“Come back home to me”
It took almost sixty years before Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor, was cajoled from modesty to allow for a cinematic adaptation of his harrowing journey from Virginia to Okinawa’s blood-soaked WWII battlefield. It took another fifteen before the result hit the big screen, sadly ten too late for this hero to watch the sobering yet wholly inspirational look at faith and valor amidst chaos himself. Mel Gibson took the director’s chair after twice turning it down with Robert Schenkkan credited as writing the initial draft and Andrew Knight polishing things off with another (frequent Gibson collaborator Randall Wallace supposedly also had a hand in its genesis). And while their film proves extremely violent, its unparalleled humanity is what ultimately stands out.
The scale of Doss’ (Andrew Garfield) accomplishment is impossible to fathom. It’s one thing to single-handedly save seventy-five men (with more procured from the battlefield only to die before reaching camp), but another to do it without touching a single weapon. Think about that. Doss had no way of defending himself from an assault besides his smarts, courage, and luck, but he kept going back again and again with the power of his God compelling him forward. His unit wanted him drummed out of their regiment as a coward. They tolerated him when that didn’t work, but they never truly believed he’d amount to anything once the bullets began to fly. And what did he do? Saved a bunch of them from bleeding out in the dirt.
Because of the uniqueness of his tale, however, don’t expect all two-plus hours of the film to take place in Japan with explosions and screams filling the air. There’s a reason Doss became a Pacifist and why he remained steadfast in that belief when faced with jail time for ignoring direct orders that his superiors refused to stop giving despite his right to disobey. It includes an abusive WWI veteran father (played with full emotion by Hugo Weaving), God-fearing mother (Rachel Griffiths), and brother Hal (Nathaniel Buzolic): each surviving a few close shaves with death. There’s budding romance with nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) and the drive to not stay home while others fought for his freedom. It can be heavy-handed, but it needs to be to matter.
Any detractors I’ve heard speak about the film seem to hone in on this first half because it is somewhat hokey until we experience the true undercurrent of rage endured to keep those appearances up. The love between Desmond and Dorothy is light and breezy with some nice injection of humor even in the tough times. Heck, Weaving’s Tom allows some laughter with his drunken response to actions like both sons fighting in the front yard. Why stop them and have to beat two children when he could let one do half the job for him so he only has to whip the victor? I wouldn’t say there’s a fairy tale aspect considering the subject matter of alcoholism and abuse, but things do possess an optimistic sheen.
There’s purpose to this, though. Hacksaw Ridge inspires and therefore hinges on the goodness in this young man’s heart. We must know his smile when staring at Dorothy, strength opposite a self-hating father, and intelligence to realize being a medic would allow his conscience to push him through war. It’s the violence at home and what he knows he’s capable of wreaking if given the chance by anger that forces him to refuse the gun Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) offers. Not for a lack of pride or competition—he’ll stop at nothing to beat Luke Bracey‘s fellow over-achiever and G.I. Joe incarnate Smitty on foot—enlisting for him was to ensure at least one person out there was more interested in saving lives than taking them.
Enough time is spent on his fight to wear the uniform to understand what he’s made of and what to expect. Doss isn’t afraid to stand-up for his convictions and isn’t a rat no matter how much physical abuse his bunkmates inflict. What he ends up doing isn’t even to prove Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) wrong. You can’t blame the officer for wanting Doss out because this war was ruthless enough to render someone without a gun in his hands a major liability on paper. But whether you want to believe the boy’s faith protected him because he refused to kill—the Catholic God did pay for murder during the Crusades after all—no one could feasibly question his bravery in the aftermath of what he accomplishes.
I was skeptical of Vaughn’s casting as a drill sergeant, but his wit is on full display for hilarious (if racist) jabs at his men. Worthington continues showing his aptitude with military types and Bracey embraces the heroic ideal we’re bred to admire. The latter is actually a crucial role because it’s his changing attitude towards Doss that blurs the line of stereotype. Physique, belief, and upbringing don’t make you a soldier—only your mind’s motivation to voluntarily step-up and put your life on the line for the greater good does. The others (Luke Pegler‘s “Hollywood”, Goran D. Kleut‘s Ghoul, and Gibson’s own son Milo as Lucky Ford) add some color and friendly faces to pull for in the carnage, but Smitty is the true foil and friend.
Garfield does a wonderful job in the lead role by embodying Doss’ unwavering strength and almost comical innocence. We never pity him because he isn’t crying in the corner while getting beat up. He takes each licking and makes sure he’s unfazed afterwards. Doss is a pillar of all that is good and pure and therefore a shining example of a Jesus-like figure for religious groups to flock towards—the reason Gibson was approached in the first place was his handling of violence and piety in The Passion of the Christ. We don’t see him praying too much, though, so his achievements are less “guided by God” than his own doing. There’s authentic suspense in his actions throughout the smoke and fire. He will not be stopped.
The one performance I believe shouldn’t get overlooked come Oscar time, however, is Weaving as the complicated and broken Doss patriarch. He steals his scenes and doesn’t comes off as false whether enraged or in tears. I wouldn’t expect too much awards season love otherwise as the whole is good without ever evolving into greatness. The hokiness hurts it at times, but the sheer insanity of war more than compensates. Okinawa is where Gibson’s strengths lie as bodies and limbs are strewn about. Fire is thrown, casings are ejected, and grenades launched—the battle taking no prisoners and leaving no room for hope besides Desmond’s tenacity. Everything is built to hail him as a savior and he earns the label if only because of his genuinely selfless virtue.
Rating: R | Runtime: 131 minutes | Release Date: November 4th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Summit Entertainment
Director(s): Mel Gibson
Writer(s): Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan