Review: Hacksaw Ridge

Andrew Garfield is Desmond Doss, youngest son of an abusive, alcoholic and self-loathing WWI veteran (Hugo Weaving), who is brought up religiously and with a strict moral code that abhors taking a human life. Desmond swears to a life of non-violence after accidentally almost killing his older brother in a misguided bit of juvenile rough-housing. He is however, a man of honour and duty, so when WWII breaks out, Doss volunteers to join the cause, hoping to serve solely as a medic. He just wants to help save lives, not take them. He quickly learns that, just as his father warned him, the war nor the military will easily bend to suit his own personal moral code. Doss however, is stubborn and firm in his convictions as a conscientious objector, despite pissing off both military brass (Richard Roxburgh, Sam Worthington) and his fellow recruits who are worried that he’s a coward who is going to get them killed (Most notably an angry Luke Bracey). Refusing to even touch a gun during training, he earns the ire of gruff instructor Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn), who hopes to punish and haze Doss into compliance. No dice, this guy’s getting his orders from a much, much higher power. Teresa Palmer plays the pretty nurse Doss romances, whilst Rachel Griffiths is his concerned mother.

This 2016 WWII flick kept setting up challenges for me, only to overcome each and every one of them. Firstly, could I separate Mel Gibson the filmmaker (“The Man Without a Face”, “Braveheart”, “Apocalypto”) from Mel Gibson the seemingly rage-a-holic human headline? Yes. That one’s relatively easy, as I’ve already seen and enjoyed “Blood Father”, and still consider “Mad Max”, “Lethal Weapon”, and “Braveheart” among the best movies ever made, no matter Gibson’s personal failings (I’m still not sure what to do about Kevin Spacey, though. Yikes). Next question: Could I enjoy a war film from a POV on the subject that is different from my own, considering Gibson is generally regarded to be extremely right of centre politically? Well, generally yes I have been able to enjoy war movies that don’t share my strong anti-war stance, when they’re well-done or at least entertaining on some level. However, in this case I must admit it took me a long while to get on board. Why? Strangely enough, it’s not because Gibson presents a gung-ho, rah-rah pro-war film, he seems to have a much more contemplative, probably religiously-derived viewpoint on war than say a John Wayne would have had. No, I had another, unforeseen obstacle in my way here: The film’s real-life main character Desmond Doss. Yeah, I didn’t see that one coming.

Man, this kid sure did my damn head in for much of the film. I just didn’t get him. This is a bloke who, in addition to having a war veteran father (Hugo Weaving) who forbids his kids from enlisting, has a strong objection to taking up a weapon and killing people. He’s against taking a life, and would rather save lives instead. So he enlists. Wait, fucking what now? That’s right, Desmond, a ‘conscientious objector’ nonetheless willingly signs up for active duty in the U.S. military during WWII. He believes it’s very much his duty to help out, but would much rather serve solely as a medic and never pick up a weapon. Doesn’t work like that, son. As Vince Vaughn’s character correctly says at one point ‘It’s not about what you signed up for’. In addition to thinking him a bit of a self-absorbed idiot, I was worried that Desmond’s comrades were going to get killed trying to stop him from getting killed. Very early on in the film I was worried that my utter confusion at the thinking of the main character would affect my feelings about the film itself even if technically well-made. Could I genuinely dislike a film based on a true story simply because I didn’t understand or like the motives of the main character? I don’t know, but it’s what I was feeling anyway, despite being anti-war. Crazy, right? It’s something that was on my mind for an extremely long time during this 2+ hour film. It was especially on my mind when a certain someone stands up for Doss at a military court hearing, despite Doss having done what this character said he’d do and try to make war suit his morals, when it doesn’t quite work like that. On a practical level it just doesn’t make sense, especially when conscription wasn’t involved.

So, obviously I ended up not liking the film and hating the main character, right? Nope, it gets there in the end, just in the nick of time. Desmond Doss actually does deserve to be considered a hero after all. Makes no sense given the above paragraph does it? Watch the movie and it will all make perfect sense. Whether Mr. Doss really needed to do things the way he did or not, he still ends up an active participant in the war and commits clear acts of bravery. That’s more than good enough for me. He’s still kind of pious and silly if you ask me (why not just learn how to use the damn rifle and then never actually use it?), but there is no way you could accuse this guy of cowardice, nor on the evidence shown here does he really put anyone else’s life in danger. He’s solely putting his own life in danger, and well…that’s his right. You can certainly tell that Gibson (who previously starred in the very fine and not especially pro-Vietnam War movie “We Were Soldiers”) deeply respects this man and his principles, and it’s fascinating to see the guy who made “The Passion” making such a thoughtful war film (But then, both films are about people willing to endure a lot to hold onto their convictions, I suppose. Even “The Man Without a Face” had a bit of that, too). It’s a very, very long time before we even get to the battlefield, a little beyond the half-way point in fact. It’s quite a different film to the one I was expecting in that respect, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Moving away from the main character, the film is solidly made and certainly interesting. Once we get to the battlefield it’s immediately impressive and frightening. Gibson doesn’t sugar-coat nor glorify war, though it’s well-shot and staged as you’d expect from the director of “Braveheart” and “Apocalypto”. He doesn’t shy away from the bloodshed. It’s confronting. It needs to be confronting, as war is serious stuff, whether you’re pro or anti-war. Just in case you were under the impression that war is like tip-toeing through the tulips, we get the use of flame-throwers on the battlefield. War is hell, people. Pure hell.

The other thing I liked about the war scenes is that it was so noisy that you couldn’t pick up on all the Aussies (and Brits) trying on American accents. When Richard Roxburgh (in one of his better international turns) puts on one of the better American accents, you know you’re in a bit of trouble. Luke Bracey and Sam Worthington in particular ought to be better at putting on American accents by now. Having said that, in some cases I have to admit I was listening closely to the accents because I knew the actors were Australian, so I may be just a little nit-picky. Andrew Garfield isn’t bad as Doss, but he does lay on the aw shucks accent just a tad thick. He certainly convinces as a moral and conscientious-type of person however. Hugo Weaving makes for a convincingly lousy parental figure but also a convincingly scarred war veteran. He does not, however put on a convincing Virginian drawl. Teresa Palmer is really lovely as the nurse Doss falls for, so it’s a shame we don’t see an awful lot of her in the second half. One of the best performances comes from Vince Vaughn, taking a rare vacation from slickster roles and comedies to…admittedly do rather amusing work in an otherwise very serious film. He’s playing a cliché, but gives a very entertaining performance. He also gets the film’s best line when he tells a soldier with a non-Anglo Saxon background ‘Get taller. If you were American, you’d be taller’. What a dick he is, though thankfully he’s much more humane than R. Lee Ermey in “Full Metal Jacket”.

A different war film to the one you may be expecting, this one takes a good while to get on the battlefield. Thankfully it’s interesting, if occasionally infuriating in the meantime. I may not have much understood Desmond Doss for a great length of time, but by the end you can’t help but respect him. He risked his life to save the lives of many (His stats are absolutely amazing). A solid, if unremarkable war film. In fact, I think Gibson’s other film from 2016 “Blood Father” (which he didn’t direct) was the slightly better film. Scripted by Andrew Knight (“The Water Diviner”) and Robert Schenkkan (the overrated “The Quiet American”), I ended up liking this one.        

Rating: B-


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