Hacksaw Ridge Review
With a debate concerning the ethics of punching Nazis currently circling the web, a film focussed on pacifism, in a time of war, could provide an accessible platform for discussion. However, fortunately and unfortunately, Hacksaw Ridge is a Mel Gibson film, and any stage set for moral or religious debate is swiftly blown to smithereens by a staggeringly violent war epic. Andrew Garfield stars as Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to be sent into battle in World War II. During the battle of Hacksaw Ridge (a key checkpoint in the battle for Japan), a vehemently Christian Doss entered the fray unarmed. He remained even after the preliminary retreat, utilising his medical knowledge to save the lives of almost 100 men, including wounded enemy troops.
As Desmond replaces the stained-glass window of the local church and fawns over Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), the almost egregious levels of earnest can be hard to bear. Screenwriters Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight go all-out on the shining picket fence Americana just as Gibson goes hell-for-leather when Doss is shipped off to war.There is a trace of substance in the schmaltz specifically in the father/son relationship of Desmond and his staunchly pacifist father. Tom Doss (a haggard Great War veteran played magnificently by Hugo Weaving), and his son share a long-standing tension. Brought on by the former’s drinking, a childhood scuffle between Desmond and his brother Hal, and a near-fatal argument between Doss Sr and his wife Bertha (Rachel Griffiths); this upset promises a complex moral epicentre.
When Desmond enlists with the intention of serving as an unarmed field medic, he is met with confusion and even brutality from his fellow men. There’s Doss’ disdainful unit, Sam Worthington as Captain Glover (who makes genuine strides to understand the young recruit’s convictions), and harsh drill Sergeant Howell, given a robust comedic weight by Vince Vaughn. No, honestly; it’ll take you several scrolls down his Wikipedia entry to find the last time he was this funny. With this surprising amount of dramatic heft in place, it’s a real shame that they’re all reduced to little more than thumbnails once the film enters the second half. Most obviously, in the case of Dorothy. With the moral dichotomy apparently settled, Desmond is shipped off to Okinawa, and his wife becomes nothing more than a cipher; another darlin’ back home and a photo to be appraised by his soldier buddies.
Maybe the current political climate has got my inner conspiracy theorist up-and-running, but I’m seeing some odd connective tissue between award season centrepieces here. Garfield starred alongside Liam Neeson in Silence, and it’s almost as if Neeson passed on something of Oskar Schindler. Schindler’s haunted lament that he “could have saved one more person” is echoed in Doss’ prayer “Please Lord, let me get one more”, as he returns again and again to the battlefield. This pure plea for courage and haste in the face of insurmountable odds is sold fantastically by Garfield, who approaches the role with his usual grace and charisma.
Any quiet pondering on masculinity or pacifism fizzles out with the first spark of a grenade fuse, and we devolve into some of the most horrific battle scenes ever committed to celluloid. The word ‘visceral’ gets bandied about a lot, but here Gibson actively steals back the definition, in a way only he can. Within a minute of combat, a US soldier uses the dismembered torso of another serviceman to shield himself. This is cinema that pins you back against your seat and dares you to shield your head from flying shrapnel, the first head-splitting reminder of 2017 that 3D can, effectively, do one.
There are, however, still questions in the quagmire. Whilst the veracity of the commandment thou shalt not kill is called into question by almost everyone but Doss himself, a more complex moment arises in the final stages. In an attempt to save Howell from the battlefield, Doss actively assists his fellow man in locating a target. Does this constitute abetted murder? Can he truly be a pacifist despite helping his comrades to kill? Then, just when the film betrays a single thought deeper than the bloody puddles of the ridge, we’re treated to one final action sequence which not only refuses to recoil from the violence, but actively revels in it. With excessive slow-motion, soaring score and triumphant grins aplenty, the film shifts from realistically messy to absurdly messianic.
There is not a single doubt in my mind that Desmond Doss was a remarkable man, a hero, even... but the epilogue of this film is a guilt-trip, plain and simple. A flawed but highly-charged and harrowing reminder that heroism in war is a costly, ugly enterprise becomes yet another piece of military flag-waving as images and archive footage of the real Doss play out over Rupert Gregson-Williams' jubilant score. You’ve maybe heard the anecdotes from the Venice film festival of the film receiving a ten-minute standing ovation. There was a small smattering of applause as my screening drew to a close, and while I’m sure that some was in appreciation for Doss, I’m fairly certain of who the hero worship is really meant for.