Andrew Garfield gives a tremendous lead performance in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, based on the true story of World War II hero Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist conscientious objector who nonetheless enlisted as a medic, winding up saving 75 lives in one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific campaign.
At first, the film is a little too Apple-Pie-Americana in tone, as Doss woes hospital nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) in a somewhat schmaltzy fashion. Although this section also includes a subplot involving his alcoholic World War I veteran father Tom Doss (Hugo Weaving), it fails to cut through the pseudo-Hallmark Channel sheen. It isn’t until Doss reaches boot camp that the film starts to settle into its own groove, with Doss initially bullied and nearly driven out of the army for his beliefs during training. Yet because he doesn’t quit, Doss gradually gains the reluctant respect of his fellow soldiers. Once he reaches the eponymous Hacksaw Ridge, and Gibson turns up the blood and guts to Saving Private Ryan levels, Doss’s extraordinary courage comes into sharp focus.
And boy is it gory. It has become trendy amongst a certain snooty critical elite to sneer at Mel Gibson, but whilst he may be a something of a blunt instrument, he is nonetheless a hugely effective and visceral director, especially during big scale battle scenes. Hacksaw Ridge might not be quite up there with his best work (ie The Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto and Braveheart) but it is, in the end, a gripping and satisfyingly moving piece of work; a story of astonishing heroism that absolutely deserves to be told.
Doss’s laudable pacifism is given proper motivation through traumatic childhood flashbacks. His faith is also inspiring, especially during the aftermath of one battle when he keeps risking his life behind enemy lines to pull his wounded comrades to safety, continually praying to God to be able to save one more. I couldn’t help but think of this bravery in metaphorical spiritual terms, almost like an evangelist trying to save one more soul from the jaws of hell. Regardless of whether or not one has a faith to be affirmed, this is certainly stirring stuff.
It’s also interesting to note that Garfield has now played Christians in a hugely effective way twice in a row. As a double whammy, Silence and Hacksaw Ridge make quite a powerful set of films, and despite its flaws the latter is arguably as essential as the former.