Hey Internet, I’m a little slow off the mark on this one but it came out in Ol’ Blighty a few months later than the US and then I was slow to see it and… well here is, Hacksaw Ridge.
Being a WWII film, it’s hard not to draw comparisons to the vast array of similar media around. Yes, the production value and the post-movie interview footage reminded me of Band of Brothers, the initial assault rung bells with the D-Day rush in Saving Private Ryan and the boot camp scenes bring memories of Full Metal Jacket… and any other war film that feature boot camps to be honest. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Hacksaw Ridge is not a story about the Battle of Okinawa, it’s a dramatisation of the story of Desmond Doss, a pacifist medic in the US Army during the Second World War. We see some of Doss’s early life showing us his very religious Seventh Day Adventist upbringing in the small town of Lynchburg, Alabama. His strict, alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving) – and an incident where Doss almost killed his brother during a scuffle as children – all combine to explain how Doss became not just a highly religious man, but pacifist and conscientious objector. With the outbreak of WWII, the elder brother decides to enlist much to the chagrin of their father, who served in the First World War, and knows the pain the war will bring as he was the only one of his childhood friend group to return.
Shortly after, Doss helps save a life by rushing an injured man to the hospital and while there sees a blood drive and decides also to donate, to do his part. He meets a lovely nurse named Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) whom he begins to court with, with a naive charm. Finally Doss decides he needs to do more; it isn’t right others are fighting and dying on his behalf when he is perfectly able to do his part. So he decides to enlist as a medic.
We are then introduced to, what will be most of the supporting cast, during boot camp – an assortment of soldiers from all regions and walks of life around the US – instructed by Vince Vaughn as Drill Sergeant Howell. I will admit when I saw Vince Vaughn walk into the barracks I did not have high hopes for the actor I associate mostly with mediocre comedies, but his delivery and force with the now loved mixture of insult, discipline and brutal comedy a drill sergeant provides was outstanding and I regret doubting him for a second. What follows is a pretty standard series of boot camp trials with the key difference being Doss’ refusal to carry or train with a firearm. This leads to a series of incidents with the army trying to remove him by making life harder for him, his comrades assaulting him and eventually a trial resulting in him being allowed to serve as a medic unarmed.
The unit are then deployed to Okinawa to relieve an exhausted and traumatised Infantry division that had been trying and failing to assault Hacksaw Ridge; a sheer cliff face defended by dug-in Japanese troops. The climb up the cliff face goes without issue in what would be described as the moment of calm before the storm, before the men advance into one of the most confusing and intense firefights I have seen on screen; and I mean that in a good way. The initial assault had all the impact and awe of Saving Private Ryan’s D-Day assault but Hacksaw Ridge adds in an obscuring layer of smoke from a previous bombardment so the Japanese can’t even be seen there’s just a couple minutes of screaming, gunfire and explosions, a wall of noise, action and death. Unlike Saving Private Ryan, these were not nameless extras to be cinematic cannon fodder. These were the men we just spent 30 minutes being introduced to through bootcamp and the result is a moment of overwhelming shock that lets the real meat of the movie begin. The story of Desmond Doss’ bravery after being labelled a coward and a liability by his superiors as well as his brothers-in-arms. When everyone retreats Doss stays behind to save as many of the injured as he can with a mixture of courage, ingenuity and sheer grit. I am in no way a religious man, but his little prayers of “please Lord, just one more, let me save just one more” are incredibly touching.
Andrew Garfield gave a stellar performance as the simple and naive, yet charming and determined Doss. Also seeing footage of the real Desmond Doss, and some of the many men he saved, at the end really added weight to the story of the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honour. As far as war movies go, it nails the intense action while also giving a strong story of Doss’s trials to be allowed to serve and focusing on his role as a medic, rather than on the action surrounding it, to create a stunning film that can stand out among a sea of great WWII films. My only real complaint was an overuse of slow-mo and a few cheesy scenes near the end (the grenade scene shown in the trailer and the Japanese Commander committing seppuku despite never really playing a part in the film other than a few shots of him looking at maps in a cave).
If you are a fan of Second World War movies then Hacksaw Ridge is a definite must-see. If you normally avoid them then I would still recommend it based on Garfield’s performance alone.
As an aside – I was meant to see Hacksaw Ridge with my Dad but could not due to his poor health the previous couple of days. He unfortunately passed away the night I went to see it, so I’d like to dedicate this to him. He often recommended films to me and read many of my reviews for SWN?!.
This is for you Dad