Desmond Doss is that kind of man who we wish we would have heard of sooner rather than later. If have already known the name and the story before hearing about this movie, kudos. But for people like me, who don’t know what a “conscientious cooperator” is or who think that heroes can only be made by weapons, Desmond Doss’ story will fascinate you.
You see, Private Desmond Doss (played with power and nuance by Andrew Garfield) was a U.S. soldier who never fired a weapon during his time in WWII. Because of his Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs, Doss refused to hold, much less fire a weapon for fear of taking another man’s life. Obviously, such a notion would seem ludicrous to you, to me, to Doss’ comrades, and their superiors (and it was, as the superiors actively tried to have him discharged). But against all physical and verbal abuse, Doss became a medic, and eventually saved the lives of 75 men during the battle of Okinawa, all without a gun. He won the Medal of Honor in 1945.
Mel Gibson’s return to directing is a remarkable one. Having stayed away from directing for a decade, Gibson returns with a wonderfully old-school film, made in the classic movie-making traditions that director Mel Gibson was raised in. Though only two hours and some minutes, Gibson’s latest is like an epic war picture of old, as it follows the story and heroics of Desmond Doss. Everything, from the script to the framing, seems to be elevated to this platform of masterful theatricality; though it’s based on a true story, it’s sure not made like an indie.
There is a romantic courtship between Desmond and his wife, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). There is the triumph of the human spirit, as Doss fights for his right to belong without a weapon. And then there is the war, which is captured effectively in all its horror.
As one would expect from the director’s penchant for violence, the Okinawa scenes are brutal and uncompromising. You see legs reduced to fleshy tendons, and pink intestines spilling out by the pound. Blood spurts galore. It’s all very evocative of “Saving Private Ryan”, which, as you know, opens with an all-out ambush on American soldiers on Omaha Beach. The second half of “Hacksaw” is just as tense, especially during a scene where Doss hides his comrade’s wounded body from the Japanese soldiers before dragging him to safety.
“Hacksaw Ridge” is very much a visceral film, playing off of a human’s capacity to stand by his convictions. But it has a quality that makes it stand against other war films like “American Sniper” or Gibson’s own “Braveheart,” movies I feel that replace fact with fiction in order to ingratiate themselves with audiences with a false sense of “heroism.” What is so brilliant about “Hacksaw Ridge” is that hardly anything outside of Doss’ time in the army is exaggerated to make this story worth telling. The real Desmond Doss did face adversity because of his religion. The real Desmond Doss did not bring a gun into one of the deadliest wars in human history. And yet, the real Desmond Doss saved 75 men and received the highest military honor a soldier can receive (an award, he humbly notes, he didn’t deserve). This movie works because it doesn’t pander with contrived emotions, allowing Desmond’s actions on the battlefield to speak for themselves. Though it would feel gaudy or cheap in other films, Andrew Garfield’s performance allows us to feel his conviction, so when Doss is finally allowed to serve, the sentiment of triumph feels earned.
I don’t often enjoy war movies because of the inherent pessimism that plagues them (but that’s not to say I can’t appreciate the experience of the ugly burden that soldiers carry in battle). But “Hacksaw” isn’t really a war movie, nor is it American propaganda. It’s a masterfully-crafted, powerfully-acted story of a Virginian man who succeeded in being gentle in a world of brutality, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t want to cheer by the end.