Film Review: Hacksaw Ridge

Phil Turner takes a look at Mel Gibson’s action-packed directorial comeback, Hacksaw Ridge.

Arms aloft, water cascading down his naked body with blood dripping to the floor, Desmond Doss is every bit the modern day incarnation of Jesus Christ. And it’s at these moments, which are peppered throughout Hacksaw Ridge, you are likely to ask if famously belligerent Christian Mel Gibson is overdoing the religious symbolism just a bit? Yes, Doss’ beliefs are a central theme of the film, but later on, when he’s stretchered to safety from a cliff edge, does it really need to be shot as if he’s ascending into heaven? Thankfully, annoying as these moments are, there are not enough of them to detract from what is a potent and powerful piece of film-making.

Hacksaw Ridge, which stars Andrew Garfield in the lead role, is the true story of a humble Virginian Seventh Day Adventist who wants to defend his country in the Pacific battles of the Second World War, but because of his religious beliefs and his drunk, wife-battering father (who himself was scarred by losing friends in World War I), insists he will not pick up a rifle. As you can imagine – this makes life in the military hard. Resolving to become a medic and save lives rather than destroying them, it centres around his efforts to convince fellow troops of his worthiness to stand alongside them as they invade Okinawa, just off the Japanese coast. And as the men start to drop like flies, it’s up to Doss to save them and get them back down to the safety of the beach.

After a slightly hokey Tom Sawyer-esque start to proceedings as we meet our protagonist and his nearest and dearest (including his sweetheart played by an engaging Theresa Palmer), the film picks up pace as Doss joins the army, immediately courting controversy due to his unusual beliefs.
As you’d expect, the military don’t take too kindly to his stance on holding a rifle and the film goes all Full Metal Jacket as both his peers and superiors try to either force him to quit or have him court martialled. But Doss is a belligerent little bugger and he makes it through to the film’s centrepiece when the battalion finally find themselves in a real life battle. Here, we are reminded of an earlier Gibson film, Gallipoli, as the US troops have a seemingly impossible task – ascending a huge beach-side cliff before engaging the Japanese troops who have the advantage of the higher ground as well as greater numbers. Plus, they are violent little so-and-sos who will shoot anything that moves. It’s here the film goes from good to great, as Gibson harks back to yet another famous war film with an elongated battle scene reminiscent of the famous Normandy landings that opened Saving Private Ryan. It’s powerful stuff and in my mind, some of the most emotional and affecting war scenes ever committed to celluloid. It’s also here that all the ground work Gibson has put in earlier with Garfield and the supporting cast pays off, as Vince Vaughn (who plays Sgt Howell) and Luke Bracey (as chief-tormentor Smitty) really come to the fore. When you are watching this much death and destruction, it’s important you care about the men facing it. In Hacksaw Ridge, you care and then some.

Garfield’s performance may not be to everybody’s taste; it’s almost Gump-esque in its folksy, country boy charm. But as the film draws to a conclusion and you meet the real Doass, you realise just how accurate a portrayal it was. And perhaps more potently, it brings home the fact that the unbelievable events you have just witnessed were all true.

An unbelievable story, stylishly directed and superbly acted. Go see.

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