Apparently completing the rehabilitative arc of Mel Gibson’s Hollywood career, “Hacksaw Ridge” is a powerful, if uneven, examination of the horrors of war and the demands of true moral courage. The fact it’s based on a true story just makes it all the more incredible.
Desmond T. Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist, decides to enlist in the Army during World War II to help defend his country. But his personal beliefs prohibit him from using a weapon of any kind. Doss must fight for his right to join his fellow countrymen on the front line and service his country through faith and determination rather than violence and aggression.
There’s an unbalanced quality to the film, and Gibson seems initially uncertain handling the parochial everyday drama of Voss’ early life, veering from domestic melodrama to lighthearted comedy as if Gibson has chosen to mount “Hacksaw Ridge” as a reimagining of “Forrest Gump” with deep held religious convictions taking the place of learning disability as the characteristic which makes our hero ‘different’. Indeed, once the film reaches boot camp, it draws equal inspiration from the likes of “Full Metal Jacket” and “Private Benjamin”.
However, once the soldiers, including the vindicated Doss, reach the front lines, Gibson really comes into his own. Mel has always been a director, not just comfortable with, but determined to show in all its grisly, visceral glory the horrors of war and the damage caused by the weapons wielded in conflict. The action scenes are astonishing in their ferocity and power, occasionally straying into the gratuitous because Gibson can’t resist revelling in the carnage. He also can’t resist taking a very black and white view of the conflict and, like the English of Braveheart, he portrays the Japanese in “Hacksaw Ridge” as one-dimensionally brutal, relentless barbarians; monsters against whom the Americans valiantly rail.
However, there’s no denying the finished product is an incredibly gripping and deeply emotive war movie, bolstered by fine performances from Garfield (although he’s a little too goofy in some early scenes), Hugo Weaving and even Sam Worthington. Vince Vaughan also impresses in the role of Drill Sergeant Howell, taking to it so well that a remake of “Stripes” is surely a distinct possibility.
It’s thanks to a committed performance from Andrew Garfield, though, that the film manages to find the humanity amidst the horror and do justice to the real-life heroism of Desmond Doss who, in a poignant coda, appears along with some of his fellow soldiers in archive interview footage.
Powerful and poignant, this scarcely believable tale of bravery and pacifism in the Pacific War lingers long in the memory and forces us to consider once again not only the price of war in terms of lives lost but the cost to the soul of picking up a weapon in the first place.