Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge is a film as bifurcated as they come. A war epic centering on the true-life story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a combat medic for the U.S. Army in WWII, Ridge gives audiences the precise sort of gruesome carnage-fest one would expect from Gibson as a filmmaker, but only in its second hour. Its first hour is infinitely more serene in its depiction of Doss’ travails in basic training, where his stance as a conscientious objector puts him at odds with his superiors and fellow soldiers. The struggle Doss faces, with taunting from his vicious commanding officer (a very miscast Vince Vaughn), physical abuse from his peers, forced psychiatric evaluations, and even an attempted court martial, paints the film initially as a low-key tale of conflict, making the shift to war-is-hell chaos and bloodshed a tad jarring.
Clearly made with Full Metal Jacket on the brain, Hacksaw Ridge essentially casts Doss as an amalgamation of Vincent D’Onofrio’s tormented Private Pyle and Matthew Modine’s violence-shy Private Joker. Doss, raised in a religious household, has sworn off violence of any sort since a childhood incident where he nearly killed his brother Hal by braining him with a rock. When the grown Hal (Nathaniel Buzolic) enlists to fight in the war against the wishes of their harsh, battle-weary father (Hugo Weaving, occasionally flirting with abusive-dad parody ala Walk Hard), it inspires Doss to do the same, despite his do-no-harm nature and his burgeoning romance with Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), the kindly nurse whose acquaintance he’s recently made. After showing skills with fashioning a makeshift tourniquet, Doss decides the way to serve his country without taking life is to enlist as a medic. That way he can save lives while others do the dirty work.
Because Doss was both an actual person and a genuine hero, it’s difficult to criticize him for his principles, but he is frequently a frustrating character in the film’s first half. His objection to killing is certainly noble, but as it extends to even the act of simply holding a weapon during basic training, it’s hard not to share the exasperation of the other characters, who keep pointing out to him that he doesn’t actually need to fire his gun at another human being, just to hold it. His refusal to do so, acting as though firearms are cursed objects, marks him as stubborn and obstinate rather than gallant and upright.
In this first half, Gibson paints with broad brushstrokes. Doss is all gee-whiz innocence, Dorothy is an earth angel, Vaughn’s Sergeant Howell is a monster, etc. There isn’t a lot of shading in anyone, certainly not nearly as much as was on display in Full Metal Jacket. But it’s clear that Gibson is merely biding his time until he gets to unleash Hell in the second half. When Doss’ squadron is dispatched into the Battle of Okinawa, taking on Japanese forces stationed near the titular cliff, that’s where Hacksaw Ridge rolls up its sleeves and gets messy. Gibson, a man whose directorial filmography is distinguished by grueling violence and bloody martyrdom (he is, of course, the man who piñata’d our Lord and Savior for two straight hours), is clearly out to make Saving Private Ryan look like Hogan’s Heroes. Brains, blood and entrails spatter all over the screen as soldiers are obliterated by artillery fire. It’s fine, visceral filmmaking, even if Gibson occasionally betrays his action-movie background in some of the stunts.
It’s in the aftermath of this slaughterhouse that Hacksaw Ridge finally manages to honestly come by some emotions, at least those beyond mere revulsion. When his unit retreats, leaving many of his men wounded and dying high up on that cliff, Doss stays behind, clandestinely dressing the wounded and lowering them down the mountainside to safety. All told, he saved 75 soldiers that day, never concerning himself with his own well-being and never firing a single shot at the enemy. Doss’ heroism is touching enough to buy back a lot of the tedium that marred the early proceedings of the film, back when Gibson seemed to be trying to force himself into Ron Howard’s skin. It’s not enough to elevate Hacksaw Ridge to classic status, even among the war subgenre, but there still exists nobility in winning a battle if not the war.
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