contempt for this Bible-toting misfit. But it’s easy to see where this character dynamic is destined, and Bracey successfully sells Smitty’s gradual evolution. (In the interest of accuracy, Smitty is a composite character, not based on any single individual.)
Worthington is equally convincing as Capt. Glover, who undergoes a similar epiphany, eventually coming to view Desmond as something more than a “mere” recruit.
Vaughn is a hoot as the sharp-tongued Sgt. Howell, contributing the little bits of comic relief allowed by this grim narrative. Howell isn’t a screaming monster in the R. Lee Ermey mode (from 1987’s Full Metal Jacket), but instead a sly psychologist with an unerring talent for verbally skewering his recruits via their weak spots. Howell demeans his men into becoming better versions of themselves, and is genuinely bewildered when this technique fails to shake Desmond’s religious convictions.
Rachel Griffiths is appropriately worn and weary as Bertha, Desmond’s kind and protective mother, who does her best to withstand her husband’s drunken abuse.
In an intriguing bit of stunt casting, real-life war veteran Damien Thomlinson has a telling role as a soldier named Ralph Morgan, one of the first — and most badly wounded — to be rescued from the battlefield by Desmond. (Thomlinson lost both legs to an IED strike, while serving in Afghanistan in 2009.)
The battlefield sequences themselves are explosively compelling, Gibson choreographing the slaughter with phenomenal support from editor John Gilbert and second unit director/stunt coordinator Mic Rodgers. The results are amazing, and let it be said: Once this sequence kicked into gear, nobody in last week’s preview audience made a sound. It felt like every breath in the theater was held, long past the point of endurance.
That said, Gibson frequently succumbs to his penchant for unnecessary gore, to the point where it becomes too much to endure. It’s obviously the way he’s wired; Braveheart and Apocalypto also are needlessly gruesome, and The Passion of the Christ, in a few key instances, is beyond the exploitative pale. We can perhaps acknowledge that the bloodbath here is battlefield-appropriate, but I’d argue that this film would be more powerful, and resonate to a greater degree with mainstream viewers, if they weren’t so frequently nauseated.
Gibson also demonizes the opposing Japanese to a degree that feels vengefully xenophobic, rather in the style of Hollywood WWII movies made in the war’s immediate aftermath. This attitude, as well, occasionally feels excessive.
Such caveats aside, Hacksaw Ridge is impeccably constructed and carefully scripted, balancing deeply intimate behavior — most of it conveyed so well by Garfield — and riveting battlefield action, with everything wrapped up in one of the most amazing, true-life sagas delivered by World War II.
I’ve no doubt Benedict’s earlier documentary is about to become very, very popular.