Release date: 26th January 2017/Watch the trailer here
Hacksaw Ridge is something of a comeback for director Mel Gibson after being blacklisted in Hollywood for nearly ten years following numerous controversies. While Gibson may never be a likeable figure, there’s no denying that he’s a skilled director, and this is more than evident in Hacksaw Ridge. The film tells the little-known true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor for his time spent serving as a combat medic in the United States Army during the WWII Battle of Okinawa.
A devout Seventh-day Adventist and the son of an alcoholic World War I veteran (an impressive supporting performance by Hugo Weaving), Doss decided to serve his country as a medic shortly after falling in love with and proposing to local nurse, Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer). The first hour of Hacksaw Ridge is in stark contrast to the second, playing out as a sweet love story between Desmond and Dorothy, interspersed with the struggles Doss faced immediately upon joining the army and refusing to so much as touch a weapon. Despite constant physical and mental bullying, from both Vince Vaughn’s scene-stealing Full Metal Jacket-esque drill sergeant Howell and his fellow privates, Doss remained adamant in his decision to never kill an enemy soldier or carry a weapon.
This makes the blood-soaked second half of the film – taking place at the titular Hacksaw Ridge – all the more jarring for its sudden change of pace. Gibson never once shies away from the horrors of war, and the final hour of Hacksaw Ridge is relentless, brutal violence. Gibson is incredibly capable at directing this (despite eventually resorting to a lot of slow motion): while he manages to capture the terrifying chaos of a battle, it is always clear exactly what is happening to which character, adding an emotional layer to what could have just as easily become little more than mindless blood and gore.
Perhaps what makes the battles of Hacksaw Ridge all the more powerful, however, is the decision to focus predominantly on the actions of Doss, repeating his mantra of ‘please, Lord, help me get one more’ as he risks his life again and again, running back to the battlefield to rescue his wounded comrades, refusing to leave anyone for dead.
It’s a moving, well-told story, marred only by occasional descents into borderline cheesiness and Gibson’s almost Christ-like worship of Doss. Thankfully, Garfield is on hand to anchor the portrayal of Doss, playing him as a somewhat more humble hero – and when footage of the real Desmond Doss is shown at the very end, it’s striking to see just how well Garfield nailed the role, from the accent down to the boyish grin that he saved especially for his sweetheart, Dorothy.
Yet although it’s not without flaws, with Hacksaw Ridge Mel Gibson has at the very least made a WWII film that is compelling and affecting, bringing a touch of humanity to the intense brutality that is somehow captivating enough to be impossible to look away from.