Hacksaw Ridge is a decent movie that sheds light on a great, little-known story about a war hero who never touched a gun. The film has something for just about everyone — religious convictions for the faith-based crowd, romance for the chick-flick crowd, and (very) intense battlefield scenes for the macho crowd. It’s a hybrid that in many ways feels like a composite of a bunch of war movies we’ve seen before. But it finds its unique sweet spot in the character of Desmond Doss, played by Andrew Garfield (99 Homes, Spider-Man).
Doss was both a patriot and a conscientious objector during World War Two. He was determined to serve on the front lines, but he was a firm believer in the Ten Commandments, most notably “Thou shalt not kill.” So he became an Army Medic, armed with a bible – and little else. Of course, that didn’t always sit well with his fellow soldiers who didn’t quite see how a man who shuns guns and takes issue with working on the Sabbath (he was a Seventh-Day Adventist) could possibly have their back on the battlefield. But he proved them wrong – time and again risking his life to retrieve and treat the wounded during a climactic effort to take an escarpment known as Hacksaw Ridge in Okinawa in 1945. Doss was credited with single-handedly saving about 75 men, and became the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Hacksaw Ridge is directed by Mel Gibson (Apocalypto, The Passion of the Christ, Braveheart), so my first order of business going into this film was to try and separate my personal feelings about the man – from his art (note: the gnarly beard he was sporting at a post-screening discussion did not help, even if it was for a role). I’m not a huge fan of Gibson’s directing style (lots of blood, guts and gore) but he generally can tell a good story. And in this case, he was the beneficiary of some excellent casting. The incredibly versatile American-British actor Andrew Garfield is endearing as Doss, and even manages to pull off Doss’s native Virginian drawl. Australian Actress and model Teresa Palmer (The Choice) is sufficiently sweet and strong as Doss’s girlfriend-then-wife. Vince Vaughn (The Internship, Wedding Crashers) holds his own as the tough, sarcastic drill sergeant preparing to take his men – including Doss — into battle. And Sam Worthington (Everest, Avatar) is sufficiently cynical as the Army Captain who initially tries to have Doss discharged on a Section 8.
I enjoyed the first half of Hacksaw Ridge more than the second, because I’m not a big fan of prolonged battle scenes that make the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan seem tame. I kept my eyes averted for several minutes at a time as grenades exploded, heads exploded, guts were exposed, and maggots feasted on dead bodies. So if you don’t do well with that sort of stuff – you may want to take a pass. That’s not to say, however, that you shouldn’t know the story of Desmond Doss. It’s really quite inspiring, and shows just how motivated the young men and women of the Greatest Generation were to serve their country after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The movie propelled me to learn more about the real Desmond Doss, and to find out how much dramatic license was taken in the cinematic re-telling of his story (quite a bit – but the heart of the narrative is consistent with the facts). I stumbled across these gems: a History v. Hollywood breakdown, a documentary called The Conscientious Objector, and an episode of This Is Your Life, Desmond Doss. America needs its heroes, and he was one of them.