Mel Gibson’s latest film, Hacksaw Ridge, approaches the war-movie genre—in all its grisly post-Saving Private Ryan realism—with a similar strategy to 2014’s Unbroken. As the earlier film used the backdrop of war to zero-in on the unique heroism of a particular individual, Louie Zamperini, Hacksaw Ridge tells the story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who finds himself serving as a field medic during the chaotic Battle of Okinawa.
Based on the true story of Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist who refused to so much as touch a firearm, the film’s brutal battlefield violence swirls around the 307th Infantry aid man as he frantically scurries about retrieving his injured comrades and administering morphine amid the nightmarish landscape of war. Doss sees “thou shall not kill” as an unambiguous prohibition against taking life. Nevertheless, he remains entirely committed to World War II as a justified fight. To reconcile his patriotism and his conscience, he opts to serve as a medic.
While Gibson has described the film as an “anti-war movie” the story shies away from directly grappling with its hero’s moral stances, instead focusing on the transcendent compassion of Doss, who aids American and Japanese soldiers alike. The film also emphasizes the shifting perspective and eventual admiration of Doss’ fellow infantrymen, who at first belittle the scrawny medic and perceive his moral commitments as cowardice. Their antipathy is cleansed on the battlefield as Doss unrelentingly drags the wounded to safety, saving the lives of 75 American soldiers.
Doss, a Medal of Honor recipient who died in 2006, is compellingly portrayed by Andrew Garfield. The cast is strong all around, with Vince Vaughn’s Sergeant Howell and Hugo Weaving’s Tom Doss—Desmond’s tormented father—standing out in particular.
I have only a few criticisms. There is an instance of a hyper-cinematic “jump scare” that seems jarringly out of place alongside the rest of the film’s war-zone realism. There is the over-lit digital cinematography that often makes the sets feel like sets and the costumes feel like costumes. And lastly (this was also a problem in Unbroken) there is the overall bio-picishness (opening with childhood incidents, for example); these hamper an audience’s ability to disappear into the realism of later portions of the film, calling attention to the “movie-ness” of it all.
These are of course quibbles next to the emotional resonance of the film’s story and the excellent performances from the cast. Hacksaw Ridge is a fine war film, which looks at an unconventional hero and the resilience of conviction under fire.