Film Review: Hacksaw Ridge
By Jaclyn Cascio (@jaclynator)
“Hacksaw Ridge,” a film directed by Mel Gibson, is based on the true story of Desmond Doss, an Army combat medic who served in WWII. As a former combat medic myself, I can promise you that there are few medics (or soldiers, in general) who haven’t at least heard of the story of Desmond Doss and Hacksaw Ridge. However, the story may not be as well known to the civilian population. Until Mel Gibson brought the harrowing tale to life on the screen and gave it the attention I believe it rightly deserves.
The film, “Hacksaw Ridge,” tells the story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist who enlisted in the Army during WWII. Doss was a conscientious objector, and his religious beliefs prevented him from picking up a gun to harm anyone. But he supported the cause of the war and felt a need, like many of that time, to do his duty. Thus, Doss chose to serve as a combat medic, hoping to help rather than hurt. The journey through training and into the war was difficult as leadership and fellow soldiers looked upon Doss with incredulity. Many thought he was a coward. But they learned on Hacksaw Ridge that they couldn’t have been more wrong. Desmond Doss was the first conscientious objector (although he will say “conscientious cooperator”) to win the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest honor that can be awarded for courage under fire.
There’s no question why this particular story drew the eye of Mel Gibson. Known for his religiously themed movies, Gibson was clearly the right visionary to see such a project through with the care that it deserved. For “Hacksaw Ridge” producer Bill Mechanic, this was a vision he held for 15 years, as he asked Gibson to direct the film three times, before Gibson finally agreed to undertake the project.
Personally, watching this film was an extremely emotional experience. I had tears in my eyes more than once, even as I tried to fight them down. The plot lends itself to heart-rending emotional whiplash for the sensitive viewer, as the pendulum swings from moments of triumph to moments of grief. Not only that, Gibson is a master of showing the reality of war, the violent and pervasive chaos. He does not pull away from the pain, but instead demands that you see it and feel it. Then the horror is punctuated by moments of tenderness and connection, which only seems to highlight the apparent injustice and futility of fighting. The swinging of this emotional pendulum, so cleverly crafted in “Hacksaw Ridge,” brings the viewer into the reality of the moment. Each and every moment.
The music of “Hacksaw Ridge,” composed by Rupert Gregson-Williams, was absolutely stunning, and brought tears to my eyes as it was skillfully placed to accompany particular scenes in the film. While Gibson visually illustrated the juxtaposition between the horror and grace found in battle, the music created the same dichotomy in auditory form. While violent moments on screen in many movies are punctuated by percussive and quick-moving compositions, “Hacksaw Ridge” paired the atrocities of war on screen with fluid and sweeping orchestral compositions. The hauntingly beautiful music was composed by Gregson-Williams under the sharp eye of Gibson, as the two reportedly spent hours talking together about Doss and his character, specifically designing the music to convey the deep spirituality of Doss, rather than musically setting him up as some kind of superhero.
A full review would be lacking if it didn’t address the battle scenes of “Hacksaw Ridge.” While huge sweeping shots of large battles are often used in film, without context and connection they mean nothing to the viewer. A director is charged with helping the viewer find a sense of connection with something that can be incredibly large and faceless. This is often accomplished by focusing on people within the battle, with whom the viewer is familiar. Or it can be accomplished by focusing on moments. Gibson utilized both tools to film the fighting on the ridge. He expertly created unexpected and unique point-of-view shots, such as looking down on a firing rifle, or ground level shots rolling forward with the feet and legs of an advancing enemy within the frame. It lent an air of beauty and memorability to a battle where the chaos can potentially swallow the story. These unique point-of-view shots combined with the sweeping music by Gregson-Williams are sure to raise goose-bumps on many viewers. The success of this film is also in large part due to the cast, particularly Andrew Garfield, playing the lead role of Desmond Doss. The British actor donned a Southern American accent for the role, which can be given nothing but praise upon listening to the real Desmond Doss speaking. Beyond accent, the performance of Garfield felt authentic and mature. Garfield seems to have an innate ability to play a character as charming and innocent, while conveying subtle and deep strength of character. In the case of “Hacksaw Ridge,” that’s exactly what was needed. Some of the most poignant moments that illustrated the essence of the character and moral fortitude of Desmond Doss were delivered on screen by Garfield without saying a word. After watching “Hacksaw Ridge,” I believe Garfield is an actor uniquely gifted with the ability to tell a story in a single shot using only facial expressions and body language.
While some critics have complained that the film is conventional and unoriginal, I argue against such statements. Desmond Doss was the only American soldier to serve on the front lines of WWII without firing a weapon. There is nothing conventional or unoriginal about a story like that. And as a former combat medic myself, I believe what Desmond Doss did was nothing short of a miracle. Overall, I find the movie to be a rousing success and it will certainly become one of my personal WWII movie favorites. Obviously, I am not the only fan of the movie as it was nominated at the Golden Globes for best director and best actor. “Hacksaw Ridge” won nine of the thirteen Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts awards for which it was nominated. The film is currently nominated for 6 Academy Awards (best director, actor, picture, film editing, sound mixing, and sound editing) for the 2017 Oscars.
“Hacksaw Ridge” will be available on Blu-ray February 21, 2017.