A man willing to lay down his life to save those around him. A man who turns the other cheek to violence and holds true to the sixth commandment of “thou shalt not kill”. A man who stays true to those beliefs he holds sacred, no matter the consequences for himself. This is, of course, the description of the hero of one of the most famous stories ever told, but it can equally be applied to the lead character of the new Mel Gibson-directed film, and true story, Hacksaw Ridge. This is little surprise, coming from the ultraconservative Christian director of The Passion of the Christ. While at heart a deeply religious film, Hacksaw Ridge is also one of the best war films of the 21st century, with battle scenes that rival those of Saving Private Ryan.
The religious framework is clearly laid out from the very beginning, with a voiceover speaking of a relationship with God over scenes of death, smoke, and men on fire at the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. The film then flashes back sixteen years to the childhood of Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield). After a fight ends with his older brother losing consciousness, Desmond avoids a beating from his father (Hugo Weaving) at the intervention of his mother, who instead encourages him to absorb the words of the commandments, especially the sixth. Somewhat clumsily, the story then flashes forward fifteen years, and begins to follow the template of many war films – the idealised prewar time that inevitably features a love story, followed by basic training, when friendships and adversaries are made, and finally the horror of combat itself.
While the pattern may be familiar, the story is certainly unique. Despite Desmond truly taking the commandment to heart, he joins those (including his brother) who volunteer to serve in the Pacific. Inspired in part by a nurse he meets and falls in love with (Teresa Palmer as Dorothy), he sees volunteering as a medic as a way to both serve and uphold his values. Desmond is truly unique as a conscientious objector that still wants to serve. He wants to help put back together what’s falling apart – he just won’t pick up a weapon and kill someone to do it. The basic training section of the film initially plays like a light hearted version of Full Metal Jacket, with Vince Vaughn bringing an unexpected element of comedy as a belittling sergeant. But it also serves as an examination of what bravery is. Despite being seen as a coward for refusing to pick up a weapon, Desmond proves that his bravery is two fold – he’s willing to die to save those around him, and he’s willing to give up everything to stick to his beliefs. This is a war film not about the glory of the fight, not about the glory of dying, but about the glory of serving. This again ties into the religious theme, with a central tenant of Christianity being the glory of serving God and those around you.
It’s no spoiler to say that Desmond is eventually approved for combat, shipped off to Okinawa to help win back the titular ridge just months before the atomic bomb is dropped. What follows are some of the most brutal war scenes ever put on screen, so close up and devastatingly intimate that you can almost feel the blood and rubble on you. The first assault is particularly exhausting to watch – in an exhilarating way – and you find that you’ve been holding your breath the entire time. These battle scenes are truly some of the best work that Gibson has done as a director. There are later sections that are also reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line in the discussion of good and evil, and behind enemy lines hallucinatoriness. Garfield is also excellent throughout – he just seems to radiate an inner goodness; you truly believe in him and feel the weight of his beliefs. He is surrounded by equally good performances from the like of Aussies Luke Bracey and Sam Worthington.
Despite the Christ-like imagery going too far in the final moments – and being from a man known for his bigoted views – this isn’t a polemic or a film that might alienate us non-religious viewers. This is a unique story, a powerful, human and moving one that hasn’t been seen on the screen before.
Hacksaw Ridge is in cinemas from 3rd November through Icon Film Distribution.