In every war there are two battles: the outer battle between armies and the inner battle of morals. Rarely has a film dramatized both as bluntly and beautifully as “Hacksaw Ridge.” Director Mel Gibson’s World War II epic soars with old-school melodrama, knockout performances and brutal battle sequences.
Andrew Garfield stars as Desmond Doss, a young Virginian who enlists in the Army — but as a Seventh-day Adventist, he refuses to kill. His father, a decorated but disillusioned veteran, grapples with PTSD and beats Doss and the rest of his family. This, coupled with two other chilling childhood brushes with violence, forges his pacifism. Approaching adulthood, Doss falls in love with beautiful nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) and plans to marry her. But war has other plans.
The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, and Doss, like his brother and friends, “joins up.” He meets his sergeant (Vince Vaughn) and comrades in perhaps the year’s funniest scene. Things quickly turn dark: Doss’ pacifism looks like cowardice to his comrades. He’s ridiculed, beaten and court-martialed for his refusal to touch a rifle. They argue if Doss is truly faithful, he should fight “the devil.”
This drama occupies the film’s first hour. It would come across as conventional, but the Army men aren’t mere tough guys bullying a weakling. They refuse to rest their lives on a man who won’t fight. Both sides have valid arguments, and the antagonist is war itself. The Constitution lets Doss enlist as a “conscientious objector,” but carrying this ideological contradiction to the front lines of Okinawa will prove a far greater test than he faced in the courtroom.
Doss’s company arrives with one task: Take Hacksaw Ridge, a sheer cliff that can only be scaled by a rope ladder. The moment men summit that ledge, the movie morphs from stirring drama to sensory onslaught.
You’re unlikely to see 10 minutes in any movie as intense as the last 60 of Hacksaw Ridge. Gibson immerses us in artillery, entrails, brains, bone fragments and anguished screams. Within the chaos, individual encounters — characters hiding from enemies, pushing through crippling injuries and diverting grenades — pack more suspense and terror than most horror films. Gibson’s battle scenes rival “Saving Private Ryan.”
Even in war scenes, Gibson crafts an emotional roller coaster of drama, humor and beauty — hard to watch but impossible to look away from. Doss runs into enemy fire to save men who once doubted, ostracized and attacked him. Each time he drags one to safety and narrowly evades death, he prays, “Please, God, help me get one more.”
Garfield is no stranger to playing unassuming heroes; he twice starred as a lanky Spiderman. His southern drawl and demeanor counter his character’s idealism, making Doss as palatable as he is heroic and Garfield a prime Oscar contender.
“Hacksaw Ridge” barely misses perfection. For a director revering a pacifist hero, Gibson indulges in too many shots of carnage. He can’t resist opportunities for Christian imagery, particularly Doss hanging from a stretcher, silhouetted against the sky, as though about to ascend to heaven.
Gibson’s hero may be a devout Christian, but Doss’ significance is potentially universal. He refused to back down from his values and demonstrated extraordinary courage under fire. But Gibson’s heavy-handed Christian message limits Doss’ heroism to one faith.
Like great stories throughout history, “Hacksaw Ridge” reveres light in darkness: the pacifist in the bloodbath, and the good amid danger, disaster, and despair. It’s an inspiring tribute to underdogs, idealists and anyone willing to stand — and die — for what they believe.
- Rating: R
- Runtime: 211 min