The story of Desmond Doss is so remarkable that it’s surprising it took this long for someone to make a film based on his life. Although Hollywood has produced plenty of movies about real-life war heroes, Doss is a fairly unique case: a U.S. Army medic and devout Seventh-day Adventist who single-handedly saved 75 men during the Battle of Okinawa without ever firing a shot. It’s the kind of material that Mel Gibson typically gravitates towards as a filmmaker, which is why it’s so fitting that “Hacksaw Ridge” marks the director’s long-awaited return behind the camera. “Hacksaw Ridge” isn’t as great as some of Gibson’s past work, but it’s a well-made drama that’s bolstered by a superb central performance and the best battle sequences since “Saving Private Ryan.”
Before plunging the audience into the horrors of WWII, however, Gibson flashes back to a year earlier to show how Desmond’s (Andrew Garfield) fractured home life and his romance with local nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) led him to enlist in the Army. Though Desmond doesn’t believe in violence, his sense of patriotism and duty compels him to follow in his brother’s footsteps, much to the disapproval of his alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving), who witnessed all of his friends killed in action during the first World War.
Desmond wants to serve as a combat medic so that he can save lives rather than take them, but upon arriving at Fort Jackson for basic training, he’s met with resistance by his commanding officers, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington), who try to convince Desmond to quit and then court-martial him for his refusal to carry a weapon. But since we already know how the story ends (in fact, Gibson opens the movie with a shot of Desmond being carried across the battlefield), it’s safe to say that he wins the case and is shipped out with the rest of his unit to Japan, where he would go on to earn the respect of his fellow soldiers in a miraculous act of heroism and bravery.
Filmed in New South Wales and using primarily Australian actors, “Hacksaw Ridge” is nonetheless a quintessentially American war movie that honors the spirit and values of the U.S. military during one of the most destructive wars in history. Andrew Garfield may seem like an odd choice to play Doss, but he’s perfectly cast as the type of aw-shucks, Gomer Pyle-like goober who shows his true colors when it counts. Garfield has an inherently likable quality to him that’s required in the early scenes, as well as the grit and intensity to pull off the more dramatic material later on. None of the other characters are provided quite the same depth, but Palmer, Weaving and even Vaughn (whose drill sergeant gets his own “Full Metal Jacket”-style intro) are all good in their respective roles.
The first half of “Hacksaw Ridge” is admittedly a little corny, dripping in the old-fashioned melodrama of Hollywood’s Golden Age, but it’s certainly appropriate for the period setting and serves as a nice contrast to the final hour when all hell breaks loose. Those familiar with Gibson’s previous films (“Braveheart,” “The Passion of the Christ”) are well aware that the director can be a bit of a sadist when it comes to portraying gore and violence on the screen, and he certainly hasn’t softened up in his decade-long absence. The battle scenes are harrowing and unrelenting, but they’re also masterfully shot by Gibson and cinematographer Simon Duggan, who make the action easy to follow amid the chaos of bodies being ripped apart by bullets and catapulted through the air in fiery explosions.
Though that may seem contradictive to the story that Gibson is trying to tell, it only makes Doss’ actions that much more incredible, which is ultimately what the movie is about. The family drama and sappy romance that drives the opening act is perfectly fine, but it’s not until Doss arrives in Japan that “Hacksaw Ridge” truly shines with its brutal but candid depiction of war. While Gibson isn’t very subtle about his use of carnage and Christianity in the movie, he is sincere in his memorialization of its subject, and that’s what counts. “Hacksaw Ridge” is the comeback that Gibson and his fans deserve, but above all else, it’s just a really good war drama that has its heart in the right place.