by Jeff Walls
Mel Gibson’s career as a director reached a high point in 1996 when the director took home both the directing and producing Oscars for just his second film, Braveheart. He returned to the director’s chair in 2004 and had a controversial box-office hit with The Passion of the Christ. He followed that up two years later with the lackluster Apocalypto. It was around that time that the star’s off-screen behavior caused a serious fall from grace and he disappeared from the cinema, both in front of and behind the camera. He returned as an actor in 2010 and has been steadily working since. Now he is back in the director’s chair for an incredible true story with Hacksaw Ridge, his first English-language film as a director since Braveheart.
Hacksaw Ridge tells the story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who won the Medal of Honor for his battlefield heroics during World War II despite not carrying a weapon. After a brief battlefield opening, the movie introduces us to Doss and his brother as the young sons of an alcoholic former soldier. After seriously wounding his brother while fighting, Doss swears off violence. Fast-forward a few years and America is returning to war. Despite his anti-violence stance as a Seventh-Day Adventist, Doss feels that it is his duty to join the war effort and signs up in hopes of serving as a medic.
In boot camp, Doss is labeled as a coward by both his fellow soldiers and his commanding officers for refusing to pick up a weapon. He is denied leave, punished with latrine duty, and even beaten. Never wavering in his belief, however, Doss continues forward and eventually wins his court martial hearing and is allowed to proceed into battle without a weapon to protect him. It is fortunate for the army that they allowed Doss to join the fight because his heroics and bravery on the battlefield led to an estimated seventy-five American lives being saved.
The story of Desmond Doss is an incredible one that needed to be told and the story is in good hands with Gibson at the helm. That is especially apparent in the movie’s central battle sequence after Doss and the rest of the Army’s 77th Infantry Division land on Okinawa and attempt to take the titular ridge. In what may be the longest and most intense war battle put to film since the D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan, Doss and his company push forward against an enemy that they cannot see. Brutally violent and intense, the sequence emphasizes the horror and insanity of war while showing the bravery of the men who fought for our freedom. At the end of the initial battle, most of the men have returned down to the bottom of the ridge for the night, but not Doss. Doss stays up top tirelessly searching for wounded soldiers that he can rescue and return to safety.
Doss is played terrifically by Andrew Garfield. Garfield nails every aspect of the character, from the awkward romantic courting his soon-to-be-wife Dorothy to the determined-to-stay-true-to-himself Private overcoming great pressure to maintain his convictions during basic training, to the soldier resolved to save as many of his fellow men as he can all while under constant threat of death. And Doss did not discriminate, even rescuing a few Japanese soldiers as well.
Doss was a very religious man and it should come as no surprise that this is an emphasis in a film directed by Mel Gibson. Doss carries a Bible with him at all times and during his long night on the ridge he continuously asks for God’s assistance in helping him “save just one more.”
Although the movie is a winner from start to finish, it is not without a few flaws. There is at least one glaring continuity error and at times the computer-generated blood on the battle field looks a little too fake. The movie also suffers from a severe overkill of slow-motion at times. But that is about all you can say wrong about this intense and thrilling war movie that shares important messages of faith and following your convictions. It also reminds us that there are many different forms of bravery which could all possibly lead to heroics.
Hacksaw Ridge is now playing at the Century Federal Way, AMC Southcenter 16, and AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Until then, eat local before you go!