The story of Desmond Doss, the pacifist medic who saved the lives of 75 wounded soldiers during World War II, is the perfect material for Mel Gibson. The bloody hell of battle allows him to indulge his penchant for gore first seen in the ecclesiastical torture porn of The Passion of the Christ, while Doss’ religious beliefs gives Gibson an outlet for his own well publicised faith. Ultimately, though, Hacksaw Ridge is a mixed bag of a film, one that begins a tad pedestrian, becomes bloodthirstily real, and ends up uncomfortably pious.
Andrew Garfield plays Desmond Doss, and he is the linchpin of the film. That might sound like a strange statement: Garfield is the star, so of course he holds the film together. But Hacksaw Ridge’s first act is shot in a workmanlike, almost made-for-TV manner, and it is only Garfield’s performance that keeps us engaged. Doss is soft spoken and naive, but his pacifism and religious beliefs (inherited from his mother) give him an iron conviction that allows Garfield’s unassuming figure to fill the screen.
Despite refusing to carry a weapon, Doss enlists in the army and finds himself at odds with Vince Vaughn’s Sergeant Howell. Vaughn is easily the best of a competent supporting cast. There isn’t necessarily anything original about his deadpan drill sergeant schtick, but it gets the laughs, and Vaughn isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and do some proper acting later on. This second act pits Doss against an institution which sees his pacifism as either cowardice or insanity, and becomes an engaging, if never truly inspired, underdog story.
It is only when we reach Okinawa, and the eponymous ridge, that the film comes into its own. Right from the first shot, Gibson’s extended battle scene is a gory, arduous splatterfest. It is supposed to show us that war is full of unnecessary death, and with Gibson’s keen eye for action and Doss at the centre, we get the message. The representation of the Japanese soldiers has a harder time getting through. There are several moments in which we’re meant to gasp as American soldiers are under threat, then cheer when their Japanese adversaries are gunned down. For a film about pacifism (or, at least, a film with a pacifist protagonist), it doesn’t quite sit right.
Nor do the film’s final scenes. Doss remains on the ridge after his company has fallen back, and spends the night single-handedly dragging wounded soldiers to the edge and lowering them down to the medics. It is an extraordinary feat, a testament to Doss’ conviction and determination, and for which Doss absolutely deserved the Medal of Honor he was awarded. Doss’ deed earns him the respect of his company, and the next day his comrades delay their assault to allow Doss to pray for their victory. We are then treated to a montage of the U.S. Army obliterating the Japanese and winning the day, the implication being that the battle was won, not by the bravery and skill of the American soldiers, but because God answered Doss’ prayer. Gibson has used the remarkable story of Desmond Doss to promote his own faith, and it does nothing but belittle the achievements of the people his film is supposed to be commemorating.
In the end, Hacksaw Ridge feels like merely a platform for Gibson to spout his own religious beliefs. The film’s centrepiece, the bloody battle and Doss’ nocturnal struggle to save as many lives as he can, demonstrate that Gibson can be a skilled filmmaker. And he, of course, free to make films about whatever unsubstantiated beliefs he wants. It is just a shame that he hasn’t found a way to do that without undermining his remarkable subject.